The phrase "collaboration over competition" is well-worn in sustainability circles, and for good reason: You can't solve a global problem like climate change by focusing on individual gains at the expense of the collective good. But as frequently repeated as it is, evidence of the idea in action has been hard to find, at least on the brand level.
That's why a new collaboration between Allbirds and Adidas, announced at midnight on Thursday, is so noteworthy. The two brands declared their intention to "open the doors to each other's suite of sustainable innovations" in an attempt to create a shoe with the "lowest carbon footprint ever recorded" for footwear in the sport performance category, per a press release. This marks the first time Adidas has partnered with a footwear brand not under its own umbrella, according to a representative for Allbirds.
"The recent progress that our brands have made in the name of sustainable innovation has created the perfect momentum for this partnership to influence industry practices forever," James Carnes, VP of brand strategy at Adidas, said in a statement
While brand collabs on product drops are almost mind-numbingly common at this point, this one is interesting because it represents the coming together of two companies that have both been trying to stake their claim in the exact same product category: "sustainable" performance sneakers.
A little over a year ago, Adidas announced Futurecraft Loop, its circular design project focused on sneakers that the brand hopes could be endlessly recycled. And Allbirds just launched its first-ever running shoe, made with materials that "have the potential to suck more carbon out of the atmosphere than they take to produce," in April. In other words, the two companies have every reason to see each other as competition, especially as the "sustainable" sneaker market continues to heat up — which is precisely why their decision to collaborate is intriguing.
"There is an urgent need to reduce our global carbon number, and this mission is bigger than just Allbirds or Adidas," Tim Brown, co-CEO of Allbirds, said in a statement. "Whether we realize it or not, this is a race that we are all running together as a planet, and it is one that trumps the day-to-day competition of individual companies."
The press release announcing this collaboration went on to quote a study published in the "Journal of Cleaner Production" in 2013 claiming that the average running shoe has a carbon footprint of about 13.6 kilograms of CO2, and outlined the two companies' joint intention to "set a new industry standard" by lowering that number together.
The one major catch? Adidas and Allbirds haven't actually figured out how they're going to do that yet. All they've done so far is declare their intention to work together, relying on Adidas's gear performance standards and Allbirds's life cycle assessment tool to create a better product than either company could on its own.
Whether or not the two brands will be able to deliver on their promise of dramatically lower-impact, high-performance sneakers as a result of this joint effort is a question that will only be answered in time — as is the question of whether their commitment to collaboration rather than competition will extend to other brands operating in the sustainable sneaker space. (Another sneaker brand known for its environmental values that recently launched its first running shoe, Veja, comes to mind.)
Here's hoping that, whatever else is true, the partnership lives up to the dream that leadership at both Adidas and Allbirds have shared: that it could inspire a more collaborative spirit amongst sustainability-minded industry professionals.
"Our great hope is that this partnership will catalyze other people to share both their best ideas and research so that we can work together in the fight to live more sustainably," said Brown. "This is a problem that won't be solved by one company alone."