KEEN’s Supply Chain Detox

For KEEN Footwear, sustainability means protecting the areas that we live and play in, through both conservation advocacy efforts and responsible supply chain management.

By Lorna Caputo November 4, 2016

After Greenpeace found traces of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in waterproof membranes, coatings and water repellant finishes of materials in outdoor apparel and footwear, they challenged brands to get rid of it. Perfluorinated compounds are a class of chemical substances that are commonly used in durable water repellency (DWR) treatments to make outdoor clothing, sleeping bags, tents and footwear waterproof. Many outdoor brands include these chemicals because they make a garment hydrophobic and guarantee strong outdoor performance by repelling water, dirt and oil. Unfortunately, these high-performing chemicals degrade very slowly in the environment and enter the food chain, making pollution almost irreversible.

For KEEN Footwear, sustainability means protecting the areas that we live and play in, through both conservation advocacy efforts and responsible supply chain management. After Greenpeace heightened their awareness around PFCs, KEEN decided to take action. The big obstacle for the company to overcome was not sacrificing the performance features their customers love. KEEN’s approach was to act on several guiding principles. Chris Enlow, KEEN’s corporate social responsibility manager, commented: “Through the Supply Chain Detox, our footwear needs to be safe (eco-friendly), effective (meets performance needs) and affordable. In support of this is our precautionary principle: ‘If you don’t need it, don’t use it.’” Through the use of OIA’s Chemicals Management Module within the Higg Index and field testing, KEEN discovered there were unnecessary DWR treatments in several different places on their shoes. Their approach led them to reduce their use of DWR by 67 percent. It also occurred to the company that although PFCs are high-performing, the removal of dirt and oil is not a big factor when it comes to outdoor performance, and there are eco-friendly substitutes to keep footwear waterproof.

The process of commercializing a new application for DWR treatments doesn’t happen overnight. KEEN worked with commercial suppliers to change the chemicals applied in the DWR treatment with the goal of having 100-percent PFC-free footwear by Spring 2018, prioritizing efforts to inform suppliers about why they were making this change and the benefits associated with alternative chemistries.  One challenge that suppliers face is having access to green chemicals in their existing supply chain network, especially if the manufacturing process takes place overseas. If they don’t have access, it’s difficult to network and try to find and work with new, unfamiliar companies.

Chris Enlow pointed out the selling point for their suppliers is understanding that more outdoor manufacturers will be demanding this in the near future, . “Suppliers need to understand that with the changing compliance landscape and consumers’ concerns around this issue, they really need to get rid of PFC chemicals now,” said Enlow.

Surprisingly, cost never became an issue. Many brands traditionally think it costs more to be environmentally-friendly, but KEEN has found that by reducing the areas to which they applied DWR treatments on their footwear, they actually increased their operational efficiency and eliminated the extra cost in the end. “It’s pretty cost neutral,” Enlow says.

Following the success of its supply chain detoxification, KEEN has written letters to other brands, including their competitors, asking them to also collaborate with their suppliers in order to push the industry forward and to finally get rid of PFCs.

KEEN hopes its success stories will inspire and help others push the industry forward in utilizing more environmentally friendly business practices so future generations can enjoy the outdoors that we know now and love.

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