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Sustainability done right: Allbirds shoes

Through innovative techniques and collaboration, Allbirds is raising the bar in the running shoe industry.

Brian Metzler

April 18th, 2022

7 min read

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When will the running shoe industry get a grip and make significant efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of each pair of shoes it makes? When you consider the sourcing of materials, manufacturing, and shipping around the world — not to mention the limited lifespan and planned obsolescence of running shoes —  it’s a dirty business and definitely not environmentally responsible. 

Plenty of big running shoe brands have been making small but earnest strides toward sustainability in recent years — including Brooks, Nike, Salomon and On — but Allbirds, a New Zealand-American company that got its start in 2016, has significantly raised the bar on how to make running shoes in the 21st century. 

When Allbirds burst on the scene with its lifestyle sneakers a few years ago, it seemed like another start-up trying to capitalize on the growing trend of casual footwear with a touch of modern style. And it certainly was, but with a decidedly environmentally conscientious approach and the use of renewable materials and manufacturing processes aimed at reducing a shoe’s synthetic materials and overall carbon footprint.

It was easy to read the tea leaves that suggested Allbirds would eventually start developing sneakers meant for actual running. With the release of its thoughtfully designed and eco-friendly Tree Dashers and Wool Dasher Mizzles, it started to make its mark, even if it wasn’t targeting the front of the packers wearing racing shoes with carbon-fiber propulsion plates.

But, I wondered, could it develop running shoes that handled the rigors of trail running on technical terrain while still following the same eco-friendly steps? That’s been a tough task for brands that have been in the running business a long time. I’m excited that Kilian Jornet has started down this path with his NNormal brand with Camper, but quite frankly Allbirds has already set a good example of how to create smart, conscientious shoes amid the challenges of large-scale manufacturability. 

Allbirds Trail Runner SWT in motion.

This past winter, Allbirds launched its Trail Runner SWT model (men’s and women’s) — a clean, functional design with a stylish vibe and comprehensive sustainability story. The eco-friendly aspects of the Allbirds Trail Runner SWT are impressive, but after wear-testing this shoe for more than 100 miles, what’s just as noteworthy is its performance on a wide range of terrain. OK, it’s slightly heavier than I would prefer (10.8 oz. spec weight for women, 12.4 oz. for men), but overlooking that for a moment, just about everything else about this shoe is spot-on for running on moderate to technical trails that are dry, damp, snowy, muddy or soggy wet.

The Trail Runner SWT has a unique multi-material upper that really dials in the fit of a wide range of foot shapes and sizes, provides protection and cinches the foot to the midsole/outsole chassis. The uniquely styled upper is integrated with a soft, elastic bootie construction (no tongue, just a stretchy wrap-like design) that really keeps the foot secure while still allowing it to flex naturally. 

But what’s really remarkable is the green story and the reduction of traditional petroleum-based synthetic materials relative to most contemporary shoes. What does the “SWT” in its name stand for? Sugar, Wool, Tree – three of the primary components in the shoe. The upper includes a water-repellant blended knit material made from eucalyptus tree fiber and merino wool across the top of the foot, a plant-based TPU seam tape and heel counter, a durable, perforated wool and recycled polyester ripstop material around the sides and toe box and shoe laces and eyelets made from recycled plastic bottles and bio-based nylon. If that’s not enough, the footbed insole is made from a castor bean oil-based foam.

Perhaps the best feature of the shoe is the SweetFoam midsole material that’s made from a sugar-cane based EVA. The midsole foam straddles the line of being semi-firm and semi-soft, which seems to be just right on most types of terrain. It’s stable and supportive, but it’s also pliable enough to accommodate for undulating and unpredictable terrain. The certified natural rubber outsole — which includes an array of crescent-shaped, 5mm directional lugs — is nicely grippy, but supple enough to conform to the surface of rocks without collecting bits of gravel.

Allbirds Trail Runner SWT

OK, enough gushing. The Allbirds Trail Runner SWT would be better if it were an ounce or two lighter, slightly more nimble and more conducive to up-tempo running. One of my lace end-caps popped off, causing it to start to fray. And at $140 per pair ($150 for limited-edition colors), it carries an above-average price tag. It’s not a perfect shoe, but it’s a really good shoe, especially considering the thoughtful sustainability considerations put into it and how well it performs on technical trails. 

Furthermore, Allbirds has been entirely transparent with its sustainability practices and its interest in reducing the carbon footprint of all shoes and apparel it produces. The rest of the shoe industry has taken notice. 

