While politicians dither, trendy shoemaker Allbirds is "self-imposing" a carbon tax on every piece of footwear it makes.

Kiwi and former All White Tim Brown co-founded the startup five years ago with San Fransciscan industrial engineer turned Goldman Sachs analyst Joey Zwillinger.

The duo developed shoes made from New Zealand Merino wool and had sold one million pairs by late 2017 - allowing a Series A round last year that saw them raise US$50 million ($74m) at a private equity valuation of US$1.4 billion ($2.1b) valuation from investors including Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio (also one of the brand's celebrity boosters on social media).

There's been a focus on sustainable materials throughout. Beyond wool, its footware features recycled plastic bottles, cardboard, wood fibre and foam derived from renewable, rainwater-only sugar cane.

Advertisement

And it's already been a relatively low-emission company. But now Brown says "It's time to take the next step and become carbon-neutral".

His company used an in-house team plus consultants to carry out a full audit of its carbon footprint, from sheep stations in South Canterbury to its textile mill in Italy to its manufacturing in South Korea to San Francisco, where it calculated the environmental cost of its corporate staff's daily commute.

The process has culminated in a new scheme, announced today, that will see All Birds "self-impose" a carbon tax on every shoe it produces.

Speaking exclusively to the Herald ahead of the scheme's launch, Brown and Zwillinger did not want to say how much money was involved per shoe.

But they did say the money would be used to buy carbon offset credits from US "public benefit corporation" NativeEnergy.

Tim Brown and co-founder Joey Zwillinger have carried out a full audit of Allbirds' carbon footprint.
Tim Brown and co-founder Joey Zwillinger have carried out a full audit of Allbirds' carbon footprint.

Brown says Allbirds will help fund NativeEnergy projects in three areas: replanting Amazon rainforest, developing wind farms in India and a project to trap methane from landfill and meat production.

But the company will also be asking customers for ideas.

Brown says over the next few years, being carbon neutral will shift from being a "nice-to-have" to a "non-negotiable".

Advertisement

Why not sooner? Brown says conducting full life cycle analysis (LCA in green-speak) of your company's product line is a complicated and expensive business. He says he can understand that many startups can't put the hurly-burly of early-stage survival on hold to address it.

But now that it's established, his company is addressing it. He says its "self-imposed" carbon tax on every shoe will incentivise it to make its production greener, thereby lowering its self-inflicted penalty.

But more broadly, he says the fashion industry still has a long way to go. Many companies in the sector have a cost-cutting focus that makes them among the worst carbon emission offenders, he says.

"There's an emerging sense of the gravity of the situation we face, environmentally," Brown says.

"And we're certainly of the view that the fashion industry, in particularly, has a real problem to be solved. This is an urgent problem and the time to move is now. That's the core of why we started this business, and this feels like another step in the right direction."