|Allbirds vs Amazon and Sustainability
“If anyone doesn’t have an excuse for becoming more sustainable, it’s Amazon,” Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger told Co.Design.
Amazon is notorious for brazenly making cheaper lookalikes of popular products on the market, from Warby Parker glasses to the Instant Pot. The retail giant’s latest target? Allbirds, the three-year-old shoe company that has made sustainability the cornerstone of its growing sneaker empire.
Last week Amazon’s in-house shoe brand, 206 Collective, launched a shoe called the “Galen,” a wool-blend sneaker with a foam sole that looks remarkably close to Allbirds’ flagship product, the Wool Runner. Amazon’s version comes in grey, with either a white or grey sole, making the resemblance even more obvious, since these are two of Allbirds’ best-known color combinations. (Amazon declined to comment for this story.) But while Allbirds’ sells its sneaker for $95, Amazon’s version sells for $45.
Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds cofounder and co-CEO, responded to Amazon in an interview with Co.Design. It’s not the similarities in design that bother him most; it’s the fact that Amazon did not go so far as to copy Allbirds’ stringent sustainability practices. While he’d prefer that Amazon not copy Allbirds’s design at all, he’s encouraging the brand to borrow freely from his company’s eco-friendly supply chain practices, including some of the sustainable new materials Allbirds has invented.
“Given what I know about manufacturing, there is no way you can sell a shoe for that low while taking care of all of the environmental and animal welfare considerations and compliance we take into account,” Zwillinger says. “Amazon is stating that it wants to be a green company. It should be taking steps to make their products more sustainable.”
A stark juxtaposition
Allbirds, which launched in 2016 and is already valued at $1.4 billion, has become known for its eco-friendly practices. The Wool Runners, for instance, are made from merino wool certified by ZQ, a group that guarantees animal welfare and environmental sustainability. The shoelaces are made from recycled plastic bottles, and the soles are made from sugarcane rather than fossil fuels. All greenhouse gases produced throughout Allbirds’s supply chain—including raw materials—is offset through investments in independently certified organizations that extract carbon from the atmosphere, create renewable energy, and capture methane. Allbirds is now entirely carbon-neutral.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s website provides no details about the origins of the materials in its own Galen shoe, nor does the company make any claims about the sneaker’s sustainability. All we know is that the shoe contains wool, polyester, nylon, viscose, and “other fibers.”
For Zwillinger, the Galen is a microcosm of bigger problem at Amazon. In April of 2019, more than 8,000 Amazon employees signed a letter published on Medium urging that Amazon’s board and executive committee adopt a range of sustainability initiatives, from transitioning away from fossil fuels to reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Last week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a plan to make the company carbon-neutral by 2040 and purchase 100,000 electric vans. Despite this commitment, an estimated 3,000 Amazon employees walked out of work last Friday as part of the Global Climate Strike. Some workers held signs that said “Great start, Jeff” signaling that Bezos had not been ambitious enough in his sustainability goals.
Allbirds has actively encouraged other brands to adopt its eco-friendly shoe manufacturing processes. As I reported last year, the brand worked with a Brazilian manufacturer to develop a new carbon-neutral EVA foam made from renewable sugarcane, rather than fossil fuels. (The material is not biodegradable, but Allbirds is working to make the sneakers recyclable in the near future.) Allbirds made the recipe for the material open-source in an effort to actively encourage others to use it. Some startups I’ve covered, including Bendy, are actively looking into how they can use it. And yet, there is no evidence that Amazon is using sugar-based EVA, or any other sustainable material, in its sole.
“Amazon just announced a big green pledge,” Zwillinger says. “And in the same week, they’re going out and making a product that is—at the very least—inspired by Allbirds but clearly does not take the same environmental sensitivity. The juxtaposition is stark.”
A novel twist on copycats
It’s not that Allbirds isn’t concerned about other brands ripping off its product design. This has happened many times in the past, almost from the moment the brand launched in 2016 and quickly developed a cult following. Zwillinger believes there are between 20 and 25 brands on the market in the United States, Europe, and Asia whose sneakers are close enough to Allbirds’ design that they may infringe of the brand’s copyright.
But he believes that Amazon put its own unique spin on knocking off Allbirds’s design. “This is the first algorithmically generated copycat,” he says. “That’s the twist.”
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