For Allbirds, maintaining a laser focus on making great, uncompromising product has been instrumental to why the brand has tallied “viral” success, Jad Finck, the brand’s VP of innovation and sustainability, said during a panel discussion on sustainability at the Fashion Tech Forum earlier this month. No one wants to be guilt-tripped into buying something simply because it’s good for the planet, but they’ll happily fork over their hard-earned money for a shoe that looks and feels great, reasons why Allbirds’ original “wool runner” style took off and has become a wardrobe staple in certain circles.
“With the ability to tell DTC stories, this new wave of sustainability is actually more product first,” Finck explained, adding sustainability becomes an “added bonus” rather than the primary reason for purchasing.
Finck is one of many employees at Allbirds who come from outside the apparel and footwear with no prior brand-side experience. But the VP sees his previous roles in the renewable materials industry as an asset and strength; it’s this outsider thinking that is helping Allbirds to reimagine how design-forward footwear comes to market. Citing a statistic showing that the footwear industry alone is responsible for 700 million tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year, Finck said, “there aren’t a lot of new technologies coming out of apparel and footwear” sectors, increasing the importance and urgency of investigating new ways to produce lower-impact shoes and clothing.
Allbirds followed the runaway success of its wool runner sneaker crafted from New Zealand merino wool with a “tree runner” made from eucalyptus pulp, aka Tencel. For its third innovation, the company partnered with a Brazilian firm to craft what it calls “SweetFoam,” or foam for sneaker soles derived from sugarcane—a sustainable, renewable resource. It’s the “world’s first carbon-negative sneaker foam,” Finck claimed.
Though many brands keep their intellectual property close to the vest in order to protect their profits, Allbirds is taking the opposite tack and working with other shoe companies similarly interested in reducing their environmental impact. “We feel if you’re going to try to be a serious leader in sustainable material innovation and you’re the only ones using a certain material, you’re not really making much of a difference,” Finck said, noting that SweetFoam was named one of Time magazine’s 50 best inventions of 2018.
“We need to challenge the traditional synthetics,” he continued, describing the footwear industry’s enduring reliance on eco-unfriendly petroleum-based foams. “We need to find new ways to not just make people feel they should buy something but [that] they should covet it, and make it as sustainably as possible.”
Fashion veteran Kristy Caylor has a simple solution to the sustainability and circularity imperative. Consumers and brands have to abandon the current First World economic system of “produce, purchase, pollute” that’s driving so much mindless consumption of low-quality goods without a plan in place for what happens at a product’s end-of-life.
“Unless we change our relationship to commerce as a customer, and if we can break that commerce model profitably, and move into a world where it’s ‘receive, return, recycle,’ and close the loop by empowering the customer—then we have really transformational change,” Caylor explained.
Caylor’s year-old e-commerce startup For Days is designed to move people into a circular relationship with fashion basics like t-shirts, tanks and sweats, the kind of clothing that will always have a place in consumer wardrobes but typically doesn’t have much of an afterlife in the resale market.
“Things like pit-stained t-shirts don’t have a second life,” Caylor quipped. “That’s never going to be part of the sharing economy.”
People become a For Days member once they purchase one of the brand’s basics made from 100 percent GOTS-certified organic cotton, a material selected so that the brand can “upcycle the materials confidently,” Caylor noted. “I like to say we design for the end at the beginning.”
For Days customers send back their worn-out garments to be recycled into new items, closing the loop on the product lifecycle, and for $8 they can receive a replacement. The company operates a small manufacturing facility in Los Angeles to control cut-and-sew operations and produce just-in-time inventory on demand.
“As you swap out, you’re activating impact, so you’re accumulating impact over junk,” said Caylor, who spent many years at Gap, Inc. “That’s a world of freedom. That feels like the future.”
As chief product transformation officer of Fashion3, Liz Simon works with seven different fashion brands striving to embrace sustainable operations while still reliably serving clients and end consumers. Many are concerned that shifting toward zero waste production and other sustainable measures will carry burdensome costs, but Simon believes “there’s no one silver bullet” and every brand and category can find workable solutions.
Fashion3 has found a way for semi-finished denim goods to be manufactured at scale in Asia and then treated with any required bleaching, whiskering, etc. at a facility in Portugal, reaching stores within 10 days of production. Simon described the process as “a bit of on-demand at mass.” She also said an automated t-shirt factory in the north of France, currently under consideration, could provide an all-in-one production approach with a design center and innovation lab.
“You’ve got to believe in the absolute necessity of overhauling the way we get product to market right now,” Simon said.
The idea that apparel could be both sustainable and “awesome” once seemed like an impossibility as alternative fabrics and earth-friendly garments long were relegated to the likes of treehuggers and hippies—but that’s finally beginning to change, Caylor said.
“People are voting with their end values for the first time. That’s the critical inflection point, that it matters to the customer,” she concluded. “Then it matters to the company because it becomes a profitability driver.”