Allbirds Founders: Why We Need to Eliminate Plastics for Good

October 7, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC

Climate change has emerged as a real national campaign issue for the first time in American politics, with global demonstrations taking place in major cities recently.

As climate change has infiltrated the public consciousness, brands have marketed more sustainable apparel, shoes, and other consumer products. However, while many products are sold as “sustainable,” very few companies are acting sustainably.

We have noticed this in particular when it comes to plastics, which are often overlooked in discussions about climate change. That’s a mistake: Plastics are a major contributor to the global temperature rise, and we need to end our dependence on them if our planet is going to survive.

Of course, every step a company takes in a more sustainable direction is a win for the planet. But unless we are more deliberate in our use of the term, there is a real risk that the meaning of “sustainable” will be diluted to what “healthy” means on food labels—virtually everything and nothing at once.

Allbirds doesn’t see environmental practices and products as just a “nice to have.” As a public benefit corporation, our focus on sustainability is actually woven into the fabric of our company. 

We applaud all businesses that contribute more to society than just enriching shareholders, but having borne witness to more than a decade of greenwashing without action, we remain deeply skeptical of businesses or organizations that sell platitudes that lack structural change or actions. The lack of authenticity in some of the recent slew of “sustainable” products is alarming. 

Look no further than Ziploc’s website touting single-use sandwich bags’ sustainability credentials. The brand uses words like “recyclable” to disguise the fact that its bags, which are made from petroleum, exacerbate climate change and linger in landfills. This type of marketing language might fool some people! We are entering an unprecedented era of greenwashing, and need vigilance from journalists to hold these companies accountable and from consumers to call out brazen falsehoods.

Let’s be clear: Plastic is made from oil. And burning oil is one of the primary causes of climate change. The footwear industry alone is responsible for 700 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent pollution, in large part due to the petroleum-derived plastics in shoes. 

If we are to avoid a climate crisis, we need to put petroleum and plastics out of business.

Recycling plastic is a decent solution, but based on fundamentally backward logic. We shouldn’t glamorize recycling because it finds new uses for a bad material. Instead, we need to stop using the bad material in the first place.

The Allbirds team has spent years focused on establishing environmentally responsible practices. While a challenge, we know it’s easier to build them right the first time than to retrofit systems built on the use of plastics and petrochemicals. 

For a brand to begin the journey to plastic elimination, it must:

Educate itself by measuring its carbon footprint. You can’t solve problems you can’t define. Accounting for the impact of the company’s supply chain, office, and staff will give it a holistic view of what its environmental impact is, as opposed to leaning on achieving “sustainability” with a single product or in a business area. 

The second step is to pay for its pollution. This can be done through a process called carbon offsetting, where a brand funds projects that remove an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for every bit the company produces. In effect, this makes the entire company 100% carbon neutral. Treat this offset cost as if it were a product cost.

Lastly, brands should audit their supply chain, production, and materials used. Petroleum is hiding everywhere, from packing materials to fuel-heavy shipping methods. Seek sustainable alternatives. A sustainable product made in a plastic-laden system is not sustainable.

If every company measured, reduced, and took responsibility for its emissions, we would no longer be talking about the apocalyptic consequences of climate change.

Allbirds is on a journey to make products sourced from nature with the lowest carbon footprint possible. Our vision is to make our shoes function like trees—a net positive to the climate—and we hope every consumer product company follows suit. It is no longer enough to talk about how sustainable we are; we need instead to talk about what we and other brands are doing or can do to lessen our environmental impact.

Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger are the co-founders of Allbirds.

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