Wool is an ideal material for footwear, with its odor-reducing and moisture-wicking properties, so why hasn't it caught on?
Tim Brown knows a thing or two about shoes. As a former player on New Zealand’s national soccer team, Brown has been bombarded with free shoes for years, mostly from companies wanting his endorsement. All Brown wanted, however, was to find that perfect shoe. He told Fast Company:
“I got tons of shoes from brands like Nike that were brightly colored, covered in logos, and made of synthetics. But I was always interested in finding a shoe that was simple, beautiful, and made from natural materials.”
That’s when he came up with the idea to construct his own perfect shoe, using one of New Zealand’s most prized products – merino wool. It makes sense to use wool in footwear, as it has the very qualities that shoe manufacturers try to imitate (often unsuccessfully) with synthetic materials. Wool wicks away moisture, regulates temperature, is naturally water-resistant, and minimizes odor.
After a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $119,000 in five days, Brown launched Allbirds just over a year ago. The shoes come in two different styles – a running shoe and a lounger – for both men and women. They have a wool upper, a castor bean oil-based polyurethane insole (that’s replaceable), and a rubber-foam sole, and they're machine-washable.
The wool comes from New Zealand and is turned into fabric in Italy, while the shoes are assembled in South Korea. They're mailed right in their shoebox, which doubles as a shipping container and reduces packaging by 40 percent.
Allbirds get rave reviews online, described as the “world’s most comfortable shoes” and “extraordinarily comfortable.” Cup of Jo blogger says, “It feels like you’re wearing slippers, and now when I try regular running shoes, they feel like cardboard boxes.”
No doubt some TreeHugger readers will take issue with the use of wool, but I do not share that view. Sheep need to be sheared so as not to overheat in summer and, as long as the sheep are not subjected to mulesing (a painful practice that inhibits fly strike, or maggot infestation) and are allowed to range freely, one could argue that using wool causes less harm to the planet -- and, by extension, to animals -- by not using fossil fuel-based synthetics that contaminate natural habitats by never biodegrading. (Allbirds' wool is ZQ-certified, which means it does not allow mulesing.)
As the fashion industry continues to pollute and suffocate the planet with excessive amounts of waste, it’s more important than ever to seek out natural materials and fabrics to use as alternatives. Allbirds is an excellent example of a company using a whole lot of common sense to do this. Why not seek our solutions for sustainability in the natural world around us, rather than turning to chemical laboratories? I hope to see more inventive products like these beautiful running shoes – and I know exactly where I’ll be shopping once my old ones wear out!