The New Zealand-founded, US-based woollen shoe company Allbirds has created a plant-based "leather" it plans to commercialise throughout the fashion industry.
The company, which established a 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.
As well as using New Zealand merino wool in some of its footwear, it has created and patented shoe soles derived from sugar cane and silky fabrics made from eucalyptus trees. Its products are also made from recycled plastic bottles, cardboard, castor bean oil and wood fibre, among other sustainable materials.
Allbirds co-founder Joey Zwillinger told the Herald the San Francisco-based firm had been looking into the possibility of a sustainable and "scalable alternative" to leather that could be open-sourced throughout the footwear and fashion industries for years to come.
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 further development of its Mirum technology that creates "bio-based leather" from vegetable oil and natural rubber, which does not need synthetic coating, binding agents or animal hide.
Allbirds says the plant-based leather has one-fortieth of the carbon impact of traditional leather and produces one-seventeenth of the carbon emissions created by synthetic leather made from plastic. Now Allbirds is working on incorporating the material into its upcoming product launches.
It claims the plant-based leather is the most sustainable innovation so far in this field.
"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.
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"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 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."
This week, reports suggested that Allbirds was gearing up for an initial public offering and sharemarket listing. The firm was coy when asked about its listing plans, but did not rule out a future move to become a public company.