KEEN: THE FIRST STEP IS THE HARDEST

This family-owned footwear company makes protecting the environment a guiding principle, from using sustainably sourced leather to an innovative natural probiotic odor-fighting technology.

By Helen Olsson August 15, 2018
This is Part 3 of a series.

In this series of profiles, OIA takes a close look at a few outdoor brands that have created legitimate programs to reduce their impact on the environment. Invariably, each began with small or isolated efforts, but by more deeply exploring supply chains, studying data, collaborating with other outdoor brands, and using assessment tools like the Higg Index, these companies have been successful in growing their sustainability programs in substantive ways.

 

16 MAY 2016 – SI RACHA, CHON BURI, THAILAND: Workers on the production line at Station T, the Keen facility in Si Racha make Keen shoes and boots. PHOTO BY JACK KURTZ

Laying the Groundwork

Only a year after KEEN was founded, the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that hit coastal communities in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, killing more than 230,000 people. The nascent company made a decision to divert its $1 million advertising budget for the year to relief efforts and related causes.

The leadership’s philanthropic response to the tsunami crisis set KEEN on a path of social and environmental consciousness and sustainability. KEEN makes shoes, but it also endeavors to make the world a better place through advocacy around public lands, support of grassroots nonprofits that promote environmental stewardship, supply chain transparency, and manufacturing integrity and innovation designed to exceed current social and environmental standards in the footwear industry.

 

Going Deeper: Probiotic Tech and Sustainable Leather

KEEN is systematically looking at ways it can detoxify by exploring sustainable chemistry in its manufacturing process. To control odor, the footwear industry has long applied pesticide-based treatments, many of which are known carcinogens, inside shoes. In 2015, Keen sought out a Canadian company that was creating innovative solution to the notoriously stinky gear worn by hockey players. Called Cleansport NXT, the technology utilizes an electrostatic charge to bond naturally occurring microbes to the lining of a shoe’s footbed. They are not unlike the probiotics you find in the supplement aisle or in cultured products like yogurt, kefir and kombucha at your grocery story.

The microbes lay dormant until activated. When your foot sweats, odor-causing bacteria start to grow inside your shoe. The microbes activate, eating up the odor-causing organic material produced by bacteria. “We have [prevented] 6,000 kg of pesticides/biocides from going into the environment every year,” says Chris Enlow, KEEN’s director of corporate responsibility.

Leather manufacturing has not historically been an environmentally friendly process. In 2014, KEEN joined the Leather Working Group, an international independent body that certifies leather tanneries through a rigorous audit process. “They have very specific criteria around energy usage, wastewater recycling, traceability of leather, and chemicals,” explains Enlow. Today, more than 95 percent of the leather used in KEEN shoes is sourced from LWG-certified tanneries. The effort is not without cost: KEEN pays a premium to source the LWG-certified leather.

“The leather industry has really evolved,” says Enlow. In 2017, Enlow and Kirk Richardson, of KEEN’s sustainability team, visited one of its tanneries in Ranipet, India. “It was an amazing state-of-the art facility,” says Richardson. Using a five-stage reverse-osmosis technology, the tannery repurposes 95 percent of its wastewater. Solar panels on its rooftop preheat the water before it goes into the tanning drums.

 

16 MAY 2016 – SI RACHA, CHON BURI, THAILAND: Workers on the production line at Station T, the Keen facility in Si Racha make Keen shoes and boots. PHOTO BY JACK KURTZ

Drilling Down on the Supply Chain

In 2011, KEEN was one of the first companies in the outdoor industry to adopt the Higg Index, a tool developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition as well as OIA to help brands measure impacts and monitor progress toward reducing environmental impacts. “The Higg is a key way we increase visibility into our supply chain, gauge performance, and drive improvement,” says Enlow. “Our biggest impact is on the supply chain. From a detox perspective, we asked, ‘What can we do to eliminate toxic chemicals from our watershed?’”

“The Higg is a key way we increase visibility into our supply chain, gauge performance, and drive improvement. Our biggest impact is on the supply chain. From a detox perspective, we asked, ‘What can we do to eliminate toxic chemicals from our watershed?’” —Chris Enlow, Keen director of corporate responsibility

16 MAY 2016 – SI RACHA, CHON BURI, THAILAND: Workers in the design area make shoe prototypes at Station T, the Keen facility in Si Racha. PHOTO BY JACK KURTZ

One area of toxicity in footwear are the PFCs (perfluorocarbons) in DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finishes. One of the biggest “a-ha” moments for KEEN was the realization that it didn’t need a DWR finish on its sandals. By nature, the sandals were designed to get wet. In 2015, the company eliminated the use of DWR finish on nearly 70 percent of non-waterproof styles and has since systematically continued to eliminate PFCs from other shoes in the line by using non-PFC alternative finishes. “Eliminating this step in production eliminates an entire industrial process,” says Richardson.

Today, less than 5 percent of KEEN shoes (primarily heavy-duty work boots that require oil resistance) have a compliant PFC treatment. “We’re light years ahead of other footwear companies,” says Enlow.

 

Beyond Manufacturing

While KEEN knows its biggest impact on the environment can be found in its supply chain, the company still does what it can to make other areas of its business sustainable. For example, when the company moved into new headquarters in Portland’s historic district, it took a zero-waste approach to renovating and restoring a five-story 60,000-square-foot 100-year-old building. Most projects of that scale would fill 20 to 25 dumpsters. KEEN repurposed as much of the existing materials as possible, ultimately, filling only a single dumpster during the entire renovation.

Inside the HQ, the KEEN Kanteen—an employee dining facility—sources ingredients that are locally grown and organic. Employees ride bikes to work and get paid up to 40 hours per year to volunteer in the community. The company also offers an inhouse daycare, which means employees with young kids have to drive less. All these things ladder up to healthy environment,” says Enlow. “Intuitively, we know these are the right things to do.”

When the company moved into new headquarters in Portland’s historic district, it took a zero-waste approach to the renovation and restoration of a five-story 60,000-square-foot 100-year-old building. Most projects of that scale would fill 20 to 25 dumpsters. KEEN repurposed as much of the existing materials as possible, ultimately, filling only a single dumpster during the entire renovation.

KEEN’s most recent initiative is called “Better Takes Action,” a campaign to engage employees and fans of the brand to use their civic voice to make the world a better place. The company kicked off the campaign at Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in Denver, refurbishing an old phone booth, dubbed the “Call to Action” booth. KEEN provided phone numbers and scripts on different environmental topics to help attendees reach out to their representatives in Washington D.C. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner of Colorado both made calls—leaving messages for each other.

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