Allbirds is unveiling a new design—and a new direction.
The Pacer is a “new take” on the classic court sneaker, Silicon Valley’s favorite footwear brand revealed Tuesday. Available in organic cotton canvas and plant leather, the shoe “kicks off” Allbirds’s expansion into lifestyle silhouettes, signaling a “new and more contemporary style lineup,” said Jad Finck, its vice president of innovation.
Plant leather is a material innovation two years in the making. In late 2020, Allbirds invested $2 million in Natural Fiber Welding (NFW), an Illinois-headquartered material science startup whose Mirum platform combines and “cures” a blend of rubber, plant oils and agricultural byproducts such as rice hulls and citrus peels. The result? A tough yet flexible and completely plastic-free material that looks and feels just like the bovine stuff.
Allbirds’ version incorporates a eucalyptus-based Tencel lining that clings to the Mirum layer during the curing process. This, Finck said, eliminates the need for an additional synthetic adhesive that is commonly used in other alternative leathers.
To complete the shoe, the resale neophyte grafted on a midsole made from Sweetfoam, its lightweight sugarcane-derived EVA. Natural rubber did the job for its sidewall and outsole.
“For too long the fashion industry has relied on dirty synthetics,” Finck told Sourcing Journal. “We wanted to help end that, which led us to create the Plant Pacer: a truly sustainable alternative leather sneaker.”
Finck said that there is a need to “keep innovating” in the leather alternative sector, noting that plant leather is a “material-first” in footwear because it’s “100 percent plastic-free, 100 percent vegan and only uses natural materials.” This differentiator was a “huge reason” why Allbirds invested and partnered with NFW, he added.
But it didn’t try to rush the process, Finck said. Designing products that live up to the Bay Area B Corp’s “standards of comfort” while remaining durable and stylish has always been a prime concern. Pricing-wise, the Plant Pacer falls in the same range as Allbirds’ other offerings, removing the higher markup that consumers have come to expect from novel materials before they reach scale.
NFW, no footwear newbie, has a leg up in that department. It operates a 10,000-square-foot facility in downtown Peoria in Illinois, where it will eventually produce tens of millions of square feet of Mirum a year. In July, it trumpeted a partnership with Veshin Factory, a vegan fashion manufacturer based in Costa Rica and Guangzhou, that will smooth the way for brands to source, design, scale and launch Mirum-made merchandise. And in the years since the two companies first conferred, Mirum has popped up in products from Bellroy, Camper, H&M, Pangaia and others.
Still, Allbirds was cautious.
“When we first announced the investment and partnership with NFW, we looked toward launching in 2021, but by taking our time we were able to create a better product that we know Allbirds customers will love,” he said.
Plus, plant leather fits in with Allbirds’ low-carbon philosophy. By the company’s calculations, the material emits 88 percent less carbon than traditional cowhide and 75 percent less than its synthetic “pleather” counterparts. The Plant Pacer generates 8.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, which Allbirds offsets. That’s less than its signature Wool Runner, whose footprint starts at 9.9 kg CO2e.
“Material innovation is a central part of the Allbirds Flight Plan to lower our carbon footprint and we are thrilled that plant leather will join our suite of materials,” Finck said. “Our efforts will continue to push the limits of super-natural materials which doesn’t stop at wool, tree, sugar or plant. We’re just getting started, and through our use of innovative materials, and expansion into lifestyle silhouettes, we’ll continue to show that sustainability and style aren’t mutually exclusive.”
For the brand that once asked Amazon to steal its business model, not its style, persuading others in the industry to invest in innovation and make the switch to more sustainable materials is an ongoing challenge.
“We know the fashion industry is a huge contributor to waste that is harming the environment, and while we’re working with companies like NFW to make changes, we need more brands to make the commitment to creating more sustainable products,” Finck said.
In the case of Allbirds, the Pacer is just the beginning for plant leather.
“This launch will be the first drop of the Plant Pacer and then we plan to launch more inventory early next year,” Finck said. “We’re excited to see what is next for plant leather as part of our collection of super-natural materials.”