Are Allbirds really the world’s most comfortable sneaker? I wore them in for a few weeks to find out.
Well, “wear in” isn’t quite the right term for a not-leather, all-wool shoe. You don’t wear in Allbirds any more than you wear in a pair of slippers — but I’ll get to that later.
Allbirds is an interesting company, and if you read anything on their website you’ll quickly learn that they have a real commitment to sustainability. The wool is sustainably sourced, the laces are made from recycled bottles, the sole is made with sustainable castor oil instead of petroleum, and the company is even a certified B Corp. That’s a phenomenally difficult certification to get (my Dad used to work at one) and it comes with extremely rigid standards: everyone involved in the production process needs to be paid a fair wage, the company’s disposal practice get looked at, from top to bottom you need to be trying hard to be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible.
Their mission is resonating with the market. The company started out on Kickstarter in 2014 and today they’re valued at over a billion dollars. (Leonardo DiCaprio going in as an investor can’t have hurt.)
Their flagship Wool Runner isn’t really a shoe for sneakerheads: it’s super plain, really minimalistic, there’s no interesting designs, it’s just one piece of wool sewn together at the back. But for people who want comfy, squishy shoes and who would rather wear sweatpants or athleisure wear — that’s dads and dudes in the startup scene — they’re a perennial favorite. (I say that as someone in the startup scene in New York. Sometimes, it seems like these guys wear nothing but athleisure and Allbirds.)
On top of all that, they come with a money back guarantee.
Obviously, the weirdest and most remarkable aspect of the shoes is the fact that they’re made of wool. So let’s take a closer look.
Allbirds Wool Runner Materials
- Wool upper
- High standards for sustainable and ethical farming
- Very lightweight
- Easy to wash
Like the name states, the full outer construction for the Allbirds Wool Runner is composed of wool, New Zealand Merino wool, in fact. Merino wool is thinner and softer than regular wool, and while I can’t wear the trendy Merino wool t-shirts that are all the rage (they’re too itchy on my dainty skin), I can wear Allbirds sneakers — even without socks. They proudly advertise that their wool is not itchy, and even on my wussy, extra sensitive skin, they’re right.
The fibers of the wool are are 20% the diameter of human hair and because they’re grown on beasts that spend a lot of time outside, it’s moisture-wicking and temperature regulating. The particular beasts that supply your wool provide it to ZQ Merino, the world’s leading ethical wool brand. It’s a pretty interesting company: to get the certification the sheep need to be free to roam, able to forage for feed, have access to shade and shelter, and be monitored regularly for disease and illness. The farmers are even required to have a Land Environmental Plan, meaning they need a plan to keep their property sustainable for generations to come.
Merino wool is the softest wool, so it’s not the strongest wool you can get; that would be something like Romney or Suffolk wool, but that’s scratchy and usually used for stuff like rugs and upholstery. (Or my very itchy Filson Mackinaw Cruiser, which I still wear because it’s so warm and utilitarian — but that’s a review for another time.) However, Allbirds runs the wool through their proprietary system and turn into a material that can withstand everyday wear without irritating your skin.
In short: the wool is comfy, it’s not scratchy even on my ultra sensitive skin, and it’s that soft and moisture-wicking that the shoes can be worn without socks.
You should note, though, that the minimalist wool construction means it’s a pretty flat shoe; it has next to no volume, and it further deflates the longer you wear it. Many users say that they’ll notice their toenails scratching the underside of the wool as the shoe ages.
Allbirds Wool Runner Sole
- Lightweight, low density foam
- Made with sustainable castor oil instead of petroleum
- Padded insole helps reduce moisture and odor
The outsole is a very lightweight, low density foam. Technically it’s a rubber and foam polymer, that’s curved with what they call an S-curve to mimic the
anatomical flexibility of your feet and give you natural weight distribution as you stroll.
The extremely squishy (more on that later) rubber sole is made with sustainable castor oil, another component of the company’s sustainable hook.
Finally, there’s a padded insole which is lined with merino wool. The insole is intended to help with moisture wicking and odor reduction.
Allbirds Wool Runner Fit & Comfort
- Noticeable heel-to-toe drop
- Actually very comfortable
- No half sizes
- Not great for exercise
- Sole is very soft, so not very stable
A big bummer with Allbirds is they have no half sizes, which is a massive blind spot and it disadvantaged me.
