Copying is rampant in the fashion industry. The idea of “fast fashion” is even built on quickly replicating popular styles, with products designed for a low price-point and so usually made of low quality and frequently environmentally destructive materials.
Many companies have taken a stand against this trend and the associated increase in over-consumption. For instance, on popular shopping days, Patagonia runs ads encouraging consumers to not buy its products and one of my favorite quotes from founder Yvon Chouinard is that people should “
Another company that is focusing on “better consumption” is Allbirds, the sustainably-focused shoe and apparel company that was founded in 2015 Allbirds shoes are made from many renewable materials such as wool, tree fibers, sugarcane, and even castor bean oil. Allbirds includes carbon footprint labels on its products and has aggressive sustainability goals to reduce its overall carbon footprint by 2025 and 2030.
As I have written about before, one important testament to Allbirds’s environmental mission is their decision to opensource the sugarcane-based material that SweetFoam® is made with, the innovative renewable material they developed for shoe soles. The material in the sole is traditionally one of the most environmentally destructive parts of the shoe, but the foam in Allbirds’s Sweetfoam® is derived from renewable and responsibly grown sugar cane, and production of the material is even carbon negative. As more companies use this material their products become more sustainable, so Allbirds has provided information and help to over 100 companies that have inquired about integrating this material into their products.
Allbirds has quickly grown over the past 5 years, and recently offered shares to the public, and with this increased visibility, it has increasingly faced other companies’ copying the look and style of its iconic shoes. Most notably, Amazon itself now sells a cheap Allbirds-look alike shoe.“We are flattered at the similarities that your private label shoe shares with ours, but hoped the commonalities would include these environmentally-friendly materials as well. Alas, we're here to help. As we've done with over 100 other brands who were interested in implementing our renewable materials into their products, including direct competitors, we want to give you the components that would make this shoe not just look like ours, but also match our approach to sustainability.”
To understand this unique competitive response and to also see if Jeff Bezos or Amazon ever responded, I recently talked to Zwillinger. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
Chris Marquis: Given the power of Amazon, when they copy companies’ products and undercut the innovator on price, it understandably strikes fear into many entrepreneurs. I thought your reaction was pretty inspired. I'd love to hear what your initial reaction to Amazon’s copying was and then how you came up with that response.
Joey Zwillinger: What's interesting about how Amazon is that they have such an amazingly dominant share of product searches on the Internet - over 50%, even more than Google so they have data on everything that everybody wants.
Companies can optimize on the words people type into the amazon.com search bar, so early on we started getting non-Amazon knockoffs. And those people started advertising and Amazon even started advertising on Google to draw people to their website to funnel them to the knockoffs or “inspired by” products.
And when that was working well for them, the next step was to private label it. They can take all that data and all that learning and create their own knock-off brand – the Allbirds knockoff is called Galen. We were tipped off this happened pretty quickly by some of our customers. And then we looked into it, they clearly taken time to study what they could do to make it look as close as possible without crossing over the line of what they thought was the boundary from a legal perspective.
When we saw it, their knockoff already had a lot of good reviews. It’s a common phenomenon, reviewers are sent free products to review and what happens if they give a poor review? They stop getting the products. But it ultimately was a failed initiative - they put the price points so low that that product quality wasn't there. Even if you were only a price shopper you would be disappointed in the shoes.
Our immediate thinking was how do we express our disappointment in what they have done through our values. And that was where the idea to write a letter to Jeff Bezos and just say “hey we've already open sourced the best of our materials. If you're going to use your dominant market power to rip us off, you can at least do something good for the planet, instead of just trying to drive demand to your site at the cheapest possible price. So that was our answer.
I think consumers are smart. They don't have a lot of time, but they eventually figure out what authentic brand leaders are doing, and know that we won’t take shortcuts on anything from quality to sustainability. We think in the long run that's going to pay off.
Marquis: Did you ever hear back from Amazon?
Zwillinger: No, Amazon hasn't gotten back to us, and we really didn’t expect them to either.
Marquis: So how about the other non-Amazon imitators? I did a search today on Amazon for “Allbirds” and there is a wide variety of knock-offs. What’s your approach to those companies?
Zwillinger: Yes, we have knockoffs from all over, China, Korea, Austria, Germany, basically they're from all over the place. It’s a thing it happens in fashion; in footwear and apparel it's a known thing that when you have any initial success you're going to get some copies and the litigation system is such that It drags on for a long time, and wholesale players know how to play the system. They already have all the product out into the ecosystem so, even if they say “fine i'll stop selling”, it's already out there. It's a known strategy, particularly in footwear. So we knew it would come, although we were surprised at how quickly and how robustly it came.
But i’m not sure it's impacting the business that much. I don't think I’ve ever seen the knockoffs on the street. We are not too worried because we knew that this was going to happen if we were successful.
We created the company to not just be a one trick pony. We thought we could systematically innovate on new materials. and keep innovating to stay one step ahead of everybody. That's been the view of what our what our recipe is for success is and it's a hard one. But we have a good foundation, we have a track record of innovations across many areas such as SweetFoam®.
The idea of open sourcing our materials innovations is a different model than most companies take. It's a way of understanding and embracing the fact that people are going to copy, so given that, how do you maximize the value for the world? Of course we don’t want to take away our ability to compete from a business perspective, but also we look for how we can collaborate on sustainability. That's been our mantra.
Marquis: In addition to open sourcing, I know you also partner with and help larger brands use your materials. Can you say a little bit about how you've helped competitors implement Sweetfoam® and also your partnership with Adidas to create a zero carbon shoe?
Zwillinger: Its all under the idea of competing vigorously for market share, but collaborating effectively for the planet. For us that is the winning strategy. So we have helped larger companies and lots of small brands adopt Sweetfoam®. If companies can move from a polluting material to a carbon negative material, that is great for the world. We hope it's going to be most ubiquitous material used in sneakers. We’ve made all the introductions for them to the producers and make sure that they get the samples and are always happy to talk to them.
And yet, at the same time, we try to do this in a way that works for our business as well, so we get great terms from our supplier, and while the base material is open source what we do with it – such as the compounding downstream to create the finished product is also quite valuable. So certain aspects we give away, and certain aspects we don't to maintain our unique advantages.