Last week, Adidas and Allbirds announced their new “Collaboration over Competition” partnership in an effort to make significant strides improving sustainability in the mass market. “If you really want to drive change, you need to look outside to people that know more than you,” says Felix Willfeld, Director of Sustainability for Adidas. 

The partnership began with the goal of creating shoes with a 3kg CO2e rating. What is CO2e? As defined by the EPA, it’s “the number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential as one metric ton of another greenhouse gas.” In 2013, a MIT study found that an average pair of running shoes generates 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, which translates to 13.6 kg CO2e per shoe. 

Adizero X Allbirds 2.94 KG CO2e

Factoring in product, packaging, and transportation, the outcome of the collaboration is the Adizero x Allbirds, a new lightweight running shoe with a 2.94 kg C02e per pair. Both brands believe in making these measurement numbers understood and transparent so that runners can make informed buying decisions that support their beliefs.

This is how all running shoes — and, quite frankly, all consumer products — should be made, marketed and sold going forward. Allbirds has now significantly raised the bar and hopefully it will encourage all of the major running shoe brands to follow suit. Hylo Athletics, Veja and Vivo Barefoot have also made big strides with environmentally responsible footwear.

If we, as runners and consumers of the running industry, are going to do our part in helping steer the world toward a more environmentally conscientious future, it should start with what we choose to lace up on our feet.

11 responses to “Sustainability done right: Allbirds shoes”

  1. ecarson2017 says:

    Where are these manufactured?

    • Brian Metzler says:

      Overseas with the rest of the mass-manufactured brands. (Personally I wish there were factories that could handle huge volume and be cost-effective in the U.S. New Balance does some decent volume in the U.S., but it’s expensive.)

  2. MIK says:

    Aglets. They’re called aglets. “Lace end-caps” geesh.

    • Brian Metzler says:

      Haha, yes, very true! But most runners don’t know what aglets are — or what a vamp is or what board-lasted construction is.

  3. starwitness says:

    Ick, who cares what they’re called? Is your world so empty that you really need to feel righteous indignation toward an author for trying to make his article as inclusive as possible for (let’s be honest, the majority of) readers who don’t know the technical term for the end of a f-ing shoelace?! Get a life, dude.

  4. ecarson2017 says:

    Unfortunately that business model will never even come close to carbon neutral It dosent mater what they make them out of. Hey what happen to the shoe Adidas was making from salvaged water bottles remember that??

  5. craig says:

    When manufactures start look at the consumer being able to send the shoe back to be refurbished like Speed Land is looking to do, then you might see a difference in carbon foot print.

  6. Kurt says:

    While enjoying outdoor activities and wearing various plastic/rubber gear, I will ironically think about the health of our planet. Thanks for the article!

  7. Jeffrey S Crumbaugh says:

    I am glad that Brian Metzler brings up the issue of the sustainability of running shoes in a serious way. It’s about time. In the case of the Allbirds shoe, the merino wool and recycled polyester ripstop are great ideas for running shoe materials. However, the SweetFoam made from Brazilian sugarcane is definitely not. Massive sugarcane plantations in Brazil have been the biggest driver of deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest. In addition, growing sugarcane consumes enormous amounts of water. Once the sugarcane is grown and harvested (with diesel powered equipment) it is then converted into ethanol via fermentation. The ethanol then must be chemically converted into ethylene and finally polymerized with vinyl acetate to make EVA. After that it is shipped to China for assembly, before being shipped back to North America. Claiming their EVA is carbon negative is greenwashing in its most subversive form.

  8. […] of sustainability of shoes and speaking of China, I have a hard time getting excited about Allbirds sustainability practices if they’re still manufacturing in the PRC. Doesn’t matter what they’re made […]

  9. Brian Metzler says:

    Understood and agreed on that, but to have manufacturing back in the U.S. (for the first time in the 1980s), enormous changes have to be made on several levels. Moving manufacturing to Mexico would seem more likely from a cost-effective point of view, but that would require enormous investment in infrastructure. The reasons shoes are mostly built in Vietnam (and some in China) is because it’s affordable and the supply chain of materials is mostly in Asia. If we moved all manufacturing to the U.S., then shoes would have to be shipped around the world so there wouldn’t be much of a net gain, especially since China will soon (if not already) be a bigger consumer of running shoes than the U.S. As for an American/Euro brand doing business in China, that’s another story in itself (as it is with American companies in Russia) but, politics and ever-important human rights issues aside, that’s certainly where the growth is.

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