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Allbirds shoe company branches out from wool to trees

Friday 16th March 2018

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Allbirds, the merino wool shoe company co-founded by former New Zealand football star Tim Brown, is adding wood fibre to the range of materials it uses for a new range of sneakers, at a time when wool prices have climbed 50 percent. 

San Francisco-based Allbirds started selling its minimalist woollen sneakers direct to consumers in March 2016 and has online operations in the US, New Zealand and Australia and shops in San Francisco and New York. The company said it is now branching out from wool with a range of forestry-based products, using tencel lyocell, a fibre made from cellulose found in wood pulp.

Allbirds, the world's largest direct-to-consumer footwear brand, began with a research grant from New Zealand’s wool industry, and an initial Kickstarter campaign in 2014. In September last year it raised US$17.5 million through US investment firm Tiger Global Management, adding to the US$10 million raised in previous funding rounds since 2015, to help pay for further research and development into novel, sustainable materials, as well as to expand internationally and grow its retail footprint in New Zealand and the US.

"The Tree collection features ethically sourced eucalyptus fibres, which use only 5 percent of the water and one-third of the land compared to traditional footwear materials," the company said, adding that its manufacturing is also safer and cleaner than conventional practices. The insoles of the shoes are made from renewable castor bean oil and lined with wool, while the shoelaces are made from recycled bottles.

Allbirds sources its 17.5 micron merino wool fabric from Italian textile mill Successori Reda, which gets about 20 percent of its wool from New Zealand. However global demand for merino wool amid record low production in Australia and New Zealand has seen prices skyrocket, with AgriHQ data showing 16-18 micron wool was fetching $25.90-$27.80/kg in late November, 50 percent higher than a year earlier, and double 2014 levels. 

The shoe company sources its eucalyptus from South African farms that minimise fertiliser and rely on rainfall rather than irrigation. Brown wasn't immediately available for comment, however, he signalled last year that the company intended to expand its use of materials in the future.

“Our larger deep aspiration is to build a business that truly has an impact on the materials that the footwear industry is using and the products that they make and we are in the very very first chapter of doing that but I think already we have shown that there are ways to use sustainable materials and natural materials in new ways and not just rely on synthetics,” he told BusinessDesk in December.

The company expects to expand its operations to a fourth country this year.

(BusinessDesk)

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