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Do your shoes have a conscience?

Sustainability starts with asking these three questions.

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It’s no secret that what we wear has a significant impact on the planet. The production of clothing and footwear creates 92 million tons of waste each year — making it one of the largest sources of industrial pollution in the world. As more and more consumers look for ways to be part of the solution, sustainability has become a buzzword, and it’s hard to know how much brands are actually doing to minimize their impact — and how much the shoes on your feet are contributing to the problem.

While clothing and footwear companies with a genuine commitment to sustainability may be rare, they do exist, and consumers have the power to vote in better practices. Buying from genuinely sustainable brands not only supports workers and the development of a supply chain with a lighter footprint, it also has a ripple effect, encouraging other brands to follow suit. Of course, as a shopper, you have questions: Where should you shop? What makes the shoes we wear more sustainable? How can you tell a company that truly lives its values, from one that only markets itself as doing so?

One brand doing things better is Keen, an outdoor shoe, clothing, and gear company based in Portland, Oregon. It’s committed to what it calls a “Consciously Created” approach — being conscientious about every choice that goes into making its products. From the materials used and how shoes are constructed, to making a positive impact in the world, it’s a model for how a brand can operate, and a new way to look at sustainability. Which is why we talked to a few of its employees about what a shoemaker that walks its talk really looks like. Ahead, three questions to ask before purchasing your next pair of shoes.

Like all Keen footwear, the Terradora boot is 100% free of harmful PFCs.

Are they free of toxins?

Nearly 10 years ago, Keen started what it calls a “detox journey” to identify harmful chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. So far, it’s led to three major changes to its products. First, it was one of the first to stop using an industry-standard water repellent after an audit revealed it was in many of its products. The repellent contained PFCs, a toxic group of chemicals that are good at resisting the elements but bad at breaking down in the environment. Keen was initially able to eliminate 70 percent of the PFCs simply by not using components (laces, fabric, stitching, etc.) that unnecessarily contained the repellent. But PFCs are so prevalent that it had to work directly with a restrictive substances expert and Greenpeace to find alternatives for the rest. The good news is it worked, and today, Keen is one of the only companies that’s 100% PFC-free.

The brand has also eliminated pesticides in its shoe soles — the conventional method for controlling odor in shoes — by switching to a natural probiotic treatment, which works safely and effectively without toxic chemicals. This switch has single-handedly spared the environment 15,400 pounds of pesticides each year.

Finally, Keen cleaned up the notoriously dirty process of tanning leather. It now sources from tanneries certified by the Leather Working Group, the industry’s gold standard in sustainability. This alone has helped Keen reduce the amount of water and energy used as well as eliminate wastewater pollution.

You can see the effects of these changes in its products, such as the Targhee III — a collection of waterproof boots, shoes, and sandals. There are 30 to 40 components in each pair, and almost all are made at separate factories. Keen works with each factory to ensure everything from the leather to the laces to a piece of rubber you’ll never see meet the highest standards and contain nothing from its restricted substance list.

But it’s not just about what goes into its products, it’s also about what doesn’t, as Keen tries to eliminate waste wherever it can. Whether it’s reworking scraps into sock liners or selling unused leather to a local market, Keen is always looking for new opportunities to repurpose.

“Very little is wasted,” says Kirk Richardson, senior director of Keen Effect, a team that guides Keen’s responsible manufacturing, advocacy, and philanthropy efforts. “The first rule in businesses is to stay in business. That means be sustainable, be profitable, and keep going.”

When the pandemic hit, Keen’s factory in Thailand was struggling to source masks for its employees, so it upcycled existing lining used in its shoes. The material met the standards for masks, and because it was a Keen-owned factory, they were produced quickly. Soon, the brand was outfitting employees at a Pacific Northwest grocery chain, and had a whole new business unit.

Packaging is another way Keen reduces waste. It uses nearly 100 percent recycled materials, and it has significantly reduced the amount used by rethinking how shoes are boxed. This means not putting a pair of size 6 shoes in the same size box as a 12. Keen now has about 20 different shoebox sizes, and it’s exploring boxless shopping. “If you reduce cubic volume, you can get more shoes in a shipping container, which means less carbon footprint,” says Chris Enlow, Keen’s senior director of sustainability. “We’ve had an almost 50 percent consolidation of ocean-going freight containers, which is a huge deal. It means you can go from three containers annually to two, which is significant in terms of bunker fuel.”

Are they built to last?

It may not be the most obvious thing you think of when assessing how sustainable a product is, but comfort, durability, functionality, and versatility are key to making products that consumers keep for longer, and so they’re at the core of what Keen’s values. In 2003, it introduced the concept of “hybrid footwear” when it paired the functionality of a sandal with the ruggedness of a hiking shoe. The result was the iconic Newport sandal — a beach sandal, water shoe, around-town shoe, and hiking shoe all in one. Since then, Keen has developed hybrid hiker sneakers, indoor-outdoor slip-ons, and more.

Keen may be best known for comfort, which is why its Targhee hiking boot has been a bestseller for 15 years. While it normally takes weeks or months to break in a new hiking boot, Keen created its Targhee hiker for out-of-the-box comfort, and fans love that they’re able to hit the trail in instant comfort. Every shoe, including the Targhee, is built using an anatomically shaped last for the best fit and designed to secure your heel and give toes room to splay.

Keen has taken this fit a step further by fine-tuning it for women, building shoes on a women’s last with features that support women’s biomechanics. This women’s-specific fit can be found in its Terradora hiker and Astoria West wedge sandal. the brand even employs an in-house kinesiologist who studies and adjusts the fit of every shoe Keen makes.

Keen’s factory in Portland, Oregon.

Are they good for the community?

Producing sustainable, ethically made products is essential; however, a brand that stands behind these values goes beyond that. Keen considers itself a values-led company. It cannot separate its business objective of selling outdoor gear from its broader mission of doing good and helping create a better world. It’s an ethos that’s been with the company since the very beginning.

“About a year into the company’s existence, there was a horrific tsunami in Indonesia in 2004. Well north of a quarter-million people died, and it was just terrible,” says Enlow. “Keen was about to spend a million bucks — literally the company’s entire marketing budget at the time — on an advertising campaign, but we made what could have been the worst business decision ever: Reallocate 100 percent of that money to the victims of the tsunami. Five-hundred thousand dollars went directly to Americare for immediate relief for tsunami victims, and $500,000 to set in place our giving program.”

After the Nepalese earthquake in 2015, Keen raised $8 million in four weeks for Mercy Corps by partnering with a local group in Portland and other outdoor brands, many of which are competitors. “We realized that by partnering with people who are like-minded, we can become a bigger force for good in the world than we can alone,” says Richardson.

Today, Keen goes beyond disaster relief. Its employees get 40 hours off each year, on top of their paid time off, to use toward volunteering. The result is employees who go beyond picking up garbage on Earth Day (though they do that, too) to take part in personal projects as well as larger initiatives the company invests in.

One major initiative is Keen’s alliance with the Conservation Alliance, which strategically deploys grants to protect areas of land across North America. By matching donations from its competitors, it has helped the alliance increase fundraising from $200,000 per year to $1.75 million. It’s also involved in politics, lobbying for everything from a statewide initiative to give Oregon students a week of outdoor school to a federal conservation act — both of which it helped pass.

No matter what it’s doing, the goal is always the same: effect change. “If we can do something that’s in favor of our health and the environment — whether it’s advocating for outdoor school, detoxing our products, or supporting the land and water conservation fund — the better we will all be,” says Enlow.

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