Footwear start-up Allbirds’ latest creation: plant-based leather

New Zealand-founded, US-based woollen shoe start-up Allbirds has created a plant-based leather it plans to commercialise throughout the fashion industry.

The company, which established a local bricks and mortar presence in Auckland in mid-2019, has been at the helm of natural and environmentally-friendly material development over the past five years following its inception in 2014.

Beyond using New Zealand merino wool in its footwear, it has created and patented shoe souls derived from sugar cane and silky fabrics made from eucalyptus trees. Its products are also made from recycled plastic bottles, cardboard, castor bean oil, wood fibre among other sustainable materials.

Allbirds co-founder Joey Zwillinger told the Herald the San Francisco-based firm had been looking into the possibilities of a sustainable and “scalable alternative” to leather that could be open-sourced throughout the footwear and fashion industries for years.

To make this possible, it has partnered with material innovation firm Natural Fibre Welding and invested US$2 million to support the firm’s research and development and further development of its Mirum technology that creates “bio-based leather” made from vegetable oil and natural rubber, and does not require synthetic coating, binding agents or animal hide.

Allbirds says the plant-based leather has 40 times less carbon impact than traditional leather and 17 times less carbon than synthetic leather made from plastic, and it is working on incorporating the material into its upcoming product launches.

It claims that its plant-based leather is the most sustainable innovation in this space yet.

“As one of the most commonly used materials in footwear and fashion, we knew it was going to be vital to provide consumers with a bio-based leather, but every solution we looked at had significant challenges,” Zwillinger said.

“There is a lot of noise in the alternative leather sector, and often, claims of sustainability
obfuscate the fact that the finished product will [still] have a large portion of petroleum derived component.”

Allbirds hopes to help Natural Fibre Welding commercialise the material to become available for use as part of its already open-source suite of materials.

“If it is widely adopted, this one material could have a significant impact on the fashion industry’s carbon output, which is over 700 million metric tonnes of CO2 each year.

“Our carbon footprints include a product’s end of life, and it will be no different with
Plant Leather – surprisingly to many, this element of a product’s life cycle is a far smaller
part of its carbon output than materials or manufacturing. This is why it is so vital that we
continue to innovate at the sourcing and production phases, rather than relying on the
same cheap synthetics and plastics that are so common in fashion and footwear.”

Earlier this week reports suggested that Allbirds was gearing up for an initial public offering and share market debut. The firm was coy when asked about its listing plans, but did not rule out a future transition to becoming public.

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