How Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger is Keeping Companies Accountable to Their Carbon
Don’t call Allbirds a fashion company. Sure, style icons like Sarah Jessica Parker rock the firm’s sneakers about town. And yes, the Bay-Area startup, founded in 2016, is worth more than a billion dollars, in league with apparel giants like Supreme. But co-founder Joseph Zwillinger is having none of it.
“Allbirds is an innovation company, first and foremost, enabled by sustainable materials,” says Zwillinger. “We don’t chase trends because we take too much time developing our products, and that precludes us from being a fashion company.”
That’s why Allbirds is so successful. Nothing quite sews human solidarity like scientific discovery, and thanks to an unmatched commitment to sustainable practices, Allbirds has managed to foster that same sense of romance and collaboration in the corporate sphere. Zwillinger is blunt when he talks about why the firm exists: “We want to combat climate change.” And with a clear mission like that, it’s no wonder so many consumers, scientists, and even competitors want a piece of the Allbirds buffet.
Environmentalism informs everything at Allbirds, from sourcing carbon-negative materials for R&D to purchasing carbon offsets. Zwillinger, for his part, spent most of his career in and around tech, and he’s hired many material- and deep-science professionals to quite literally weave green innovations right into the company’s clothes. Consider Allbirds’s first-in-the-world, antimicrobial T-shirt yarn born from post-harvest crab shells. Awesome. There’s also the startup’s shoestrings composed of recycled plastic bottles. Incredible. Most importantly, all of the company’s attire is both attractive and functional.
“You look at the history of people trying to make shoes that were good for the planet and they always sucked,” Zwillinger says. “They were so obsessed with perfection that each pair was ugly and cost a thousand dollars.” His point: invention is messy and that’s a good thing. Even the most brilliant minds err, so it’s best to learn from failure and share knowledge to spur further creation. “We try to make better things in a better way, not the best things in the best way,” Zwillinger continues.
Hearing the head of a major company be so passionate about activism and the scientific process is refreshing. Just ask Jeff Bezos. In 2019, Amazon began selling wool-woven runners very similar to those of Allbirds. In response, Zwillinger and his co-founder Tim Brown published an open letter imploring Bezos and other manufacturers to “steal” the open-source tech behind their sugar-cane-derived SweetFoam. Swapping resources, Zwillinger asserts, is not only good for the planet, but for corporate culture. “People come to us with great ideas now, because they know what we stand for,” he says. “It lets us be more of a curator, accentuating our values as we grow.”
Still, can you really square capitalism with climate action? Zwillinger makes the case plainly. First, you need sound policy — though since politicians are generally laggards, the responsibility falls on private-sector leaders to inject emotional storytelling into their strategies. Next, you have to accept that paying for pollution cuts profits. However, if all businesses threw in some dough, the globe could reach carbon neutrality much before 2050. And finally, if the competition refuses to join the cause, just go out there and steal market share with your more virtuous products. So, yes, altruism and financial success can co-exist.
“People pay us to be a carbon sink for them, so, we’re actually an antidote to their pollution,” Zwillinger says. “That’s a future that really inspires me.”