Adidas x Allbirds – a collaboration of kaitiakitanga
When Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown was introduced to fellow Kiwi and President of adidas North America, Zion Armstrong, a collaboration between the two companies was the last thing on his mind. In fact after being introduced though the Kea Connect service, Tim says he was just honoured the ‘bloke would have lunch with him’. Fast forward several years and the two companies have worked together to create a running shoe with a minimal carbon footprint, a project which embodies their shared Kiwi values.
For Tim Brown, Kaitiakitanga, or the guardianship and protection of the environment, is key. So when it came time to hang up his boots at the end of his successful New Zealand football career, he saw an opportunity to create a better future.
“I realised there was an opportunity to bring natural and sustainable material and innovation to the enormous category of footwear, through a different type of direct to consumer business model. Off the back of a grant in 2014 I created an innovation platform based on merino fibre, I spent $1000 NZD shooting a video to showcase the fibre on the farm of a family friend and launched it on Kickstarter. It was really successful. Following that success I partnered with my co-founder Joey Zwillinger and in 2015 we launched Allbirds from the garage of his mother-in-law’s house in San Francisco.”
In the past five years, Allbirds has become a global phenomenon and a huge Kiwi success story. The company, which once consisted of Tim, Joey and Joey’s dog Walter, has now grown to more than 750 employees worldwide and has expanded their offering beyond both merino and footwear. Time Magazine named Allbirds the “world’s most comfortable shoe” and its investors include superstars like Leonardo DiCaprio. Most recently, Allbirds successfully listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange.
Tim says Allbirds has always used carbon emissions as their ‘north star’ but it wasn’t until after meeting fellow Kiwi Zion Armstrong, who was the President of adidas North America, that the two brands realised they shared similar values and had a unique opportunity to do something special.
Zion was introduced to Tim through Kea Connect and says right away he was impressed with Tim’s passion for sustainability and innovation, something adidas is also heavily focused on.
“Tim and I met for lunch in Portland. It was a positive connection right off the bat. I asked him if he wanted to come up and see our campus. I took him to our Innovation, Research & Development space so he could see some of the things we were working on. At that point it was just two Kiwi guys having a yarn and talking business and discussing how we could do things better. When Tim left I reached out to our Executive Director of Global Brands and said you have to meet this guy, the founder of Allbirds. For me it was about the personal connection and really understanding what both brands were trying to do. We knew at adidas we didn’t have all the solutions, but potentially putting the two brands together we could really create something special. It certainly started off as a Kiwi connection but more importantly it became about what we could do for our planet.”
Tim was also impressed by the work adidas were doing in the sustainability space and says meeting Zion was ‘the New Zealand network in full force.’ However at the time of that first lunch he says a collaboration was the furthest thing from his mind.
“Zion is a little bit of a legend, in fact a lot of a legend. I just wanted to meet him and learn from a guy who had been in the category for a long time. I had no expectations and was honoured that the bloke would have lunch with me. That meeting through Kea Connect was the initial connection but it was a long time until we really started to think about working together. Zion introduced me to some other people at adidas and we hosted some people, and slowly things started to form. I think in this age of LinkedIn it’s easy to add a contact but it’s much harder to build a relationship. I like to take the time to get to know people deeply, there is no fast track in this sort of work.”
Over time the Allbirds team forged a relationship with the team at adidas and together they started thinking about how the two brands could go further, together. Tim says it was around this time that the concept of creating a shoe with no carbon footprint was born.
“This idea that a big company that has been around for 70 years or more with all this market experience felt they could work with and in turn learn something from Allbirds, a business which was only five years old, was a huge compliment. I think all of us realised that we could achieve more if we worked together. We focused on this idea of the world’s lowest carbon running shoe and set ourselves the timeline of a year. We wanted to make the idea of reducing carbon emissions tangible for our consumers and give them something they could do right now. To be able to create a shoe using just 2.94kgs of carbon in a little over a year, was an extraordinary achievement.”
It’s hard to attach a carbon footprint to shoes as it’s not something that is traditionally measured and there is a lot of variation within the footwear category. However, early research by both companies suggests the average carbon footprint is somewhere in the low teens, therefore a shoe using less than 3kgs is a groundbreaking achievement.
So groundbreaking in fact that Time magazine has just given the adidas x Allbirds ‘cleaner sneakers’ a special mention on their list of the ‘Best Inventions of 2021’. But for Tim and Zion the shoe is just the start of what can be achieved.
Zion says if brands are serious about sustainability then the biggest learning is how to make a lower carbon shoe but how to move forward together for a better outcome for all.
“Traditionally in the footwear space companies don’t work with competitors, but from the beginning there was a higher challenge in play. Addressing climate change requires a major shift in thinking. Sustainability can’t just be the things we need to stop doing, it must be about the things we need to start doing as well.”
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