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San Francisco shoemaker Allbirds wants you to make its ‘world-first ‘ net zero carbon footprint shoe

Updated: Jul 3

allbirds net zero gray sock-like shoe
Image Credit: Allbirds. Illustrations by Nate Merrit

Allbirds is a New Zealand-born and San Francisco-based shoe and apparel brand, which in its words, is “fueled by a belief that the fashion industry needs to focus less on flash and more on thoughtfulness.”

That’s why in 2020, it became the first fashion brand to label 100% of our products with carbon footprints, and now in 2023 it's unveiled the design for what it says is the “world’s first” net zero carbon shoe. On top of that, the company also released the blueprints, or rather the shoeprints, to copy it. And it wants the fashion industry to catch on by giving away its entire tool kit.

However, if you don’t want to make the net zero shoe yourself or wait for your favorite footwear brand to ditch fossil fuels and come out with its own, Allbirds plans to sell the shoe in spring 2024.

Aptly named the moonshot, or as the company spells it – M0.0NSHOT – the Allbirds hightop shoe has a “landmark” carbon footprint of “0.0 kg CO2e.”

This is even more impressive when according to the company, an average Allbirds show is 10 kg CO2e and a standard sneaker leaves a carbon footprint on the Earth of 14 kg CO2e.

That means that a pair is equivalent to 28 kg of carbon emissions, or according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, burning over 31 pounds of coal or over 3 gallons of gas — the average amount used to drive a car over the course of a little over 2 days.

The team behind Allbirds was able to wipe each kilogram away all without any controversial carbon offsets.

“This is one small step for Allbirds – but it could be one giant leap for the footwear industry if others join us. Unlike the space ‘race’, this is a relay – we’re all on the same side,” Allbirds co-founder and CEO, Tim Brown, said in a statement.

“M0.0NSHOT is Allbirds’s greatest achievement, but it’s meaningless without others taking action: which is why we felt compelled to open-source our learnings, so others can pick up the baton and take us forward.”

allbirds gray neto-zero shoe with plastic bottle illustration
Image Credit: Allbirds. Illustration by Nate Merritt

While some like Business Insider call the overall shoe design weird, the way the company got to carbon negativity is pretty freaking awesome.

According to the company, the shoe is made with carbon-negative, regenerative wool. And how is it carbon-negative, you may ask?

Well, as Allbirds lays out in its ‘Recipe B0.0K,’ which was distributed to participants at the shoe’s unveiling at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen and is not available for anyone to see and use, the idea for carbon-negative ingredients is what drove the design.

“Before we ever dreamt of a design for a net zero carbon shoe, the idea of regenerative wool began percolating,” the company states. “Our hunch was this super natural material could be carbon negative when optimally produced. That hunch was confirmed after an examination of Lake Hawea Station (LHS) in New Zealand — the country where much of our wool is grown, a place as picturesque as it is innovative — affirmed the farm to be net carbon zero, meaning it sequesters more carbon than it emits.

The company also works with The New Zealand Merino Company to source the LWS’s wool, which is sourced with the planet in mind.

“Our imperative from day one at Lake Hawea Station was to demonstrate that farming can be part of the climate emergency solution. With our native reforestation projects and planting we sequester almost twice what we emit,” Finn Ross of LHS said.

“Lake Hawea Station is deeply committed to farming regeneratively, investing significantly in enhancing our biodiversity, and have introduced new animal well-being programs and hydro and solar infrastructure. It is fantastic to work with a brand at the other end of the supply chain who shares our regenerative philosophy and values around climate action.”

man tends to sheep
Image Credit: Lake Hawea Station

With the entirety of the sleek gray shoe wrapped in this carbon-negative wool, they moved to take the carbon out of other greenhouse gas-intensive parts of conventional shoes.

First: the label. Traditional sheep farming, which is essential for that little thing called wool, releases a lot of methane, which as Foot.Notes readers know by heart, is a greenhouse gas 30 times more harmful in planet-warming potential than carbon. This methane is emitted by sheep farts and sheep burps.

So because we can’t stop sheeps from belching and passing gas, Allbirds needed to counteract the emissions associated with them. That’s why they partnered with the company Mango Materials which, in its words, uses “complicated science” for “simple solution.” Converting abundant methane gas into biodegradable materials, Allbirds and Mango Materials teamed up to create methane-capturing materials for the shoe like the label.

