Case Study: How Brooks Sports Inc. is reducing its footprint one shoe box at a time

June 3, 2010

If you want to get a taste of how complicated and nuanced developing a sustainable product can be, consider the simple shoe box.

Chase Mueller, footwear operations manager at Brooks Sports, Inc, knows this firsthand. As co-chair of the packaging subgroup of the Eco Working Group with REI’s Eric Abraham and Jenny Mesdag of Outdoor Research, Mueller spent much of spring 2009 piloting the group’s packaging guidelines with his company’s own shoe box.

Mueller had been well on his way to redesigning the Brooks shoe boxes in 2008 when the Eco Index packaging guidelines were released (well in advance of the full OIA Eco Index.) He had already switched to flexographic printing of the boxes using water-based inks, a process that eliminates the need for oil or solvent-based inks, uses less energy and is easier on printing equipment. Using the Eco Index Packaging guidelines, Mueller took it to the next level for spring 2009, focusing on the guidelines’ mantra of “reuse, reduce, and recycle.” He persuaded his marketing team to reduce its printing to just one color on just one side of the box.

“We used to have printing on the inside of the box lid, which required a second pass by the printer,” recalls Mueller. “We realized we could move messaging from the inside of the box to the tissue and save 80 percent in costs by eliminating the second pass. We were already printing on the tissue, so it was just a matter of revising the messaging.”

From there, Mueller‘s next step was to remove the stuffing inside each shoe, which not only reduced Brooks’ paper consumption but eliminated a waste disposal problem for its retailers. Then he discovered something really surprising: sometimes more means less.

Brooks was using seven different sized boxes to ship its shoes. Typically, one box size accommodated four shoe sizes, like men’s 9 to 10.5. Just two of those boxes containing the core middle sizes, however, accounted for 80 percent of Brooks’ sales.

“I thought there was an opportunity to decrease waste by more tightly fitting the middle size runs,” he said. “So we created two additional box sizes in the middle range for a more dialed-in fit — so only two different sizes would go in either box. By doing that, we saved 35,000 square meters of material. We went from two boxes for those sizes to four.”

Now that he has access to Eco Index Phase I, Mueller is focusing on finding new suppliers who work with a new generation of recycled material that will enable Brooks to lower the weight of its boxes for its Spring 2011 line.

“The Eco Index indicators allowed me to identify areas of improvement,” said Mueller. “They have given me a better understanding of ink properties and finishing processes, and have helped me determine a method of benchmarking the box, laying out the bill of materials, and creating a column next to that to list what alternatives might be better. I flush out those possibilities into things that will work for the marketing team and will meet the strength standards I need.”

Mueller says his discussions with packaging and printing vendors have provided good preparation for the larger and much more difficult task of asking other vendors to quantify how much waste and greenhouse gases they generate or the amount of water or energy they use to produce a particular shoe or piece of apparel. In many instances, vendors simply don’t have that information, he concedes. That makes it difficult to determine if a given process is actually reducing a product’s footprint.

Still, he is encouraged knowing that the Eco Index gives him the tools he needs to pursue sustainability at a pace that is suitable for Brooks. “We’ve created it (the index tool) so that it is very modular — any one of the components can be used for a specific lifecycle stage or component of a product to set internal targets,” Mueller said.

He is also encouraged that Brooks is just one of dozens of companies that will be peppering suppliers with the same questions in coming years.

“The guidelines, indicators and metrics represent best practices in sustainable design and development as determined by the industry for the industry and vetted by environmental experts, industry leaders and NGOs,” Mueller said. “The framework has provided me with the roadmap and filters to guide process and design choices in the development of our footwear packaging program at Brooks Running. As I embark on a new project in the apparel realm, it acts as a ‘checks and balances’ system, which instills confidence that I am focusing on what matters most. It allows me to consider various aspects that set the direction for responsible packaging, with a clear explainable understanding of why.”

For more details on Brooks sustainability efforts, including its shoe box, visit the company’s Green Room.