Allbirds is a footwear and apparel company with a strong brand commitment to sustainability. The New Zealand-American company uses natural materials rather than plastics and has pledged to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2025. Recognizing that most of its products ultimately end up in landfills, however, Allbirds asked MIT Sloan’s Laboratory for Sustainable Business (S-Lab) for help developing an end-of-life strategy for its shoes.
S-Lab is an Action Learning class designed to provide students with real-world experience at the nexus of business, the environment, and society. To address the Allbirds challenge, S-Lab teamed up four MIT MBA students: Valerie Kutsch, Mengzhen Lei, Nikita Nadkarni, and Jana Parsons. The students began by researching common practices and learned that just 5% of post-consumer shoes are currently recycled. Their research further revealed that shoes are difficult to recycle because they are made of complex materials and because there is no existing infrastructure for collecting used shoes.
The students surveyed Allbirds customers to gauge their interest in shoe recycling. They found that consumers had a high level of interest in a takeback program and would prefer to return shoes by mail than via a retail store. The S-Lab team also conducted a life-cycle assessment and found that a mail-in recycling program for the Allbirds Wool Runner shoe would not significantly increase the company’s carbon footprint.
In the end, the students recommended the company develop a pilot takeback program for recycling shoes, giving customers the option of returning old Allbirds products with a shipping label provided by the company.
"This was a great hands-on opportunity to learn what it takes to actually implement sustainable solutions in the real world," says Jana Parsons, MBA ’22.