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Keen wants to save the planet one pair of shoes at a time

If you’re searching for the intersection of sustainability and innovation — at least in the outdoor industry — it just might be located in downtown Portland. That’s where Keen, a company that makes hiking boots, travel shoes, and arguably the best sandals on the market, calls home. Since its founding more than a decade ago, Keen has been known for making comfortable and durable shoes for use on our outdoor adventures, deftly blending performance and style in some truly unique ways. But behind the scenes, the company does so much more than that, using technology, a dedicated team, and a slew of big ideas to not only create better footwear but to make the planet a better place too. Often, without anyone even noticing.

Consciously created

Since its founding in 2003, Keen has focused heavily on creating distinctive footwear designed for use in the outdoors, often with its own unique spin that sets it apart from the competition. Case in point, the company’s first product was a sandal called the Newport that was unlike anything else on the market at the time. It featured a closed toe, a rugged outsole, and durable straps held in place by industrial-strength Velcro. The design was an instant hit with outdoor enthusiasts and travelers alike, sparking a number of iterations over the years while remaining a staple in the Keen catalog.

With the addition of hiking and work boots to its line-up, the company soon found itself with a loyal and rapidly-growing following. Customers were drawn to Keen’s distinctive-looking footwear, which were well-made, comfortable, and unlike anything any other outdoor brand was producing at the time. That’s because, even in its earliest days, the shoe manufacturer was approaching things differently, using some guiding principles that not only influenced the way that its products were made, but how they impacted the planet as well.

“Our values drive everything that we do,” Kirk Richardson, the senior director of Keen Effect and Sustainability tells us. “The products we make need to be safe, effective, and affordable. If they’re not all of those things, we’re probably not going to make them.”

Keen Effect is the name given to an internal team that focuses on making the brand stronger by focusing on conservation, sustainability, and advocacy, particularly when it comes to protecting public lands. Those efforts have resulted in more than $18 million in cash and product donations going to nonprofit organizations in the outdoor space. That includes providing youth grants designed to help encourage more kids to be active and outdoors.

The idea for Keen Effect springs directly from one of the company’s defining and driving principles, something that was woven into the internal fabric of the organization before it ever officially began producing shoes. At Keen, they call it a “consciously created” approach to designing and creating footwear, although it goes well beyond just the products they make. So much so that the culture of the company itself revolves around the idea, which challenges every employee to be mindful of the choices they make — large and small — and how those choices can impact the world around us.

Keen employees take a measured approach to creating shoes.

Sustainable to the core

Sustainability is a buzzword that gets tossed around a lot in the outdoor industry these days, but thanks to its consciously created philosophy it has been an indelible part of Keen’s DNA  from day one. Since its founding, recycling and repurposing anything and everything has been a key part of the company’s approach for being better stewards of the planet. Employees take this directive so seriously that they’ve gone as far as using the leftover parts of one shoe model in a completely different product. The company even reuses retail fixtures and promotional materials, which are viewed as disposable items by most other brands. By finding ways to repurpose those elements, however, Keen not only saves quite a bit of money but has also kept a lot of perfectly good materials from finding their way into a landfill.

The reuse and recycle mantra is applied to projects on a much grander scale as well. A perfect example of this is Keen’s corporate headquarters, a five-story building located in Portland’s trendy Pearl District. When the company bought its new office space back 2012, it was in serious need of remodeling in order to meet the shoe manufacturer’s needs. But keeping its commitment to the environment in mind, architects and designers came up with some creative ways to reduce the amount of waste that was created when gutting the building. That meant reusing materials and fixtures that were already in the building to assist in the remodeling process. That approach was so successful that after the 50,000 square-foot structure was overhauled, only a single dumpster load of trash was hauled away. Typically on a project of that scale, construction companies will haul away three times that amount on a weekly basis alone.

Of course, Keen’s commitment to the environment and reducing waste extends to its products as well. Since 2012, the company has been making significant strides towards removing potentially harmful chemicals and other materials from its supply chain and manufacturing process. That includes the elimination of PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) from the durable water repellant treatment applied to its shoes, as well as doing away with the use of dangerous pesticides that were previously used to fight odor in footwear. In both cases, Keen’s designers came up with safe, non-toxic alternatives that are better for the health of their customers and the planet, all without sacrificing performance. In keeping with its philosophy of just doing what is right for their customers and the environment, those updates were silently introduced without so much as I press release to announce the changes.

Taking things a step further, the shoe manufacturer has also switched to “environmentally preferred leather” as well. Sourced from tanneries that employ more eco-friendly practices, this type of leather is created using significantly less water and energy when compared to the traditional tanning process. Best of all, this approach eliminates wastewater pollution altogether, overcoming a major environmental obstacle for developing countries where leather is made. This cleaner production process has no impact on the quality of the leather however, ensuring Keen still receives the high-quality materials that it needs to continue producing the boots and shoes that its customers are accustomed to.

What’s next on the list of improvements for Keen? “Industrial solvents,” Richardson says, referring to chemicals like acetone and toluene, which have been linked to workplace illnesses. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re working on it.,”

High-tech tools make better shoes and a better planet

Technology has always played a key role in Keen’s consciously created approach to producing great footwear. That is true now more than ever, as the company has leveraged a wide array of tech tools for use in nearly every aspect of its business. From designing new products to streamlining its manufacturing process, to interacting with customers and retailers, the company has embraced technology that helps it fulfill its mission to deliver outstanding outdoor gear while remaining a good citizen of the planet.

