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The Interview: Hana Kajimura, Sustainability Manager, Allbirds

Tom Shearsmith
20 February 2020

In London, at the launch of Allbirds second UK store, Sustainability Manager Hana Kajimura sat down with to talk about what makes the brand unique and how sustainability is the core of the business.

What does sustainability mean to you personally?

At the highest principle level, it means doing things today that are improving the quality of the environment and our livelihoods going forward, so that decisions we make today are not detrimentally affecting future generations. It’s actually really important for companies to define what sustainability means to them as there are about 30 different metrics you can look whether it’s human rights, fairer wages, energy, carbon omissions, waste. We believe it’s better to go really deep on a few things than spread really thin and barely do anything.

For us that conviction has always been around climate change and the idea that if we don’t fix this problem and reduce omissions like we need to, we won’t have the opportunity to solve the other problems. Our founders like to use a health analogy - You might break your leg, but the leg doesn’t matter if your heart’s not beating. That’s what we use to drive decision making and make sure we are doing the right thing and acting responsibly.


As the second London store, what has been done here in terms of sustainability?

It’s really amazing that as a small company, there’s about 150 of us in San Francisco and there’s the designer for the store is popping by my desk and asking me which materials best to use.

In retail as we expand we try to create a set of principles to follow that the teams locally can execute on, such as maintaining existing structures or creating sourcing standards for the materials we use such as our FSE certified wood chairs, the same standard we have for all of our tree shoes. We use LED lighting, we use Energy Star appliances like our refrigerators and it’s really nice that across all of our stores there is the consistency that a few things or pieces make it an Allbirds store. From a sustainability perspective, it makes the job a lot easier because there’s a set of standards to follow, not hundreds of one-off for each store.

The footwear range itself is quite curated and simple – was this also deliberately done from a sustainability point of view?

Yes, definitely. Part of what makes Allbirds different is the philosophy and emphasis on sustainability but part of it is definitely about the direct to consumer business model that enables a lot of the sustainability practises. Being able to invest in more premium materials because we’re direct to consumer and so it’s important there’s not four middle men taking a cut in margins. In regards to fashion, the limited range is very intentional so as not to have a trend-based product. We wanted to design really classic products that will in inventory for a really long time. The way we express style is in a very classic way, then with pops of colour in seasonable launches but it’s virtually the same shoe we launched with three years ago with 30 plus tweaks along the way.

Was anything designed for the UK market especially, given its possible variety to the US or rest of Europe?

As we were launching into the UK market and building a team here, they were especially pushing that there was an unmet need in this market as half the time people may be unable to wear our original shoes as the weather is so wet. So, we were really conscious that if we were to make a new product it fills a very intention gap in customer need and that was certainly true in this case.

On the flip side the reason we hadn’t done it sooner is because water-proofing is very hard to do from a sustainability perspective. Most raincoats or umbrellas that you may have are created with really toxic chemicals, so we had to work really hard to find the right supplier that could do it without the chemicals or harsh environmental effects. We used things like non-toxic waterproofing and bio-based liner that also helps keep water out.

Allbirds's INDEX reports have indicated that the demographic of consumers who care about sustainability the most are the younger generation, does your customer demographic follow suit?

Certainly, those that are younger! I think the reality is that if you’re a teenager today you’re going to experience the worst consequences of climate change in your life time. Sure, our parents care about the future of their children but it’s not a direct reality for them. It makes a lot of sense that the younger generations are the ones who are waking up to the reality, the problem is that they’re not in power to make these decisions and so a lot of work we are trying to do on the consumer research side is to understand that demographic and to figure out how to activate them and bring them into the brand, as well as how we help them tell their story.

I got to go to COP25, which is the big UN climate summit that happens once a year and it was so crazy to have these really young, passionate, well spoken, thoughtful activists in contrasts to these older politicians who are reading scripts off pieces of paper. That’s absolutely the future and we need to work out how to amplify their voices I think.

What would you say makes Allbirds stand about from any other brand that is pushing and making strides in sustainability?

I think it’s a couple of things – one would be the focus on materials and how deep into production and sourcing we go, that’s something I think the average customer still needs to understand is that the majority of any companies impact on making things comes from the decisions made way far upstream. We’re the ones buying the materials. A lot of companies will say that they don’t have control over the way that cotton is farmed for example, but actually we do – we pay for it, we can demand whatever we want to demand. One thing that sets us apart is being able to go back deep into our product line.

The other thing that sets us apart is that having started a company so recently, our focus on sustainability has had the chance to be integrated into all parts of our business, wether its retail, marketing, employee experience, product – it’s a lot easier to start things in the right direction than change them retroactively.

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