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Caning it: Allbirds' Tim Brown on the launch of its new sustainable jandals, Sugar Zeffers

Caning it: Allbirds' Tim Brown on the launch of its new sustainable jandals, Sugar Zeffers

First there were shoes made of merino in 2016. Then came shoes made of trees earlier this year. Now Allbirds has launched its latest comfortable, sustainable foot-based innovation: customisable jandals made from sugar cane. Co-founder Tim Brown tells Ben Fahy how the Sugar Zeffer range came about, how the SweetFoam material could make a dent in the environmentally unfriendly shoe universe and whether there will be any need for the classic bread-tag-to-fix-the-jandal-blow-out trick with this new range.  

Ben Fahy: So what are jandals usually made of?

Tim Brown: Ethyl-vinyl acetate. So this is replacing the petrochemical part of that with sugar cane.

BF: Is that more expensive?

TB: It is. But we have a direct-to-consumer business model that allows us to invest in this stuff.

BF: Expensive in the short run, probably.

TB:  Yeah, but a company of our scale clearly sees larger potential in it and I think part of the idea is that we will launch it, we will take it to market, and then this will be a product that the wider industry can use.

BF: Have you done anything like that so far, kind of white labelling technology or materials?

TB: We haven't, no.

We went after the sneaker with the wool runner. We went after a slip on shoe made out of trees. This was always on the radar as one of those casual footwear products that is used commonly and widely. It's been around for a long time and it's been sort of over-designed and it's been sort of pushed and pulled in so many directions no one is quite sure what it's meant to do and what it looks like

BF: Because you haven't tried or there's no demand?

TB: Well, in the case of our wool and the case of our trees, it's a different thing. It's kind of proprietary in the way we put that together and we spend a lot of time trying to engineer the exact sort of softness and comfort fit for our particular products. This is different. This is an ingredient material that I think can be used broadly in the footwear industry. So, the hope is that other people do it, use it, and that would be a great result [Allbirds plans to use the foam for the bases of its other shoes]. We don't own it. But we've developed this in partnership with a Brazilian company Brazchem. So, I think it's putting the spotlight on this particular material and the spotlight on the industry with the view that hopefully more people adopt this material.

BF: So you said it was carbon negative. How does that work?

TB: Well, coming out as a raw ingredient will take more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in, so it's a big thing.

BF: Are there many materials like that?

TB: We don't know.

BF: Sounds like a perpetual motion machine.

TB: So [co-founder] Joey Zwillinger got that focus on sustainable engineering from his previous career so he's a better person to talk to about the specifics of it but, you know, I think in terms of taking it to market is a cool coming together of these two things.

BF: How long have you been thinking about doing a jandal?

TB: A long time. From the very beginning. I probably went after it in earnest maybe a little under two years ago and looked at the idea of customisation and strength and all these different problems with this particular product, on top of this new material, all together.  

BF: It's almost the opposite of what you originally started off with: performance and sports. But I guess you can wear them after the race.

  • Read Idealog's version of the Allbirds origin story here

TB: Totally, but we went after the sneaker with the wool runner. We went after a slip on shoe made out of trees. This was always on the radar as one of those casual footwear products that is used commonly and widely. It's been around for a long time and it's been sort of over-designed and it's been sort of pushed and pulled in so many directions no one is quite sure what it's meant to do and what it looks like. So we and [head of design] Jamie [McLellan] rethought that and focused on this idea of customisation of comfort.

BF: What do you mean by customisation? Can you customise on the website?

TB: You can choose straps or change them out, and in the retail you can do the same [the Sugar Zeffers will retail for NZ$60. They are available in four different colours and the straps are made out of four different materials: recycled plastic bottles, bio-suede, bio-foam, bio thermoplastic polyurethane]

BF: There is a fair amount of talk about personalising in manufacturing at the moment. Adidas and Nike have these big factories where they can produce on-demand stuff, but it is still very niche.

TB: Yeah, it's interesting. I think customisation is one of those things that people think they want, but they don't. I think too much choice is bad and broadly at a macro level, any of the brands that are doing a few things well, that are culling, curating, doing that sort of stuff are the ones that are winning. So I think in this case it is a little bit of an anomaly because it is an interesting twist on how you make and engineer this product, but it is a small part of the story. You do have options in terms of colours with the shoes and you can switch out the shoelaces. It's kind of like a sub component and I think it adds interest.

