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Exclusive: Allbirds imposed a carbon tax on itself–and your brand should, too

As a fashion journalist who cares about sustainability, I see many brands trying to save the planet in their own way. Some, like Everlane and Adidas, are tackling plastic pollution. Others, like Marine Layer and For Days, are developing circular systems that make new clothes out of old clothes. But here’s the thing: It’s now clear that climate change is the most pressing issue for us to address, because if we don’t deal with the problem now, our own survival is at risk.

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[Photo: courtesy of Allbirds]
Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, the founders of Allbirds, think about this a lot. They launched their sneaker brand in 2016 with the goal of creating sustainable sneakers. At the time, this meant using sustainably sourced renewable materials–like wool, eucalyptus, and sugar–rather than oil-based plastic, which is what most sneakers are made of. They tried to keep their carbon footprint low, but it was not neutral.

Today, the company announces that it is launching a Carbon Fund. “We’ve decided to impose a carbon tax on ourselves,” says Zwillinger.

While some companies have carbon offset programs, few get into Allbirds’ level of detail. Zwillinger says it took a long time to accurately assess how much carbon the company uses throughout its supply chain. This includes raising the sheep that produce the wool, transporting materials around the world, and even the air conditioning in offices. “We’ve even incorporated how much carbon is used when one of our employees takes the bus to work,” he says.

In the end, Allbirds determined that it produces 10 kg of carbon for a single pair of sneakers. This is lower than industry standards. For instance, Everlane did a comprehensive life-cycle analysis of its new sneaker and found that it generated 50 kg of carbon. Allbirds and its consultants determined that it costs 10 cents to offset this 10 kg of carbon through its Carbon Fund, which invests in tree planting, air purification that extracts greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and clean energy projects.

The scale of climate change can seem terrifying, and trying to tackle it can seem overwhelming. But in some ways, it just comes down to accurately calculating your carbon emissions and then accurately paying for them. “We should have done this sooner,” says Brown. “In some ways, it’s fairly simple to address.”

Around the world, governments have been playing around with the idea of a carbon tax on businesses, but nothing like this exists in the United States. Allbirds believes that responsible companies should essentially tax themselves. “If you don’t measure your carbon emissions and pay for it, you’re part of the problem,” Zwillinger says.

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