As Allbirds explains, “Mango Material’s revolutionary process employs microorganisms, a species of ancient “bacteria,” that eat waste methane and produce a material that can be made into highly functional bioplastics.”

The secret ingredient to its bioplastics is a bio-baed plastic alternative called PHA, which you can learn more about from FootPrint Coalition-backed PHA startup, RWDC Industries.

“We bet this is an enemy-to-lover plot you didn’t see coming,” the company jokes in the recipe book of its “partnership” with methane.

In decarbonizing other parts of the shoemaking process and the actual product, the company used methods like making the midsole and outsole with its ‘SuperLight Foam’ which is a carbon foam composed of about 70% bio-based content. The foam is made by Braskem, a Philadelphia-based biotech company.

When it comes to the packaging, the company used sugarcane-based polyethylene packaging — a carbon-negative material — that reduces the weight and space required for transportation.

And then, there’s the manufacturing. While Allbirds is on the road to being powered using 100% renewable energy by 2025, in order to keep the Moonshot shoe true to its net zero ambitions, the company procured renewable electricity to power its manufacturing through the use of region-specific Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).

grayscale shoe print in dirt
Image Credit: George Evans // Unsplash

Oftentimes, renewable energy credit users fall victim to greenwashing because they are credits for a different region with different power needs, that’s why according to Allbirds, “carbon reductions from this renewable energy can be accurately allocated to the manufacturing facilities where M0.0NSHOT is made.”

In acknowledgment that RECs aren’t the only way to account for the energy they use, even as a small company, they also want to partner with others whether it be to advocate for renewable energy policies or develop onsite solar or power purchase agreements.

In terms of shipping, Allbirds works with its longtime partner GoodShipping, to decarbonize ocean shipping emissions through the use of waste or residue-based biofuels. This time ocean shipping has less emissions than aviation, for example, plus the company is also planning to incorporate the use of electric trucks to lower its shipping footprint even further.

“Sorry, no rocketships,” the team writes in the recipe book.

Keeping true to the sole of partnership, Allbirds is also hoping that other companies and startups with “carbon sink” materials, low emission shipping ventures, and more will reach out so they can expand their portfolio of carbon-negative shoe and apparel materials in the net zero revolution. Thus, the Moonshot isn’t the only carbon-negative shoe design it created or plans to make.

“We didn’t just make the world’s first net zero carbon shoe. We also made the second, third, fourth net zero carbon shoe, and so on, as we explored different prototypes to create an appropriate visual identity for this milestone,” Jamie McLellan, design lead on the project said in a statement.

“As we thought about this ‘shoe of the future’, we were clear that M0.0NSHOT couldn’t look like something from the past. We’ve not just reimagined the science of a sustainable shoe, we’ve reimagined the design, too.”

As Heather Clancy over at Greenbiz reports, there’s still one thing that Allbirds has yet to achieve: circularity, aka the holy grail of product creation in the Anthropocene’s climate age.

The infrastructure to recycle footwear “doesn’t really exist right now,” Aileen Lerch, the company’s sustainability senior manager told the publication, adding that circularity is a work in progress.

Instead, Allbirds, which is a seven-year-old company, offers a re-commerce program (called Allbirds Rerun) that recirculates gently used products or even those with slight defects. Still, because of the company’s young age, these programs are still early-stage.

While the startup hopes that some of the shoes are recycled despite the lack of widescale infrastructure, the team says its already calculated for end-of-life emissions of throwing the shoe in the landfill.

Speaking of those emissions, by now everyone reading this is probably wondering, or should be wondering, how the net zero-ness of the shoe is calculated.

Allbird’s calculation method can be viewed in full here. It dives into the farm-level carbon footprint of Lake Hawea Station, the wool carbon intensity, its Lifecycle Assessment (the effects that a product has on the environment over the entire period of its life from resource use to land use), on-farm carbon sequestration, and so on.

“We believe this will revolutionize the path to net zero, and act as rocket fuel for the entire industry,” Hana Kajimura, head of sustainability at Allbirds said.

“We could spend decades debating the finer points of carbon sequestration, or we can innovate today with a common sense approach. It’s about progress, not perfection. The scientists have shown us what’s possible — now it’s time for the fashion industry to carry the open-sourced learnings from M0.0NSHOT forward.”

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