BF: So could I make my jandals into those fluffy ones that you see people wearing at the supermarket?

TB: No, it's a whole different idea. It's a weird thing with flip flops. Some people from the New York office will not wear them unless they are in the Hamptons. You have to be within x miles of sand. And they only will wear them if they have leather and a strap. And are from Tory Burch and they spent a lot of money on them. 

All those problems, we can solve them if we want to solve them.

BF: I used to wear jandals to work all through January. But then in February it was frowned upon. What has the design process been like? The plug coming out of the jandal, or the jandal blow-out, is the bane of many an existence. How are you going to deal with that?

TB: We’ve tried to make sure that does not happen. It’s been all about strength and the way that's been threaded through supports it being super strong.

BF: So no need for the classic move where you put a bread tag underneath?

TB: That's amazing. I have never heard of that.

BF:  Haven't you?

TB: No!

BF: That's a classic move. But obviously a short term fix. Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. You talked about this a little bit at the Better By Design conference but the importance of looking at every decision you make through a brand lens. Looking into the shift for some of the companies towards sustainable materials, they are more expensive, so there is a barrier for people to start doing it. Even us as publishers, we are looking at getting rid of plastic on our magazines and using compostable bio-plastics, but they’re three times more expensive. Do you look at it that way; in terms of the thing that will separate us from everyone else is worth the investment?

TB: Totally, I can give you a similar example. Our shoelaces are made out of post-consumer materials, or recycled plastic bottles, and when we approached the factory and asked them they said 'we can't do that'. We wanted the textured look of ropes and Jamie was inspired by yachting. And then we were like 'try and find out'. They worked it out and came back to us three or four months later and it was three times the price. That's the kind of thing that usually ends the conversation. But we were like, 'yep, we will do it'. And so they look at you like you have six heads but now all of a sudden they are coming to you with different ideas, the costs are coming down remarkably, and as soon as you make it non-negotiable these problems get solved. It's the same thing with coffee cups and the lining that they put on the inside of the coffee cups to make it waterproof, which means you can't recycle them. All those problems, we can solve them if we want to solve them.

BF: There are some regulatory forces happening as well. In the UK they've started banning coffee cups.

TB:  Totally, yeah that's coming.

BF: France bans everything. I love France. No straws. Sparkling water in the public fountains.

TB: It's coming to the EU.

BF: So do think this will be normal soon in the industry? There is some bad behaviour in the industry and it's embedded.

TB: I think the interesting thing is on the consumer level. If you ask people, and I have had this conversation, if they care about it, they say, "100% I do". They show it when they go buy stuff. Because people don't buy sustainability, they buy the best products. I think sustainability wins when people stop talking about. It is a clichéd example, but with the electric car, people aren't talking about Tesla as environmentally friendly. They are cool and they go fast. It's the same thing in shoes. As soon it becomes a non-negotiable – and that might play out in government legislation down the road, it could be some carbon-tax, at some point – I think brands with new types of business models that want to get ahead of that are the ones that are going to win. I feel like that is what we are trying to do.

BF: Do you think this will continue the casualisation of the workplace? Will you see jandals taking over Silicon Valley soon like we've seen your other shoes take over Silicon Valley? Do you think you can push it that far?

TB: Look, I am ex-football player so my toes probably shouldn't be seen by the world. I am probably not one to talk about that. 

BF: Are you selling a range of other nail clipping paraphernalia or something? That would be a nice side business. Anti-fungal creams, perhaps?

TB: I caught up with one of my old teammates and he was like, "you should not be making this product." I think you can make shoes, and you can wear them, and you don't need to necessarily wear them to work, but if people want to do that, then good luck to them – if they can stay employed.

BF:  That's good. So I can continue on the 100 percent Allbirds lifestyle with these jandals. Maybe just some Ugg Boots next.

TB: I think comfort is interesting. Comfort when it is really sunny versus when it is snowing are two different things. So I think the idea that we are using the sustainable material innovation, not because it is just a good idea, but because it solves these types of problems, is absolutely the plan.

