Former pro athlete and New Zealand native Tim Brown found his purpose on his journey from celebrated soccer player to category-defining startup founder. Allbirds, the company he started alongside co-founder Joey Zwillinger, is known for its minimalist planet-friendly shoes, all made with premium natural materials, including biodegradable wool.
Tim Brown’s colourful soccer career included being the vice-captain of the New Zealand team that played in the 2010 World Cup. He retired from the sport two years afterwards and enrolled in the London School of Economics, where he would go on to realize his vision of creating the world’s most sustainable lifestyle brand.
“My sporting career went from a lot of people suggesting I couldn’t make it, all the way to a World Cup in a very unlikely fashion,” says Brown. “In my entrepreneurial career, I’ve had experts in the shoe and wool industries tell me point blank to my face that the idea of a wool shoe, and the beginnings of Allbirds, would never work and that I was wasting my time. Sometimes, that can be fuel if you keep working against that. It can be a powerful motivator.”
This mentality paid off. After raising $2.7-million USD in seed funding, Brown and industrial engineer Zwillinger launched Allbirds in 2016 as an exclusively digital company with a single product: the wool sneaker. In the years since (and dozens of global bricks-and-mortar locations later) the innovative and sustainable brand has quickly captured the market. Most recently, Allbirds made headlines when it launched its first plant-based leather sneaker.
After opening a Vancouver location, Allbirds recently launched a Toronto spot at Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Canadians weren’t strangers to the brand before it opened up shop here. “We’ve had an online relationship with a Canadian consumer now for quite a number of years, and it’s been growing and expanding consistently,” says Brown. “Our retail presence followed an early pop-up we had had in a couple of different locations that had given us confidence that the brand was resonating and could really grow in the hearts and minds of Canadian consumers.”
In a climate where consumers increasingly demand social responsibility from brands, the sustainability factor of Allbirds is a major draw. “Sustainability means a hundred different things to a hundred different people,” says Brown. “Air quality, water quality, end of life, recyclability, fair trade, labour […] there are so many different aspects, all of which are valid. Where we’ve landed is that we need to sort of shift from these broad focuses to really get quite specific on the issue of carbon.”
Allbirds labels all their products with the carbon score of their production. So, the consumer isn’t only evaluating the product for its quality, performance, and price, but for its carbon footprint as well.
“Each carbon footprint ladders up to a company number that we disclose, that we bonus our leaders to reduce,” says Brown. “And we have a very, very specific and clear flight plan to drop that number in half by 2025.” By 2030, the company plans to reduce its carbon footprint to near zero.