Creative accounting or legitimate achievement? Whenever an email lands in my inbox touting this or that zero-carbon or carbon neutral thingamajig, that’s the first question that crowds my brain before I read much past the subject line.
As climate activists are fond of reminding companies and consumers loudly (and frequently), most claims on an ever-growing number of labels touting their eco-friendliness are made courtesy of corporate carbon offset purchases to erase the impact. With its latest shoe launch this week, Allbirds is challenging that formula — and encouraging others to do the same.
On the face of it, the aptly named Moonshot — written as M0.0NSHOT by Allbirds for “zero point zero” carbon — looks like any running shoe on the Allbirds roster, complete with wool upper. But the materials that make up its design were carefully curated to serve the company’s moonshot goal of creating a shoe with no footprint. The industry average is 14 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per pair; the Allbirds average is 10 kg, estimates Hana Kajimura, head of sustainability for the San Francisco-based venture.
Allbirds is claiming a zero-carbon footprint for Moonshot. Here’s what it’s made out of:
- The merino wool is sourced from the Lake Hawea Station sheep farm in New Zealand, which is investing in solar and wind energy, reforestation and regenerative agricultural practices to raise its animals and offset all those sheep burps (among other things). This is a new source for Allbirds, orchestrated with the help of longtime supply chain partner New Zealand Merino Company, which represents a network of sheep farms. To scale, Allbirds is encouraging more farms to adopt similar practices, and during a press conference about the shoe, Kajimura said 500 have so far enrolled, representing 15 percent of the farmland in New Zealand.
- There’s a new foam for the midsole called SuperLight, which includes 80 percent biocontent. The material builds on SweetFoam, a sugar-cane-based material that Allbirds introduced in 2018 and is part of all its shoes. The twist here is that SuperLight is made with a molding process that allows Allbirds to reduce fillers and additives in the foam. This required changes to production methods, but it also reduced the emissions associated with it.
- The eyelets are made out of bioplastic created with a process from startup Mango Materials that uses captured methane to create polymer. Although Allbirds has had a longtime relationship with the startup, this is the first use case for the material, Kajimura told me.
- There has also been a big change to how the shoes will be packaged: The idea is to vacuum-pack them in a film made from sugar-cane-derived polyethylene, cutting back on the traditional shoe box and lightweighting them for transportation. During the briefing this week, the Allbirds team named the partner for this effort: Brazil’s Braskem.
Technically speaking, the actual production and logistics processes that go into making Moonshot have a footprint of around 2 kg, if you check out the chart the company is sharing publicly.
Whither the claim? Allbirds is using creative math as part of its life-cycle assessment (LCA) for Moonshot to account for the emissions reduction impact of those materials. Its approach builds on the Excel-based LCA framework it developed for internal use and that is used to include carbon emissions data on all its products (which meets ISO 14067 requirements). For the Moonshot calculations, the tool was modified to include the actual emissions reductions related to the regenerative activities at Lake Hawea Station, rather than adding in an industry average for all wool, as is typically the case. Wool is usually the biggest component of an Allbirds running shoe’s footprint. While that change is not aligned to ISO 14067, Allbirds is publishing its methodology so other companies can consider how to include it in their own carbon accounting.
“If the goal is to hit zero, at least with the infrastructure that we have today, no matter how we slice it … making the shoe will emit some CO2,” Kajimura said. “Our first goal is to minimize that as much as possible, but there will be some positive emissions above the ledger, and so that means we have to find other materials that are going to be sequestering CO2 to be able to net out to something around zero. And the wool is the dominant reason for that in this product.”
If the goal is to hit zero, at least with the infrastructure that we have today, no matter how we slice it … making the shoe will emit some CO2.
In particular, Kajimura says the carbon sequestration happening at Lake Hawea Station (verified by a third party, Toitu Envirocare) helps counter the emissions that remain, such as those from the logistics of getting things to where they need to be made and distributed. Hence the zero claim. It’s made possible based on the concept of insetting, by working within the supply chain to zero it out rather than buying random credits. Over time, the actual number might fluctuate, based on the year in which the wool is shorn.
“Our aim for this product is to show that it is possible to make physical product today that comes with net-zero emissions, and we want as many other people to be able to make product in that way as possible,” Kajimura said.
A cross-functional effort
The team behind Moonshot included Kajimura and other sustainability team representatives, along with members of the Allbirds innovation team, the head of design, consumer insights representatives and product development folks. The core of the group met almost weekly over the past year, consulting other internal experts as needed.
Zeroing out the carbon footprint was just another design constraint, especially when picking sources, alongside considerations such as performance. “The goal was to separate ourselves a bit from the mainline product day-to-day, of the cadence of seasons and quarters, to be able to think longer term about the problems that needed to be innovated on,” Kajimura said.
The Moonshot project builds on earlier work Allbirds did in collaboration with Adidas to design the Adizero sneaker, which claims a carbon footprint of 2.94 kg, or the same as half a hamburger. The two companies were shooting for 2 kg, but didn’t quite make it to the finish line. “Coming out of it, it felt like there was still more we could do and that we could move faster if we worked internally to see how much more carbon we could take out of the process,” Kajimura said.
What’s really different about this particular shoe was the thought put into the production and sourcing strategies behind using materials that the company already knows well. That was the most time-consuming part of the process, according to Kajimura.
The Allbirds Flight Plan calls for it to halve emissions for its product portfolio by 2025 and to push the actual footprint per part below 1 kg by 2030.
Moonshot will get its moment on the runway at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen in June. Kajimura said Allbirds is running test production at facilities in Asia, predominantly Vietnam, where the company handles much of its manufacturing. It is also developing a logistics strategy that prioritizes biofuel-powered ocean shipping and hiring electric fleets to transport the products from ports to warehouses.
Alllbirds plans a small commercial launch for the third or fourth quarter of 2023, with a larger push planned for next year, depending on how quickly the company can increase availability of the materials. While Kajimura declined to share the price tag, she said the product will not be sold at a premium compared with other items in the Allbirds lineup. And it’s a model for future design, according to Allbirds co-founder and CEO Tim Brown: “People don’t buy sustainable products, they buy great ones.”
One thing that isn’t addressed for Moonshot is circularity — what will happen at the end of this product’s first life on someone’s feet. One thing that would aid in that mission would be to use a single material, but Kajimura said that wasn’t possible. “You’ll see that one of the slivers remaining [in the LCA] are the emissions that come at the end of the product’s life,” she said. “That was something that we couldn’t eliminate yet, while keeping the shoe at net zero.”
Allbirds, which went public at the end of 2021, reported almost $300 million in revenue for 2022, up 7 percent from the previous year, with a net loss of $101 million for 2022. The company is one of the few public entities that highlights carbon emissions metrics as part of its earning reports. In 2022, it reduced the footprint for its top 10 products by 22 percent compared with the year earlier — and Brown pointed out that it took dozens of different projects to catalyze those real reductions. I’ll be watching to see what’s next.
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