When Allbirds launched a little under two years ago, the brand broke the sneaker mold with its machine-washable wool runner that not only eschewed synthetic materials in favor of natural New Zealand-sourced merino wool fibers — the first of its kind — but it also served as a shining example of what it means to be a successful sustainably minded business (the company is B Corps-certified, the wool is ZQ-certified and the polyurethane insoles are sourced from castor beans).
Cut to present day and Allbirds’ rapid ascent to fame has done two things for the shoe industry: it’s shattered wool’s longtime stigma of being itchy or scratchy by focusing on its odor-minimizing, moisture-wicking, so-soft-it’s-like-stepping-on-a-cloud benefits, and it’s continued to fuel the wool movement in sneakers.
Nike was the first to spearhead the trend with the launch of its popular Flyknit series in 2013, which weaves different types of knit patterns to create a supportive-yet-flexible sock-like style. Adidas, too, has experimented with integrating wool into its designs, specifically its Primeknit upper-engineered Ultra Boosts. And Puma has found a place for wool with its knit mesh fabrication (the Carson 2, Ignite, Reverb and Enzo are all knitted styles).
And this demand for wool has led to a significant spike in wool prices. “It can only go up, it can’t go down,” said Stuart McCullough, CEO of Australian Wool Innovation Ltd, the company that supplies 90 percent of the world’s apparel wool. In an interview with Bloomberg, he said prices for wool are expected to reach A$20 ($15.92) a kilogram after hitting a record A$18.22 on Tuesday (there was a 30 percent jump in prices last year).
In terms of wool consumption, the U.S. trails behind China, Europe and Canada, but McCullough believes there’s room for growth, especially now that brands, like Nike, Adidas and Puma, “recognize that there is a generation coming through that wants to know where it comes from and where it is going to.” Judging by how fast Allbirds sneakers sell out, the U.S. might catch up sooner than we think.