In survey after survey, American and European consumers claim they would pay more for sustainably made products. But when it comes time to fork over the cash, will they?
Allbirds, the San Francisco brand whose wildly popular £95 wool trainers and low-carbon ethos earned it a valuation of $1.7bn from investors earlier this month, is about to find out. The five-year-old company is expanding into apparel for the first time today, launching four styles for men and women sized from XS to XXXL.
Ranging from £45 for a T-shirt to £250 for a cropped puffer jacket, the line of understated essentials is a direct bid for the customer who buys their T-shirts and down jackets from brands such as Uniqlo, Everlane and Lululemon. It is also a bet that climate-conscious consumers will pay more for simple, discreetly branded items made of innovative materials with a lower carbon footprint. Allbirds’ puffer is £250, while a comparable style from Uniqlo costs £80 and is frequently marked down at the end of the season.
“When we started, [I would say] that people don’t buy sustainable products, they buy great ones,” co-founder Tim Brown says over a video call from San Francisco. “Five years later, I would say a product can’t truly be great unless it’s sustainable.”
At first glance, there is nothing particularly special about the clothes — a selection of which Allbirds sent for me to try on at home a week before launch. They are simple, comfortable and understated enough to pass without comment, the kind of thing to be worn on a dog walk or to yoga class but not, for me at least, formal enough for meetings.
But as with the brand’s flagship Wool Runner shoe — whose soles are made of a flexible, foamy substance derived partly from sugarcane — the devil is in the materials. A soft, thin charcoal tee appears to be made of a light synthetic knit, but is in fact cut from a one-way-stretch yarn spun from wool, eucalyptus tree fibre and chitosan, a fibre derived, according to Allbirds, from the discarded shells of snow crabs caught in the Labrador Sea off the coast of Newfoundland. A £145 boiled-wool cardigan in graphite has buttons of recycled polyester.
Perhaps most original on the materials front is the puffer, which I did not try on but which is padded with a mix of tree fibres and recycled polyester instead of down feathers. The exterior is cut from a merino and eucalyptus fibre blend and coated with a water repellent free of fluorine, a toxic chemical commonly used to make rain jackets showerproof.
The materials feel great. But just because a garment is basic doesn’t mean it should be without style, and I found the fits and design details uninspiring. A crewneck jumper of boiled wool is wonderfully warm — I hardly took it off all week — but the shape doesn’t work: a drop-shoulder and boxy cut promise an oversize fit, but the sleeves come up two inches short. A decorative rib trim is nice enough on the collar and cuffs, but is bizarrely short running across the bottom.
An oversized graphite cardigan draped better, but is still rather mumsy, and the large plasticky buttons look childlike and cheap. The tees are soft and so light that, worn under a jumper, I’d forget I was wearing one. But I wouldn’t swap them for the Pima cotton ones I bought this summer from Handvaerk, which look more luxe.
Creating products from new materials is never without its challenges, but the apparel design team — headed by Alexa Day Silva, who joined Allbirds from activewear start-up Outdoor Voices in January — had the additional task of trying to produce the collection with the lowest carbon footprint possible.
Like Allbirds’ trainers, each garment comes with an estimate of how many kilogrammes of carbon were emitted to produce it, ranging from 6.3kg for a women’s tee to 25kg for the men’s puffer and wool jumper. (To put that into context, driving a car for 19 minutes emits around 7.6 kg CO2e.) The collection favours materials that require less carbon to produce, but also with anti-odour properties so that they don’t need to be washed as often, lowering their lifetime footprint.
Apparel wasn’t always on Allbirds’ road map, but was “something we walked into”, co-founder Brown says.
He describes the company’s approach as “more design-centric than fashion-centric” — a process of getting to know its customers intimately and identifying problems for Allbirds to solve, he says. It was only after discovering that most of its customers were wearing poor-quality synthetic underwear that Allbirds decided to launch its own range this summer, made of eucalyptus and wool fibres.
It’s a departure from luxury fashion brands, where ready-to-wear is often described by executives as the “ultimate expression of the brand”, helping it sell higher-margin goods such as handbags and lipstick.
Brown, a former vice-captain of New Zealand’s football team, came up with the idea for what would become Allbirds as a graduate student at the London School of Economics in 2013.
It didn’t win the class prize, but it did take off on Kickstarter a year later, when Brown raised enough money to build a prototype, recruit biotech engineer Joey Zwillinger as co-founder and pitch his ideas to investors, who gave the pair $2.7m in seed funding.
In 2016, Allbirds launched with a single product: a deliciously soft, £95 trainer with a distinctive merino upper and flexible sole that was a hit with the Silicon Valley set (Google co-founder Larry Page reportedly owns a pair), and would soon be spotted on Barack Obama, Emma Watson and Leonardo DiCaprio (who also became an investor). Its timing was auspicious, arriving at a moment when consumers were both gravitating towards minimalist, normcore footwear styles and becoming more conscious of the environmental costs of their wardrobes.
By 2018, Allbirds had sold more than 2m pairs, and soon expanded its range into boat shoes, ballet flats and slip-ons, all made of the same merino wool blend in muted colours.
Matt Powell, sports senior industry adviser at market research group NPD, notes that smaller sneaker brands are outpacing the growth of larger stalwarts. “Some consumers want to have unique brands that help them stand out. Smaller brands offer that uniqueness,” he writes over email.
He believes Allbirds’ products have been successful because they are “simple, comfortable, but most importantly sustainable”.
The company now has 22 brick-and-mortar stores, including four in China and two in London, with plans to expand next year. The US remains its largest market, and New York its top-performing city.
Allbirds is not the first sneaker brand to branch into clothing. Brands such as Nike and Adidas have successfully built apparel lines on the strength of their shoes; at Nike, apparel now accounts for about one-third of its $35bn in annual brand revenues (which does not include wholesale).
Brown is on a mission to make Allbirds “carbon negative” — taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than its products and operations put into it. The company is working to lower its annual carbon output and investing in carbon-reduction projects to offset what it can’t eliminate. Its executive bonuses are tied to carbon-reduction as well as financial targets.
The Catch-22 of any sustainable brand is that the more it produces, the less sustainable it becomes. Brown declined to say how much more carbon the company would be sending into the atmosphere as a result of the apparel launch, but acknowledged that it would increase.
“The best thing we can do [for the planet] is not buy anything,” he says. “But to expect to wake up tomorrow and consumers stop buying things is not realistic.
“I have always believed that designers and creatives and storytellers have a big role to play in how [climate] progress can be made,” he continues. “We don’t have all the answers, but asking the right questions can guide us towards a better product.”
Follow @financialtimesfashion on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first
Get alerts on Fashion when a new story is published