This fall, KEEN footwear launched one of their classic designs with a twist: a sole made with agricultural waste.
“Making shoes is not good for the environment, but we’re trying to change that, and these new shoes are ‘less bad.’ The ultimate goal is that we’re at least neutral, if not positive,” says Erik Burbank of KEEN.
The family-run Portland-based footwear brand is pushing for cleaner manufacturing practices, he says. After spending 7 years on the issue of PFAS/PFCs, the so-called “forever chemicals” often used in manufacturing, the company eliminated the potentially toxic chemicals from not only its own lineup of shoes, but also encouraged other brands to follow suit. In a full page New York Times ad, they encouraged other companies to eliminate the chemicals from their supply chains as well, and even share their insights with practical know-how on their website.
This fall, they’ve launched two designs — Elsa and Eldon — using agricultural waste (which Burbank assures doesn’t include any crops used for food consumption). Though the sole is only 51% of waste, he says, “That’s 51% less petroleum we’re putting into our shoes.”
Using a proprietary manufacturing method that required multiple rounds of testing, they were able to create a sole that matched in performance to an all petroleum-based sole. It arrives in a box that eliminates the need for an extra shipping carton, which Burbank notes, further cuts down on their cardboard use (by about 63%). In addition, the newly designed shoe doesn’t require the use of chemical solvents, making it one of the most notable innovations by the company, he says.
As they continue to cut down on the use of petroleum-based materials, Burbank argues that transparency is key. “We created the Harvest certification program so that people can see exactly how much industrial waste is being repurposed or averted. It helps avoid greenwashing when someone is using less than 10% yet selling it as an entirely upcycled product.”
This Harvest materials certification program will go live in early 2022 and it’ll be open-sourced so other footwear companies can participate as well. “We’re going to change this industry if we work together, not against each other. So we hope more companies join us on this.”
The program will include three levels of certification based on the content of upcycled materials (50% for gold, 25% for silver, and 10% for bronze). They put one of their popular designers through the certification first: the Howser Harvest, which features upcycled car seat leather in 80% of its upper materials. Other upcoming designs with also include upcycled coffee grounds, Burbank says.
Though all these shoes include upcycled materials, their end of life is still something to determined, given shoes require disassembly of various components before they can be properly recycled. But Burbank is keen to see that through. In fact, he says the company had a recycle program nearly ten years but it was too early then with little reception from consumers. Now, though, the tide has shifted with many Americans looking for more ways to repair and recycle their gear.
When asked about how he reckons with criticism on their eco-efforts, Burbank leans towards optimism. “We’re always welcoming constructive criticism on how to improve our practices and no, we’re not at the ultimate goal yet in terms of sustainability.”
As a family-owned company though, he says, they’re able to take on initiatives, experiments, and test out new materials easily. “I haven’t worked in a company like this before where your ideas are so well received and the environment is so front and center in everything we do.”