Sustainability: Avoid decision paralysis, says Allbirds

When it comes to the complicated world of sustainability, retail still has a long way to go in doing its bit to save the planet. From plastic-laden grocery stores to the disposable attitude in fashion, retail’s impact on our environment paints a bleak picture.

That said, the industry is aware of the problem and there are a number of retailers who are encouragingly making changes to reduce their carbon footprint, from Waitrose’s Unpacked trial to Gousto’s pledge to reduce plastic from its meal kit boxes by 50%.

Capitalised by Generation Z’s desire to spend their money with brands who care as much about the planet as they do profit, and there is an increasing number of purpose-driven retailers who are powering significant change within the industry.

One such brand is sustainable footwear company Allbirds, which has just opened the doors to its second UK store in London’s Marylebone. The San Francisco-based brand founded by former-athlete Tim Brown and renewables expert Joey Zwillinger claims that sustainability is a "non-negotiable" core part of its business. 

The retailer has introduced a number of new proprietary sustainable materials, including its Tree products, made from Eucalyptus trees, and its SweetFoam soles developed from sugarcane. Meanwhile, Allbirds shoe boxes use 40% less materials than traditional packaging and are made from 90% recycled cardboard and the store offers customers digital receipts and shopping bags made from recycled paper. 

The brand launched in 2016, and sold over a million pairs of shoes in the first two years of business, while gaining a celebrity following from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Mila Kunis and even President Obama. 

Allbirds has recently opened its second store in the UK
Allbirds has recently opened its second store in the UK

At an event to celebrate the opening of the new store – with breakfast provided by Vegan food company Plates London – Hana Kajimura, head of sustainability at Allbirds, said retailers need to embrace sustainable changes.

Frustrating trade offs

Speaking with Essential Retail after the event, Kajimura explained how both businesses and consumers need to be aware of the trade-offs they might be making when they make supposedly sustainable decisions, pointing to cotton tote bags which have become a fashionable alternative to plastic, but their production may still have a negative impact on the environment.

“You have to be thinking about these things – it gets frustrating when you are paralysed by that, and also worried about getting negative publicity,” she explains.

She says the complexity of the climate change dilemma can cause businesses to fear making the wrong choice, and therefore make no eco-conscious decisions at all.

“What we have found is that the urgency of this situation and the environmental crisis should give everyone a licence to act and to try – sometimes you’ll make a mistake, but then you’ll fix it. As long as we’re all thoughtful and informed.”

While Kajimura says it is important for companies to have a clear set of priorities she worries that many businesses are spending too much time analysing their entire footprint before acting, and then ultimately not knowing where to start to make a difference.

“If you are trying to do everything at once you are going to barely move the needle on things, versus going really deep on a few,” she says. “You can get paralysed by the idea that you have to do a full company-wide accounting of all of our impacts and that [they] need to do that before [companies] understand where to start.”

Sustainable quick wins

For retailers and brands who want to make changes quickly, she advises them to look at the production process of their products and where they source their materials.

“The energy which powers [a store] is important, but the energy which is embedded in all these materials has a far greater impact. So that’s the best place to start.”

She adds: “The reason why the industry is focused on the recycling of plastic is that it’s the easy option because it’s commercially available, but ultimately we need to move beyond that to imagine a world where we are transforming the environment, rather than just making it incrementally less bad.”

Allbirds sustainability innovations

Allbirds has spent considerable time and money researching sustainable materials for its products. Here are a number of innovations the company has developed over the last four years:

  • SweetFoam: Used in all Allbirds shoes, this sole is made from the world’s first carbon-negative sugarcane derived Green EVA, invented in partnership with Braskem. EVA is commonly used in footwear, historically made from petroleum, and this is the first time it has been produced from a renewable resource. Allbirds is open-sourcing the technology to other brands and more than 100 have inquired about using the solution, with 20 brands rolling it out into their products this year. 
  • Trino: Allbirds socks made from responsibly-harvested eucalyptus tree fibers and ZQ Merino wool. Working with fiber producers, yarn spinners, and textile makers, to ensure high-quality and sustainably sourced knit combines properties of the natural materials to produce socks that are soft, moisture-wicking, cooling and odour-free.
  • PuddleGuard: Allbirds's water-repellent high top trainers, was created out of a design insight from the brand's British customers who needed a shoe that could withstand the rain. Allbirds invented a proprietary Puddle Guard, a breathable membrane between the wool upper and the interior of the shoe. The technology utilises an Oeko-Tex Eco Passport-certified fluorine-free water repellent treatment, and a breathable, water-resistant layer of bio-TPU to keep feet dry.
  • Tencel Lyocell: A tree fiber sourced from South African farms that minimise fertilizer and rely on rainfall, not irrigation, Tencel Lyocell was already available on the market, but Allbirds was one of the first companies to use a proprietary blend in its shoes. Compared to traditional materials like cotton, it uses 95% less water and cuts the company's carbon footprint in half.
Tree Allbirds shoes are made from eucalyptus trees
Tree Allbirds shoes are made from eucalyptus trees

Slower shipping

For retailers who do not manufacture their own goods, she advises the next best place to make big changes is to move from air shipping to boat. She explains that this is a rare occurrence where an eco-friendly business change leads to a reduction in costs: “Most of the time developing these new materials are expensive, shipping via the ocean is a lot cheaper and a lot less carbon.”

She also says retailers should be more mindful of the trend for one-hour and next-day delivery, which puts a lot of pressure on domestic shipping, but noted it is difficult to go against trends set by the wider industry: “It takes a lot of conviction from your company and founder that that’s the right thing to do.”

Hilding Anderson, head of retail strategy at Publicis Sapient, agrees this is a difficult area for retailers to stand firm on. He says consumers are very aware of the need to shop more sustainably, but retailers also have to “delight customers” with fast delivery times and high quality products. He called on retailers to use artificial intelligence to smarten up their supply chains.

“Leading retailers are balancing these potentially conflicting agendas by using AI/ML technology in their supply chain in demand forecasting and inventory visibility. Both areas benefit from the higher predictive power of new machine learning algorithms to help retailers have the right stock in the right place to meet demand. This maximises the customer experience, minimises cost as well as the carbon footprint caused by last-minute out-of-stocks.”

He adds: “We’re also seeing a significant increase in click-and-collect, particularly in markets like the United States. Identifying inventory available in-store and encouraging customers to pick it up on their way to work or as part of another routine helps minimise the carbon footprint in the last-mile.”

Whether retailers choose to slow down delivery, improve the materials they use in their products or simply reduce the amount of plastic in their businesses – all of these initiatives are small steps towards creating a better planet for us to live on. Whatever retailers choose to do, the key takeaway from Allbrids is to “do” something. Right now. Before it is too late.