BF: Are you looking at other areas? Other categories? I remember when I interviewed Peter Cullinane from Lewis Road Creamery and he said "we are working our way down the dairy aisle".

TB: Interesting.

BF:  Now they have gone into other aisles. So if you have a brand like that, you can find opportunities that fit, so I guess, there are some similarities. You are in the shoe aisle at the moment. Or the footwear aisle.

TB: We didn't set this thing up to be about shoes. It was a larger idea. That is where we came from. We didn't grow up on a sheep farm, didn't come from the shoe category. We went after casual shoes in a laser focused way, but the brand is set up to be larger than that. Where we take it, we keep that close to our chest. I think one of the advantages we have had, certainly from a sustainability point of view, is we have such good products. So the thing that we want to guard against is that we don't turn into a 20, 30, 50, 100,000 SKU company. How can you keep track of where everything comes from, what you are making stuff out of it when you are like that? But with that being said, I don't think there is a lack of opportunities. Certainly, no lack of ideas internally, but we will see how it plays out.

BF: When you become a bigger company, you get a little more attention and focus. Has that been hard to deal with?

TB: Well, we invite that. And we talk a lot about that within our team. We have gotten 14 odd copycats, and that is crazy to me. People that are just ripping us off. Some big companies too. And then you come out with material like this.

BF: So did you have to get litigious?

TB: Yep. We went after one big company in particular, that we can't talk about publicly [Allbirds sued Steve Madden last year]. That was resolved in a way we were very happy about. So I think you are in a competitive situation, a competitive category, you have to be up for that. The other alternative is no one gives a shit.

BF:  The other way to play it that you say we’re so far ahead of everyone else that we don't care?

TB: I think this moment is a little different, and I think the reason it is different is because it begs the obvious question: why has it taken a small company of 100 odd people in San Francisco, to do something like this? And I think it points to a larger category paying lip service to the idea of really, really, really going after this problem. Because I think if they did, the solutions are there, and I think this is what this shows, and I think this is starting to get good and fun and this why we started in the first place.

It is literally about doing one or two things and doing them really well. I think that is what we have tried to do. The idea of launching with one shoe, people said that’s not how you do it. We have done it, we had the courage of a point of view, and I think that we’ve been able to cut through. That’s not going to change.

BF: It’s only just starting to get fun?

TB: You have to be up for it.

BF: How many of the things that you have in your mind have come into the real world?

TB: In terms of the number of failed ideas we have?

BF: Prioritisation is probably the hardest thing in business.

TB: We have a small team, there is not a lot of us. We think about what we are doing. On the one hand we are now starting to employee materials experts and industrial designers. Then we have customer service people and stores in New York and San Francisco. So there is a multi-dimensional aspect to the business. We are still tiny. And let’s be honest, we have to stay focused if we are going to do a couple of things and have to do them very well. We don't have the luxury of scattering our chips too broadly at the moment, and we are two years old. It has gone alright. But there is a long, long way to go.

BF: Tiny things do have a habit of turning into big things though.

TB: I think if you asked me what is the one piece of advice in terms of this journey so far, it's saying no to stuff. And we have said no to so many things.

BF: From yourself, or from other people asking for stuff?

TB: Everything. It is literally about doing one or two things and doing them really well. I think that is what we have tried to do. The idea of launching with one shoe, people said that’s not how you do it. We have done it, we had the courage of a point of view, and I think that we’ve been able to cut through. That’s not going to change.

BF:  So, socks and jandals? What’s your policy on that?  Is it acceptable?

TB: I really don't think it is. Jamie thinks it is. So you should really talk to him about this.

BF: He is probably the kind of guy that likes those weird sock glove thing.

TB: Totally. I am glad you pegged him like that, because that is kind of where he is.

BF:  Can you share any numbers? You said a while ago when you launched the Treebirds that you’ve sold a million shoes [industry sources say the company has revenue of around $50 million, Leonado Di Caprio is a recent investor and the company is set to launch in the UK in October]. Any expectations around this?

TB: No. We talked about it in one particular moment, on the eve of releasing our second material because it made sense, but we are just not going to do it again. So no numbers on the business or the impact this might have. But I do have a soft spot for this project because it’s been so hard.

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