Should We Count Carbon Like Calories?
How Allbirds is paving the way with sustainable clothing and footwear
We leave footprints everywhere we go — walking down the beach, hiking in the mountains — and no matter when we are on earth, we leave behind more than we think. When we shower in the morning, plug in our computer, or let out a loud yawn at the end of the day, we simultaneously leave behind a carbon footprint.
By simply existing in this world, we create a carbon footprint.
What’s the big deal? Well, the more carbon that’s in the atmosphere, the faster our planet warms. A warmer planet and a changing climate create melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados.
Okay, okay, you get it.
Thankfully, it’s not too late to make a difference. By making small changes to our everyday routines, we can collectively make a big impact. More importantly, businesses must change too. For example, in the global footwear industry:
- Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced (McKinsey)
- More than 8 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries (McKinsey)
- Around 20 to 25 percent of globally produced chemical compounds are utilized in the textile-finishing industry (Quantis)
Worldwide, the footwear industry emits 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. But what does this mean? And how can companies in the footwear industry make a difference?
That’s where Allbirds comes in.
Born in New Zealand, built in San Francisco
A native of New Zealand, Tim Brown was always well versed in the magical qualities of merino wool. Inherently curious, he began asking himself why such a remarkable, sustainable resource was virtually absent in the footwear industry. And with that spirit of wonder, the Allbirds journey began.
After years of researching and tinkering, Tim teamed up with Joey Zwillinger, an engineer and renewables expert. Together, they crafted a revolutionary wool fabric made specifically for footwear. The outcome? An entirely new category of shoes inspired by natural materials, and an ongoing mantra to create better things in a better way.
Mother nature made us do it.
The first time I wore my Allbirds to school, a professor walked up to me in the hallway and asked, “are those the new shoes?” He didn’t know the name off the top of his head, but I could tell it was on the tip of his tongue. “I’ve heard about those. What do you think? Are they comfortable?” he continued. As he eyed them, I could tell he was wondering what they would look like on his feet.
Over the past two years, I’ve bought four or five different pairs of Allbirds. They’re comfortable, stylish, and made from a variety of sustainable materials.
- Wool: Allbirds sources wool from New Zealand, using 60% less energy than synthetic shoes. In New Zealand, sheep outnumber humans by six to one.
- Tree fiber: Allbirds sources fibers from South Africa, where farms rely on rainfall, not irrigation. The process uses 95% less water than traditional methods.
- Sugarcane: Allbirds sources sugarcane from Brazil, where renewable resources grow quickly, removing carbon from the atmosphere in the process.
When I began researching Allbirds, I discovered that sustainable materials were only the beginning of a much larger strategy to reduce their products’ carbon footprint. Allbirds has a plan to eliminate their carbon footprint altogether, placing many measures into action to accomplish this in the shortest time period possible.
What you do makes a difference. From the food you eat to the textile you wear. You decide what difference you want to make.
Allbirds measures emissions of everything from raw materials to their end of life. Then, they reduce their impact through natural and recycled materials. Finally, they offset the little bit that’s left with carbon offsets, making Allbirds a completely carbon-neutral business.
From the getgo, Allbirds measured its carbon footprint in kg CO2e emitted per product. That means kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. In other words, Allbirds tallies greenhouse gases and converts them to CO2e when measuring the environmental impact of each of its products.
Our ambition is to be like a tree, leaving the environment cleaner than we found it.
A standard sneaker has a carbon footprint of 12.5 kg CO2e. The average footprint of an Allbirds shoe is 7.6 kilograms of CO2e. According to Allbirds, that’s roughly equivalent to driving 19 miles in a car or running 5 loads of laundry in the dryer. The footprint of an Allbirds shoe can be broken down into five categories:
- Materials: This is the largest part of the footprint. However, Allbirds uses natural materials because they possess natural carbon-sucking ability.
- Manufacturing: Making things takes energy. Yet, Allbirds partners with manufacturers that share their values for efficiency to reduce carbon emissions.
- Product Use: Allbirds products are machine washable, and even a quick cleaning makes an impact, so Allbirds add it into the carbon emission equation.
- End Of Life: Most products end up in a landfill, where they emit greenhouse gases while they decompose.
- Transportation: From factory to distribution, and distribution to the customer, every leg of the journey counts.
For more information, here’s a quick video where Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Concords explains “what’s in a carbon footprint.” After breaking it down, here’s how Allbirds itemizes their carbon footprint (per shoe).
