After years of specialising in low-carbon footwear, Allbirds has introduced a new line of sustainable apparel made from an unconventional yet innovative source.
In April, when Allbirds announced it would be the first fashion label to introduce a sticker that measured the carbon footprint of each one of its products, it was seen as a commendable yet potentially risky move. With worldwide lockdowns and recessions savaging the global retail and fashion sectors, there was a chance the initiative – however conscientious – could put off already wary consumers and dent sales.
Nothing of the sort happened, it turned out. With strong sales in Asia-Pacific, Allbirds continues to defy economic conditions and cement its reputation as a company evidently committed to offsetting the effects of climate change. It’s announced $100m in a recent round of Series E funding, released its first performance running shoe, and the idea of a carbon label has since been adopted by corporate giants Unilever and Logitech, both looking to be more transparent about their greenhouse gas emissions.
Now Allbirds has lunged further outside the box by producing a range of low-carbon apparel, including a t-shirt partly made from crab shells.
Due to hit New Zealand stores this week, the TrinoXO Tee is made with Allbirds signature trino yarn – consisting of eucalyptus tree fibre and merino wool – and spun with chitosan, a naturally occurring fibre derived from the shells of Canadian snow crabs.
For a company known almost exclusively for its footwear, a move into apparel seems like a bold move in itself. Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown says it’s always something the company thought about, but it had been focused on addressing the footwear problem first.
“We asked ourselves, ‘does the world need another T-shirt?’ And the short answer is probably not – unless it can be done better.”
To the average consumer, harvesting sea creatures to make clothing might not seem like the most sustainable practice. But the chitosan used in the TrinoXO is derived from shells discarded by the seafood industry, which would otherwise go to waste.
An abundant biopolymer, chitosan has antimicrobial properties similar to the silver and zinc oxide that is often used in the manufacture of garments to make them more resistant to odour. According to Brown, it means the shirts don’t need to be washed as much, thereby reducing their post-purchase carbon footprint. He says chitosan is also a sustainable – and less harmful – alternative to mined silver, and is on track to be certified by sustainable fishing NGO the Marine Stewardship Council. While the fibre has many commercial applications, this is the first time that it has been used at such scale for apparel.
“The combination of these things has never really been done before and it’s been extraordinarily hard, as you can imagine,” says Brown. “This material innovation has been around for some time, but the ability to bring it and apply it to our fibres, which have been created in a bespoke process anyway, it’s been a really painstaking process. I’m pretty proud of the fact that we’ve worked so hard to do it.”
Like all of Allbirds’ products, the T-shirt will carry a carbon footprint label stating how many kilograms of greenhouse gases were emitted in its production. Taking into account material, manufacturing, product use and end of life, the men’s TrinoXO has a carbon footprint of 7.1kg while the women’s has 6.3kg – 20% less than a standard polyester T-shirt.
Brown says it’s all about allowing consumers to make better choices and factor in the environment when purchasing products.
“These numbers – there’s a reason there’s a decimal point on them,” he says. “Like if something’s 6.3; get it down to 6.2 and that’s a step in the right direction.
“All these little improvements: where you make the product, the type of electricity grid in the manufacturing country, how you ship it, packaging, the weight of the product, labelling tags. Every single thing – there’s nowhere to hide.”
And yet as laudable and enterprising as it is to utilise discarded crab shells and turn them into low-carbon T-shirts, there are always going to be consumers who are more interested in other variables, such as fair labour or the the quality of the end product.
At $80 a pop, won’t a shirt made out of crabs be a hard sell?
Brown says as much thought that went into the low-carbon aspect of the shirt as has gone into making a superior product, similar to Allbirds’ shoes. As a certified B-Corp, the company has also ensured that fair labour is practised throughout its supply chain, including at the shirt’s manufacturers in Peru.
“People don’t buy sustainable products, they buy great ones. But I think we’ve come to realise that for products to be great they also need to be sustainable.
“And the carbon label is just one part of that, at the end of the day. I hope people will pick up this T-shirt and see the quality and the relentless focus on the design to make this thing really special.”
While only the T-shirt will be released in New Zealand this summer, Allbirds is also launching its winter apparel range in the northern hemisphere, which includes a puffer jacket and a cardigan. These are due to be released in New Zealand next year.
Beyond that, Brown says Allbirds’ aim is to continue working with its partners to reduce the carbon footprint of its products, particularly with New Zealand suppliers of sustainable merino wool.
While Allbirds’ products are already made with ZQ-certified merino, Brown says he sees a lot of potential for low-carbon products through regenerative agriculture – a burgeoning movement in New Zealand.
“One of the huge opportunities for regenerative agriculture is limiting the amount of carbon that’s released into the atmosphere and also increasing the amount that can be sequestered. We’ve got work to do, we’ve got to keep improving. And regenerative agriculture represents one of the biggest levers we can pull to reduce those carbon numbers.”
“The fashion industry doesn’t need a lot more stuff, I think it needs fewer and better things. And that’s how we show that.”