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Collaborating with the Competition – adidas & Allbirds Partner Up

Ex-footballer and Allbirds co-CEO Tim Brown sits down with adidas’ Maria Marco to discuss the new partnership between Allbirds and adidas to develop a shoe with the lowest ever carbon footprint.

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The adidas Sustainability Series

Imagine always being the expert in the room – how boring! This is why I enjoy working in brand strategy at adidas. As my team explores new business opportunities, I’m constantly upskilling my knowledge in new industries and connecting with different field experts – rarely a dull moment in my 9 – 5.

The announcement of adidas and Allbirds’s collaboration in pursuit of a performance shoe with the lowest carbon footprint is one of those “new opportunities.” While this partnership is groundbreaking for the industry, as the adidas project manager, it has doubled as a personal transformative undertaking. At the beginning of 2020, I had no experience with sustainability or knowledge of carbon accounting. I didn’t even know in detail how a shoe was made.

I began my upskilling with courses covering product creation, fabrics and molds. I dove into hours of “sustainability for dummies” by asking questions to the amazing experts surrounding me. Ultimately, I discovered someone who’d gone through the same learning process on the Allbirds team: co-CEO Tim Brown.

He and his team are extremely knowledgeable about natural materials and are working tirelessly to shift the industry towards climate positivity. But Tim himself wasn’t always a renewable textiles expert; he began as a footballer. So, just as he began his journey in this industry, I’m developing mine, by asking questions.

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Tim Brown’s first career was as a professional footballer, an experience he now uses to push himself forward as an entrepreneur. ©Dave Lintott

Before we begin, I have to say, it still gives me goosebumps that we’re sitting here as partners.


This is highly unusual. For two footwear companies to come together as we have, there’s such a strong level of transparency. Part of our job will be to make a shoe with no carbon impact. But the other part will be to challenge the established ways of thinking on both sides. That takes a fair amount of trust, which is already being built quite quickly among colleagues who didn’t know each other.


We’re not so different either. Like myself, you didn’t come from a shoe background. You went from life as a footballer to launching a company that creates environmentally friendly and sustainable shoes.


Yes, I had about a decade-long professional sporting career culminating in a World Cup. And let the record state, in the last period of my career, I was an adidas athlete and very, very proud to be so – huge fan of the brand.

Around 2007, I started working on the business that would become Allbirds. My co-founder Joey Zwillinger and I started on a journey of curiosity, with the central idea that there was an opportunity for a different type of shoe using natural materials that had been overlooked by the footwear industry. But as you said, we had no idea how a shoe was made.

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Allbirds source their wool from Tim’s native New Zealand. ©Vaughan Brookfield
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Wool as a material is not an obvious choice in footwear. ©Vaughan Brookfield
Men talking in a wool factory and smiling, Tim Brown, CEO, Allbirds, sustainability, sustainable, eco-friendly, wool, material, New Zealand
Allbirds work with leading organizations to ensure their wool is held to high standards of farming, land management and animal welfare. ©Vaughan Brookfield
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I was particularly interested in applying a vertical retail model that sold online and through our own retail stores directly to the customer. And Joey had been a deep student of the sustainability movement and worked in the biotech space. Those two visions came together and Allbirds was launched on the first of March 2016 in San Francisco.

We’ve very quickly gone from two people to a company of a little less than 500 people with offices in China, London, Europe, retail stores in Tokyo, Auckland – a global brand built over four years.


That’s impressive growth. You hung up your football boots and then launched your own shoe. How do you feel your time as an athlete influenced your approach to entrepreneurialism?


This means working consistently and incrementally daily. We knew nothing about the industry aside from the fact that we loved shoes. We had a blank sheet of paper and were powered by our naivety and the people that said what we were trying to do couldn’t be done.

The same goes for trying to make it in professional sports. There will be a lot of people saying you won’t make it. It happened in my own career when I got turned away from professional clubs in the U.S. and U.K.


Absolutely. You talk about changing and pushing to get better. I’ve read that your Wool Runner had something like 27 changes. Where do you find your inspiration to constantly innovate?


True, the Wool Runner shoe launched about four years ago and we’ve made maybe 30 updates and hundreds of prototypes along the way. Through our vertical model, our consumers are central to our innovation process. Almost immediately, we get feedback. We don’t have to wait to make improvements if we find there’s something that could be better. We’re able to go straight to the next batch. It’s also allowed us to immediately push new and improved sustainable materials into our products.


It’s clear you have an effective business model and a strong stake in the sustainability market. What makes you open then to working with others, even competitors, when you already have a solid positioning? What makes you willing to share your knowledge?


It’s very clear to me that in this instance, we are on the same team.

That trumps the day-to-day competition of individual companies. It’s really powerful. Hopefully this partnership to create a sports performance shoe with the lowest carbon footprint possible will be an example for others to follow.


This is something that hugely inspires me. Even with different processes, we’re learning together, because we have the same intentions.


From my football days, the power of being part of a group of people that are working on something bigger than themselves is an incredible feeling. Here we are, united to reduce the impact of climate change. We’re all tackling it together. That’s been the foundation of our two brands coming together.

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Industry change doesn’t happen on solo runs. It requires what many might see as unlikely partnerships and collaborations to make more sustainable products.

Completely. That’s also my hope. Why adidas specifically? What attracted you to our brand?


I’ve long been a fan of adidas. There’s such a rich history of innovation. It was a little bit serendipitous, but we’ve expressed from the beginning our willingness to work in different ways and with a brand interested in advancing the conversation on sustainability.


What would you say has been the biggest challenge so far?


The challenge with a topic like sustainability is that it means 10 different things to 10 different people. It might mean equality, or land quality, or biodiversity, or microplastics, or recyclability – all of which are important. What we’ve realized is that they all ladder up to the idea of carbon as the singular scorecard. This is an outstanding insight – it’s what connects not just our two companies, but the footwear industry and the fashion industry. It connects Germany to America to New Zealand. It connects the individual to the larger global problem.


Absolutely. Beyond the two companies, what do you think this partnership means to the wider industry?


That we’re in this together. We’re going to need to share knowledge when it comes to funding, low carbon, net zero ways of living.

There’s a Vogue article on our carbon scorecard that nicely summarizes a helpful analogy: in the same way nutritional labels are placed on food to measure calories, carbon footprint labeling of products can become a way to inform customers and give greater information, clarity and context on the products that they buy. At the end of the day, people still crave great products and great design experiences. Giving them information is the next chapter of the conversation on sustainability.


What are your expectations for the future?


I go back to the beginning of this conversation and the athlete’s mindset.

We’ve got to train hard. We’ve got to win our weekend games, we’ve got to continue to improve and finetune our skills.

Ultimately, this collaboration will lead to that shoe. It will bring world class innovation materials, reimagine transport, look closely at manufacturing processes, leave no stone unturned in the optimization of lessening the environmental impact of the product that we make together.


What you’re saying illustrates what I enjoy most about working with you. You don’t focus so much on celebrating the stories but celebrating the struggle. I’m now embracing this mentality. Developing a product with no carbon impact is not an easy task. A shoe with the lowest possible carbon footprint requires way more persistence than we ever imagined, because we’re trying to do something that’s never been done. So, I keep remembering your advice to enjoy the struggle. And not just at work.

I went for a long run yesterday. I’m not a runner, you need to understand this. I kept thinking to myself, “Celebrate the struggle. Enjoy this hill, this 12th km, this pain, it’s going to take you further. Celebrate the struggle.” So Tim, I can’t wait to see where our shared struggle takes us.


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