Klean Kanteen: The First Step Is The Hardest

A company philosophy or statement about sustainability is just window dressing without action. And action requires data.

By Helen Olsson March 22, 2018


It would be hard to find an outdoor company that doesn’t consider sustainability a worthy goal. Protecting the environment is a natural fit for outdoor brands, yet there’s an irony here. “We want to make sure the gear we use doesn’t come at the expense of the places that we love,” says Nikki Hodgson, sustainable business innovation manager for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA).

While wise outdoor brands may endeavor to protect the places where their products are enjoyed, the sustainability efforts at many companies today remain fairly superficial and often don’t dig into the place where we can make the biggest and most impactful change: the supply chain. Launching a sustainability program that’s strategic, targeted, and that has meaningful impact is certainly possible, though it may seem daunting at first. “It’s a complex problem,” says Hodgson. “There’s so much to be done, and the best way to tackle it is collaboration in the outdoor industry.” But also, companies can’t blindly go forward, says Hodgson. “You need data. Tools like the Higg Index drive action.” And after that? Companies can look to OIA’s Sustainability Working Group (SWG) for resources, training, and the collaborative support of a network of like-minded companies.

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 auditing tools like the Higg Index, these companies have been successful in growing their sustainability programs in substantive ways.

A Model for Sustainability: Klean Kanteen

Klean Kanteen has been able to back up its sustainability ethos by using the right assessment tools to scrutinize its supply chain.

Laying the Groundwork

From the beginning, Klean Kanteen—started by Robert Seals and since taken over by the Cresswell family—has had a philosophy deeply rooted in environmental responsibility. You see it throughout the brand’s durable, reusable, non-toxic products that are safe for drinking and that keep single-use vessels out of landfills.

The Devil’s in the Data

Today, the company is upping its game by scrutinizing its supply chain to ensure that it’s as environmentally friendly as possible. The key? “What gets measured, gets managed,” explains Danielle Cresswell, Klean Kanteen’s sustainability manager. To track environmental impacts, Klean Kanteen created an internal database. “I think this is where a lot of companies gets stuck,” says Cresswell. “What do you measure and how? What’s relevant?  Energy, water, waste, hazardous chemicals?”

“What gets measured, gets managed.” —Danielle Cresswell, Klean Kanteen’s sustainability manager.

In 2015, the company also turned to the Higg Index, the self-assessment tool that looks at supply chain issues like chemical management, end of life, transportation, packaging, energy, and water. “At first, we looked at it with some skepticism,” says Cresswell. The tool appeared to be geared toward apparel brands. Indeed, the Higg Index was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, based on SWG’s Eco Index.

Ultimately, though, Klean Kanteen recognized that adopting the Higg would highlight areas of impact and guide them in determining which areas in its supply chain were worth measuring. And it did work for Klean Kanteen. “The Higg Index married really well with our life-cycle assessment approach to understanding impacts,” says Cresswell. “There were also things [in the index] we hadn’t thought of. We were really excited about that,” she says.

Klean Kanteen isn’t the first non-apparel brand to question the relevance of the Higg tool to their business model, and the SWG has worked to address that. SWG remains heavily involved in the refinement and evolution of the Higg Index, which can offer a common language and methodology for assessing suppy chain issues. “We’re revising the tool to be more product agnostic,” says Hodgson. “Our objective is not just to have outdoor companies but also broader fashion, sports and home textile companies use it.”

In 2016, Klean Kanteen used air freight for just 1 percent of its distribution. But when the company started studying the data, it realized that sliver of air freight accounted for almost 20 percent of the company’s carbon footprint associated with upstream distribution, meaning shipping product from manufacturers to distributors worldwide.

But as Klean Kanteen learned, there are plenty of supply chain issues on the Higg assessment that are relevant no matter the business category. “If you want to decrease your greenhouse gas emissions, it’s critical to know what levers to pull,” says Cresswell. “A policy won’t get you far if you don’t have data.” Cresswell points to the issue of air freight, a hot button that came to light for Klean Kanteen during the Higg Index self-assessment. In 2016, Klean Kanteen used air freight for just 1 percent of its distribution. But when the company started studying the data, it realized that sliver of air freight accounted for a whopping 20 percent of the company’s carbon footprint associated with upstream distribution, meaning shipping product from manufacturers to distributors worldwide. “It’s exciting because it was an example of when you measure it, you can rally around it,” she says.  “It’s not an easy fix, but it’s actionable.”

And that’s ultimately the goal of the Higg. “Measuring is the work at the beginning. People want to hurry up and set goals [for sustainability],” says Cresswell. “But there’s a lot of discovery that needs to happen first.”

Next Steps

The good news for outdoor companies is that a huge budget isn’t necessary to pursue a sustainability initiative. Previously, Cresswell’s job description covered both quality and sustainability, but in in 2015, her position became fully focused on environment and fair labor management.  As sustainability manager, Cresswell has a singular purpose, but “sustainability needs to be a part of everyone’s job,” she says. “You also need a modest budget for outside services to conduct audits and assessments.”

The most recent eco initiative at Klean Kanteen is its new powder coating, Klean Coat. The original goal was to create a super durable coating to extend product life. “We want to see our product last as long as possible,” says Cresswell. But as the company dug deeper into its supply chain, the development of Klean Coat became part of a larger mission.

The company used GreenScreen For SaferChemicals, a tool developed by Clean Production Action, to assess which chemicals would be acceptable in production. “You need to know your chemistry and formulations,” says Cresswell. “We got a ‘bill of substances’ from our suppliers, and then we made the decision as to whether the formulation was acceptable.”

While chemical management might sound like a dry topic, Cresswell gets teary talking about the impacts. “There are people who are dying from breast cancer, not because there’s something in their genetics, but because of toxic chemicals,” she says. “It’s an emotional topic. It’s what motivates us.”