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Allbirds Went Through 70 Iterations Before Getting New Activewear Right

Allbirds wants people to achieve their personal bests, without working up their carbon footprint.

After two years and more than 70 iterations, the eco-friendly shoe purveyor unveiled on Tuesday a line of tank tops, bike shorts and leggings that eschew polyester and other petrochemical-based fabrics for its signature merino wool and eucalyptus tree fiber.

Polyester, Allbirds noted, has become the athletic industry’s MVP, running on enough oil to power 47,000 cruise ships and releasing 700 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere on an annual basis. But it has also become an ocean pollutant, shedding microplastics that will only break into smaller pieces but never completely disappear. The tiny particles have been found in fish, drinking water and the most remote reaches of the globe.

Synthetic materials, which make up 55 percent of all clothing, are the go-to for exercise gear because they’re inexpensive and easy to manipulate, according to Jad Finck, the firm’s vice president of innovation and sustainability.

“Because brands have never had to be accountable for the pollution they produce, they’ve profited off of cheap plastic-based fibers while our environment has paid the price,” he told Sourcing Journal.

Finck said that before Allbirds launched its Dasher athletic sneaker last year, conventional wisdom told it natural materials had no place in performance products. But the brand found wool and Tencel particularly well-suited for exercise. The first is thermoregulating and moisture-wicking, and the second cooling and breathable. The brand didn’t find this surprising. “Up until the end of World War II, when synthetic materials first became widely commercialized, people exclusively exercised in natural fibers,” he added.

The company’s persistence paid off. After thousands of hours of testing, Allbirds ended up with pieces that not only met its high standards of performance but also comprised 50 percent natural materials. It filled the gaps with recycled versions of synthetics and a “small amount” of elastane for stretch. It’s not a perfect solution, Finck said, but it’s an improvement on the current landscape nonetheless.

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“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made thus far, especially given that very few performance pieces on the market contain any natural materials,” he said. “We see this collection as a starting point and are constantly looking for and testing new solutions.”

Plastic fibers are popular for a reason, Finck added. “We’re still looking for a natural alternative that can provide a similar level of stretch and recovery,” he said.

Still, Allbirds hopes to eventually craft its exercise togs from only natural fibers, which have the potential to become carbon sinks through innovations such as regenerative agriculture. Plastic-based materials, on the other hand, can only be “less bad.”

“Of course, we could have made leggings and other activewear using recycled plastic—plenty of brands already have, and it’s certainly a better step than relying on 100 percent virgin synthetics,” Finck said. “While those products may be considered “sustainable” by many, they don’t align with our mission to move away from oil-based fibers as much as possible.”

The collection is the industry’s first performance-apparel line to be labeled entirely with its carbon footprint—which ranges from 4.7 kilograms to 14.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent—before being offset to zero. Allbirds also designed the garments with “carbon consciousness in mind” from the get-go, Finck said, constantly calculating the carbon score of new prototypes and adjusting materials and design details to optimize for both performance and environmental impact.

“A great example of the marriage of these two priorities is the use of our Tree material,” he said. “Not only does it contribute to making our leggings up to two times more breathable than leading 100 percent synthetic pairs, [but] it is also an incredibly low-carbon fiber.”

Natural Run is the second “natural” activewear line to emerge this summer. In June Pangaia feted an assortment of yoga leggings, bra tops, jumpsuits and gym shorts made predominantly from renewable sources, including bio-based nylon derived from non-edible castor oil and C-fiber, a blend of eucalyptus pulp and seaweed powder produced using a closed-loop process that recycles water and reuses up to 99 percent of its solvents.

“Activewear is a consistent request from our customers and the launch of Pangaia Gym is our first step towards an end goal of creating activewear products that are fully bio-based and more circular,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

Natural Run, too, is only the beginning for Allbirds, Finck hinted. “We’re proud to expand our core mission of making better things in a better way with the launch of our first performance-apparel line,” he said. “We’ll see what the future holds.”

Natural Run, which starts at $58 for a running tee and tops out at $98 for a pair of high-waisted leggings, is available exclusively on the Allbirds website.