7.6 kilograms might not sound like a lot, but according to Allbirds’ founder, Tim Brown, even one kilogram is too many. And that’s why Allbirds is driving carbon neutrality across its entire supply chain. In other words, for every kilogram of carbon that Allbirds emits, they pay to take a kilogram of carbon out of the atmosphere.
To accomplish this, Allbirds purchases credits from third-party verified emissions reduction projects, commonly referred to as “carbon offsets.” These projects do things like protecting trees that capture and store carbon, build wind energy, and prevent harmful greenhouse gasses from entering our atmosphere. Here are a few examples.
- Land: Harnessing the natural ability of plants and soil to take carbon dioxide out of the air, then using it to produce nutrients and oxygen through photosynthesis.
- Energy: Building new solar plants and wind farms around the world to replace coal. Tagging in natural and renewable options and tagging out dirty fossil fuels.
- Air: Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 28x more potent than carbon dioxide, so capturing it from landfills and livestock operations is critical.
Carbon offsets are a starting point — an immediate way for Allbirds to lessen its impact. To reduce carbon emissions in the first place, Allbirds is developing projects across its supply chain. In its raw materials, Allbirds will source lower-carbon materials, such as the Tencel® Lyocell used in its Tree shoes. They will maximize ocean shipping over air freight, increase energy efficiency, and purchase renewable energy to shrink its impact.
As we work to drive emissions to zero, we believe that we — and all businesses, really — should be held accountable for our environmental impact. So until we reach our goal of zero, we’re taxing ourselves for the carbon we do emit, and investing in offsets to fund projects that neutralize our footprint.
If Allbirds can do it, why aren’t others counting carbon emissions too? Does it make sense to count carbon emissions the same way we count calories? I did some research to dig up the origins of calorie counting. Here’s what I discovered.
What’s in a calorie, anyway?
While enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family, most of us try to avoid thinking about the seemingly unending number of calories we’re consuming. We’ll just put off the thought until after the holiday season when we set our sights on the upcoming year’s resolutions.
When creating goals to gain or lose weight, we often think about this in terms of the number of calories we consume and burn off on a given day. While training for the 2012 Olympics in London, it was rumored that Michael Phelps consumed 12,000 calories per day to simply keep up with his training regimen. Phelps denied the claim, suggesting that his intake was closer to 8,000 or 10,000. Regardless, what are calories and why do we count them?
Calories are a measure of the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. French chemist Nicholas Clement began using the term as far back as 1819. It was used in engineering and physics, but eventually found its niche in nutrition, where it is used to measure the amount of energy food contains.
During World War I, the Food Administration published pamphlets and posters encouraging Americans to ration foods. In New York City, restaurants eager to brandish their patriotism featured calorie counts on their menus. After the war, calories infiltrated everyday life.
In the 1920s, thin was “in,” and calorie counting offered a “scientific” approach to weight loss. Fashion became a mighty force, featuring featherweight models, both real and illustrated, in national advertisements. Thin bodies signified wealth and leisure, inspiring the affluent and aspirational classes to diet.
Until the late 1960s, there was little information on food labels to identify the nutrient content of the food. However, as increasing numbers of processed foods entered the market, consumers requested information about the products they were purchasing. In response, the FDA developed a system for identifying the nutritional qualities of food requiring manufacturers to publish a plethora of information on their labels, including calories.
Measuring carbon like calories is not rocket science. As a matter of fact, using 2019 operational data, Allbirds estimated its carbon footprint for the entire calendar year. By purchasing carbon credits, Allbirds offset their carbon footprint. Allbirds is now Climate Neutral Certified.
Halting climate change
Climate Neutral works to decrease global carbon emissions by getting brands to measure, offset, and reduce the carbon they emit. When consumers and brands work together, they can drive the world toward the zero net emissions future that science tells us we urgently need. They built a simple set of tools and a certification that makes carbon footprinting easier to understand.
When a brand gets certified, it achieves zero net carbon emissions for all of the carbon it creates while making and delivering its products or services for a year. And the Climate Neutral Certified label makes it easy for consumers to find certified brands.
Climate Neutral was born out of the direct experience of its two founding organizations, BioLite and Peak Design, which have been carbon neutral since 2012 and 2018. Jonathan, CEO of BioLite, and Peter, CEO of Peak Design came together with the shared belief that calculating and decreasing footprints could be made far simpler, and if it were, more businesses would do it. Together with their teams, they launched Climate Neutral in early 2019.
After months of designing a credible certification process and building a value chain carbon footprinting tool, Climate Neutral has certified 146 brands, offsetting more than 200,000 tonnes of carbon.
Together, companies and consumers can halt climate change.