San Francisco-based sustainable sneaker brand Allbirds is stepping beyond shoes and into sustainable apparel.

Their new T-shirts are made from sustainably sourced, renewable materials, and their secret ingredient is a naturally derived fiber made from discarded shells from marine life. The chitosan from these shells allows the garments to stay fresh longer without relying on extractive materials like zinc or silver.

Highsnobiety dove into Allbird's sustainability model, speaking to Jad Finck (who leads innovation and sustainability) and Justin Cleveland (who leads material and apparel development) about why Allbirds is betting on marine waste for their new products.

Why did you decide to move into apparel?

Jad: We always say that our three big brand pillars are comfort, design, and sustainability, and when all three of those pillars intersect, we call it "better things in a better way." We started with footwear, of course, but we always had thoughts about, well, if we take that lens and say, can we make something better? That's one level of it, and the other level of it is our customers saying, "Would you please make something?" In the past year or so, we've gotten more public about our efforts to watch and track our environmental footprint.

We started looking at different items of apparel and saying, hey, does the world need more stuff? No, but does it need better things? And if we can give consumers an option that didn't exist before, that kind of helped bridge the gap between the thing they would buy when no one's looking, versus the thing they feel like they should buy because it's better for the planet, and make those things the same thing.

Can you talk us through the new collection?

Justin: The first launch of apparel is a T-shirt and then a group of a batch of sweaters that's a few different designs between a cardigan and a pullover, then we have a puffer jacket that I think is pretty unique. They're all very unique on the manufacturing side. So it was really just pushing the boundaries and the limits of what we can do? And really challenging ourselves to make things in a better way, and I think we've done a really good job at that.

Why did you decide to make the T-shirt with crab shells?

Justin: The carbon footprint is going to be the biggest thing to hold us accountable at all of our products, and one of the big drivers of that is when people wear and wash their clothes every day, and T-shirts are typically a common item to get washed after every single wear. Solving that was the problem. What can we do to limit the amount of need to wash it? And so one of the things that came up was we can attack the way that bacteria is grown on a T-shirt with a few different options that are out there, and there's a whole plethora of ways to do that, but none of them were really natural.

I wouldn't say we stumbled across it, but we kind of knew about the technology from a really long time ago. I mean, it's been around since the '40s. The process is pretty simple. The crabs are harvested in Canada; normally they'd throw the shell away, and it's like, "Hey, wait a second. We can divert this, not throw it away into a landfill, and we can crush it up, essentially, and make a fiber out of it," and then we do all of that down in Peru.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Allbirds, Allbirds

How many crab shells does it take to make one T-shirt?

Justin: So the amazing part about this fiber is you actually don't need a lot. So we only need 5 percent in our garment in order for it to be 99.9 percent effective after 50 washes. And so that's pretty impressive. We need four crabs to make one T-shirt. Literally half of a crab leg will yield enough.

Why did you decide to use crabs rather than recycling material that’s actually damaging the planet, like plastic?

Jad: For us, we feel like people aren't going to stop buying clothes just to save the planet, and people need clothes, they need items, so our approach isn't trying to completely change 100 percent of consumer behavior. Certainly, we want them to be aware of things like certifications, like the Marine Stewardship Council, which is the group we're working with to create the very first certified supply chain of connecting something that was a seafood sustainability certification.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Allbirds, Allbirds

We have ZQ certified wool that's in the T-shirt. We have Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, certified eucalyptus trees. That's in the T-shirt, and the crab shell we're working on... they've never actually had a certification for apparel because it was a seafood certification, and they're being really collaborative; we're creating the first certification, and we hope that this is something that can be used by a lot of other companies now that we've gone through and done the hard work and forged that together.

I think it's all about trying to bring another choice that is not chasing a hyper trend, chasing fast fashion, but something like a classic, beautifully made, just-the-right-amount-of-style T-shirt.

Will the drops be seasonal?

Justin: I think we're moving into a seasonal model, but I don't think we like to call it seasonal, just because we're not in the wholesale game, as a lot of our competitors are. So you'll see different things over the next little while, and I think the real plan is how do we leverage the kind of same knowledge that we've learned and proven across other products as well, to give more benefits to other categories.

What's the best way to market sustainable products like this?

Justin: I think one of our strategies has been to really kind of clarify a relatively confusing world, especially when it comes to sustainability. So I think you'll see it in more of the mainstream outlets. It'll just be a real focus on the product, the look, the styling, especially in apparel, how it's being worn, and so that's kind of the first hook. The story is deep and you can nerd out with us as much as you want, but control the message a little bit depending on who the audience is.

We try not to give you 50 choices for a T-shirt. We try to say, "Look, we've curated this. We've done the work. We think this is the best one."

This interview was conducted by Fabian Gorsler

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