Like the socks and underwear it already sells, Allbirds’ newest offerings are made out of natural materials. The jumpers are knitted from ethically sourced merino wool and the puffer jackets are made out of Trino, a blend of eucalyptus tree fibre and merino wool that the brand invented.
But the t-shirts might be Allbirds’ most eco-friendly product yet, because they are made from a combination of Trino and Chitosan, an odour-fighting fibre derived from crab shells, which keeps the tops smelling fresh for longer and reduces the need for energy-intensive washes.
Because of this, the company estimates the carbon footprint of its t-shirts to be around 20 per cent smaller than a standard polyester tee.
“From day one, our goal has been to make an impact against climate change – the biggest threat to humanity’s future,” Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds co-founder and co-CEO, said in a statement provided to Inside Retail.
“Natural materials have phenomenal potential, and when unlocked through scientific innovation, can create better products that are also better for the planet. This first collection of Allbirds apparel is an example of the magic that is possible when you mix world-class sustainability with elevated apparel design.”
From waste to t-shirts
Allbirds is the first brand to use Chitosan (pronounced kite-oh-san) to make everyday apparel on this scale, but it could be a game changer for the fashion sector.
The fibre occurs naturally in crab shells, and unlike zinc or silver, which can also be mixed with various materials to keep clothes fresh, it’s not associated with environmentally degrading extraction processes. The shells come from snow crabs caught off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, and they’d be thrown out if Allbirds didn’t use them for Chitosan. (The crab meat is sold commercially.)
Chitosan might be one of the stranger materials to end up in clothes, but it’s far from the only alternative to polyester and cotton on the market.
“There are a variety of alternatives out there from the more common materials such as bamboo, hemp or lyocell (made from eucalyptus trees) to more innovative materials made from upcycled waste,” Anna Forster, sustainability strategist and co-founder of The Purpose Agents, told Inside Retail.
“Piñatex, for example, is a textile made from pineapple leaf fibres, a byproduct from the pineapple harvest, or there are vegan textiles and leathers made from agricultural waste from cultivating coconuts, apples or wine.”
Turning fashion green
With fashion ranking as the second most polluting industry in the world after oil, due in part to the use of synthetic fibres and agricultural pollution from fashion crops, the search for more environmentally friendly materials is urgent. But these alternatives can also have drawbacks.
“Generally, some alternative materials will have certain characteristics where they are really great and others where they are not (yet) as good,” Forster said.
“There can be problems with durability or flexibility in making or wearing, which can shorten the lifespan and reduce the sustainability of the product, which of course relies on longevity. Others require lots of chemicals to be processed into a state that delivers the required performance or to be used in the first place.”
Even if a new material looks promising, it may be a bad idea for fashion brands to adopt it en masse, according to Forster.
“There should be a focus on retaining balance and variety in what we use as materials [otherwise] we create too many dysfunctional monocultures that require lots of selected and limited resources and space, as is the case with cotton,” she said.
“If we were to switch everything that is cotton to one other commodity/fibre then we would probably encounter the same problems as well. This has been a concern with wood-based fibers such as rayon, viscose or modal, which have been linked to deforestation.”
At the moment, however, the main issue isn’t alternative materials becoming too ubiquitous, but rather lack of scalability.
“A lot of novel alternative materials have not reached the scalability that would allow competitive pricing and a degree of market penetration that would really shift the scale for more sustainable consumption,” Forster said.
This is why Allbirds’ new collection is so significant. As a company valued at US$1.7 billion, with a global website and stores in the US, UK, Germany, the Netherlands, China, Japan and New Zealand, Allbirds has the resources to bring Chitosan into the mainstream. It also has a track record of making its technology open source to encourage other businesses to adopt sustainable manufacturing.
In May, the company teamed up with Adidas to develop the world’s lowest carbon footprint shoes. Speaking about the project, Allbirds’ co-founder and co-CEO Tim Brown said, “Whether we [realise] it or not this is a race that we are all running together as a planet and it is one that trumps the day-to-day competition of individual companies.”