‘It’s a great mechanism for accountability and connection’

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Nearly a decade ago, Allbirds launched its first wool sneaker — front and center sustainability, full-on comfort, free of flashy logos. Now, the company is focused on another type of labeling: carbon labels, so that before you even try on a shoe, you can see its exact impact on the environment. 

In other words, a literal carbon footprint.

As the team gets ready to introduce its “net-zero” M0.0NSHOT shoe this fall — in the middle of headwinds around leadership and profitability — they’re doubling down on sustainability-inspired innovation and carbon labeling as a differentiator and leadership opportunity. 

In an interview with The Cool Down, Allbirds’ Director of Sustainability Aileen Lerch told us the brand isn’t forgetting about comfort and “the core silhouettes that we know consumers love and have loved from the start.” 

Lerch walks us through Allbirds’ plan to emphasize classic comfort — while reaching the next generation of consumers looking for full transparency and planet-friendly shoes.

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👟 Tell me what I’m looking at 

Despite what our high school math teachers said, sometimes a zero is actually the best grade. At least that’s the case for Allbirds’ M0.0NSHOT shoe, which aims to be the world’s first net-zero carbon shoe (hence the “0.0” nod in its name). 

Announced last year, M0.0NSHOT is “a really great example of a product that is emphasizing all of the sustainability strategies that we’re working on … but bringing it into a real, tangible solution,” Lerch told TCD. 

The shoe, which can be described as “minimalist” or “space age,” is basing its claim to be net zero primarily on the fact that it’s made with regeneratively farmed wool that compensates for some other transportation and production emissions. Lerch explains that the shoe’s wool comes from “a farm in New Zealand called Lake Hawea Station … and this farm actually draws down more carbon than it emits.” 

“It’s this incredible story of how natural materials and farming practices can be part of the solution,” Lerch said.

When M0.0NSHOT hits stores later this year, the big question will be how to integrate this sustainable-sourcing story — this “statement of the progress that is possible,” as Lerch puts it — with “your style and your identity.”

💚 Sustainability from the start

For some companies, a sustainability strategy is a “nice-to-have,” not a core principle. But Allbirds differentiates itself with a built-in, not bolted-on approach: “Sustainability has really been a priority since day one,” Lerch said. 

From the jump, Allbirds has been a B Corp–certified company focused on using sustainable materials, which means that while it’s still a for-profit enterprise, it balances that with a mission-driven approach. “That was a really core element of the company getting started.”

That remains true even as Allbirds went public in 2021 along with a wave of similarly trendy, mainly direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker. It is one of only 48 B Corps (out of over 6,400 worldwide) that is a publicly traded company. Despite now having Wall Street stakeholders to keep happy, Allbirds is still committed to reducing its carbon footprint to near zero by 2030.

🧾 Are carbon labels the new calorie?

Regular running shoes generate roughly 30 pounds of carbon pollution, but Allbirds’ classic wool runners generate roughly half that, and as discussed, the M0.0NSHOT claims to generate zero. 

Allbirds labels all its shoes with their carbon footprint and hopes the practice will become the norm in the industry. 

“It’s a great mechanism for accountability and connection with the consumer,” Lerch told us. But standardization is key so everyday shoppers can understand what labels like these really mean. “The key thing that needs to happen … is that it needs to be commonplace. … Everyone needs to be doing it.”

“A great example or comparison is with calories [for] food,” Lerch noted. “If only one brand put calories on food, you wouldn’t have a lot of ability to understand that metric. It’s meaningful because everybody’s doing it.”

One way to help other companies jump on this carbon labeling “calorie train” is to share the recipe. 

“We have this unique history in the footwear industry of open-sourcing solutions and calling on others,” Lerch said. Rather than keeping company secrets under lock and key, Allbirds is emphasizing carbon-labeling transparency for its products to both consumers and competitors. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

“There’s been a lot of brands actually over time that have felt that same desire but haven’t been able to quite get started,” said Lerch, “whether it’s because of data gaps or being scared to voluntarily share that information. 

“And one area that I’m really excited and anticipate change from over the coming years is from regulation and from the legal landscape of [carbon labeling] becoming more mandatory. … So it’s something I feel a lot of hope for. And in the meantime, we see this as an urgent issue of our time and need to get started.”

🎯 Staying on target

Long-term plans are often easy to set aside and worry about later — and at some companies, climate pledges have fallen into this category. For Allbirds to keep pace with its ambitious targets (e.g., cutting its carbon pollution in half by the end of 2025), it needs to stay sharp.

“You hear a lot of companies these days have these far-off targets. And the reality is they don’t really know how they’re going to achieve them,” Lerch said. “What’s really unique is at Allbirds, with every product from our very first shoe — the wool runner — we’ve calculated the carbon footprint of our products. So measuring the emissions across materials, manufacturing, transportation, use, end of life — we have really detailed calculations for that. 

“And so with our … sustainability strategy, we were able to identify very specific initiatives to hit to reduce our emissions.”

📍 Beyond labels, how does Allbirds stand out?

Veja, Cariuma, Rothy’s (which TCD also recently profiled), Nike Flyknits … sales of eco-friendly sneaks are on the rise, and Allbirds isn’t the only shoe on the shelf anymore. But Allbirds’ strategy these days is to stick with what put it on the map back in 2016 rather than chase the newest fashion trend.

“Allbirds has this element of simplicity and it’s a bit of a different approach in this sea of bright colors and bold statements and very seasonal fashion,” Lerch told TCD.

Carbon labeling is a great product differentiator, but at the end of the day, “Comfort has always been a really big selling point for our products. … We see that the consumers really love this shoe as a staple in their closet.”

Bottom line: Comfort is key, and “Sustainability is a free gift with purchase,” Lerch said.

🏆 Hands down, favorite shoe?

“Right now it’s probably the Trail Runner,” Lerch said. “I just went on a hike this morning. … And I wear it to our office too.”

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