Now, you should order large, and I mean really large. I’m an 11.5 in a Brannock device, I got a 12, and they’re still a little small. I think I would have preferred a 13 tied real right — you might be able to tell in these photos that my toes sometimes stick out over the edge of the shoe a little. Now, the wool stretches and it’s soft and has no stitching except at the heel, so a slightly tight shoe wasn’t irritating and it was far from a dealbreaker. I’m just saying a 12.5 would have been perfect and they didn’t have one. Boo.
Anyway, go large when you order.
Here we go.
Is it soft? Is it squishy? Hell yes. You’ll hear me say this a lot in the video, but:
these shoes feel more like slippers than sneakers.
Now, this has upsides and downsides. The upsides, well, it feels like you’re walking around town in slippers. It feels like a naughty secret, like you should be wearing these shoes with pyjamas, like they’re only for indoor use, but no. They’re outdoor shoes. There’s not a lot of structure there aren’t even any seams on the inside of the shoes to cause irritation, which is very unusual for a sneaker.
Again, I have sensitive skin, but I was able to wear these without socks. And you can indeed wear these without socks! Never before in my life have I gone sockless, and while I wouldn’t recommend doing that all day in the middle of summer, it’s no big deal if I just need to slip these on to run out for a coffee. That makes them utterly unique in my shoe collection.
The main downside of a very thick and squishy sole is that it’s not stable. That’s just how the world works, and unlike some sneakers like the Chuck Taylor All Stars, which have a hard, vulcanized rubber outsole that’s very resistant to compression (and which makes them great for powerlifting), Allbirds’ sole is so squishy that I’ve almost rolled my ankle a few times just walking around Brooklyn. Just by navigating the world, which is what a shoe is meant to be able to do, I’ve come close to spraining my ankle more than once.
On a similar note, don’t be fooled by the name: they’re not for running, or for any athletic endeavors. They are called runners, but the shoes are from New Zealand, and in Australasia (where I’m also from) the word “runners” often just means sneaker, not a shoe that’s actually made for running.
The Wool Runners should not be run in. Too squishy, too little ankle support, and too little arch support.
In fact, plenty of people who have flat arches find they need to put in their own insoles with these shoes. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that when you get the delight of a soft and pillowy sole, the laws of physics also mean it’s a bit unstable.
So, people are not far off the mark when they say it’s like walking around in a pair of slippers. That’s exactly what a lot of people want, and if that’s you, then that’s great, buy yourself a pair! I like ’em. Just remember they’re not high performance shoes. But they’re more comfy than high performance shoes. Have I said that enough?
I also wanted to mention the heel-to-toe drop. Allbirds doesn’t disclose the exact heel-to-toe drop in this model, but it is noticeable when wearing these shoes for a long duration of time, and the drop is pretty noticeable when walking downhill. That is to say: when going downhill, it felt like my feet were sliding forward and I experienced some toe jamming. It wasn’t the biggest issue and shouldn’t be a deterrent for purchasing the shoe, but it’s something worth noting: you don’t get the same level of mid-foot strapped down support as you do with other sneakers.
[Related: Check out my Nisolo review, maybe the most ethical boot manufacturer]
Allbirds Wool Runner Price
They cost $95.
That’s pretty affordable. If that’s an insulting price for wool stretched over rubber, you do have to remember the tremendous amount of work behind the scenes to make a shoe like this. By that I mean, it’s ethically made. I won’t repeat all the stuff I’ve already said about the sustainable farms and recycled laces and the fact that it’s a B Corp so everything from their waste management to employee leave policies are regularly audited, but I think it’s a very solid price, all things considered.
If you just want a shoe with a wool upper and you don’t care about all that sustainability malarkey, you can check out the cheaper knockoffs from Dr. Scholl or Urban Fox, just know that they’re generally considered less durable.
Allbirds Wool Runner Pros & Cons
- Super lightweight
- Very soft sole
- You can slip ’em on while they’re tied
- You can get away in them without socks — they’re not itchy
- The wool doesn’t smell, dries quickly, and is machine washable
- They come with a money back guarantee
- Very eco-friendly
- No half sizes
- Over time the shoebox deflates
- Not that water resistant. It’s kind of water resistant, but in a real downpour you’re in trouble
- They’re not for working out in (Nor are they marketed as such, to be fair)
They’re like slippers: they’re great for doing nothing, not great for doing something. But they’re super comfy, they cost under a hundred bucks, and you get a money back guarantee. There’s very little risk in pulling the trigger with these shoes, and I’m glad I did.
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