As you would expect, Keen’s designers use an array of software and hardware to bring their ideas to life. The company’s shoes generally start their journey to becoming a real product by first existing as a virtual one. Using Wacom tablets and off-the-shelf software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, the latest designs first begin to take shape on a computer screen. Those preliminary concepts are then fed into a program called Grasshopper, which converts them for use in Rhino, a 3D rendering and modeling software package. From there, graphics techniques such as bump mapping, texture mapping, and opacity can be applied, rendering a three-dimensional image of what the shoe will actually look like in the real world.

Once the 3D version of the shoe has been completed, other tech tools can be brought into the design process as well. For example, Keen uses machine learning to streamline the footwear based on a number of variables, including the materials used in manufacturing, construction techniques used in previous models, and the nuances that come with the shape of the human foot. The shoe can even be 3D printed, giving the designer a chance to see a real-world representation of his or her new design. The digital files can even be transmitted to the company’s factories in Asia, where more advanced prototypes can be constructed within just a few days. Changes are then made as needed, greatly streamlining the process of bringing new products to market.

“Using these tools, we can take a shoe from its basic concept to a finished product in just a few weeks,” Keen designer Phil Kostika says. “In the past, it would take months to accomplish what we can now do in just a few days.”

The 3D models of the shoes can be used in other interesting ways too. For example, Keen has created a virtual showroom that uses VR headsets to give retail buyers the ability to examine new products before manufacturing has even started ramping up. Initially, the system used the Unity graphics platform, but the developers have since moved to the Unreal Engine, which they say offers improved graphics and more realistic renderings.

The concept behind the virtual showroom is simple and falls neatly into Keen’s “better for the planet” approach. By offering retail partners the chance to check out their latest products in a computer-generated environment, Keen’s sales reps don’t have to ship dozens of different pairs of shoes to a variety of outlets around the world. Instead, they can give retail buyers a preview of what’s coming in a way that is much more efficient and eco-friendly. And as VR headsets become more ubiquitous, it may be possible to hold sales meetings in a completely virtual environment, eliminating the need for air travel altogether.

So how’s the VR showroom working so far? “It has been a slow process,” Kostika says. “It works great with regular consumers, but our retail partners still prefer a more traditional approach.”

Keen shoes in production at the Portland factory

Robots, A.I., and beyond

Keen’s use of innovative tech extends well beyond the design process. The company uses a host of other technologies throughout its business, including in the manufacturing process, on its website, and even in its advocacy efforts. In each case, that technology isn’t used in a gimmicky way, but instead has a meaningful and important role in helping the company reach its goals.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Keen’s very own Portland-based shoe factory. Designed to manufacture the company’s line of utility boots, the facility is the very model of modern efficiency, using robots and automated processes to streamline the process. Human workers monitor each phase of the operation, playing a vital role in ensuring that quality control remains high. But robots handle some of the more repetitive and mundane tasks like moving the shoes from one phase of the assembly line to another, keeping the entire system moving along at a brisk—but manageable—pace. Others smooth out some of the rough edges from the early stages of the construction process or apply the liquid polyurethane that is injected into the sole to provide its protective cushioning. The machine that handles that process is called a DESMA, and true to form, the one that Keen uses in its factory was purchased second hand.

On Keen’s website, the company is exploring a variety of ways to enhance the customer experience beyond just shopping for shoes and providing information about its various charitable and environmental initiatives. Currently, the site functions like many other e-commerce webpages, but big changes are planned for the months ahead. In addition to getting an overall design upgrade that will make the site more mobile-friendly, Keen is looking at ways that it can leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to make things more efficient too. To that end, the goal is to implement features like A.I.- driven gift guides that are personalized for each individual shopper.

“We can use locational and demographic information, as well as a customer’s previous purchases data to help make curated suggestions,” Dana Schwartz, Keen’s VP of Global Direct to Consumer and Digital, says. We can even analyze weather patterns to make better recommendations as to what footwear to buy.”

The changes won’t just be in the background either. The new version of Keen.com will be designed to be more aspirational and to tell stories as well, with the expressed goal of getting more people outdoors. It will even play a role in the company’s quest to be more eco-friendly. “The site will optimize the shipping process to ensure that all items are sent at the same time,” Schwartz says. “That will help lower our eco-footprint, cutting down on carbon emissions by reducing the number of deliveries that need to be made.”

Unsurprisingly, Keen also uses unique technology when it comes to encouraging its fans to voice their concerns on hot-button issues. The company’s “call to action” phone booth not only appears in Keen stores but also shows up at public events and trade shows too. The booth gives users the ability to call their elected officials in Washington, D.C. to weigh in on important topics, most notably the use of public lands, environmental issues, single-use plastics, and endangered species. The booth comes equipped with prewritten scripts for callers who aren’t exactly sure what to say. Those same scripts can be found on Keen’s website so concerned citizens can use them while calling from their own phone as well.

Robots assist in the assembly process.

Just getting started

We interviewed a number of Keen employees for this story and it was abundantly clear that the company’s values are infectious and inspiring. Nearly everyone that we talked to indicated that the brand’s proactive approach towards sustainability and the use of innovative technology was a big part of the reason why they wanted to work there. It was also clear that those same employees were empowered to make decisions that help the footwear manufacturer continue to evolve its mission. From factory workers to long-time company execs, the Keen staff is encouraged to not just think outside of the box, but recycle the box too.

Schwartz, who has only been with Keen for several months, tells us that the company is “Walking the walk more than anyone else I’ve worked with.” High praise considering her resume includes stints with Brookstone, Ethan Allen, and ECCO shoes. “Here, we’re given permission to do things differently.”

That seems to be the overriding theme that Keen embraces and it has often paid dividends in the past. But the company continues to look for new ways to improve itself and the products that it creates. Case in point, while in Keen’s Portland office we saw a prototype of a new lightweight flip-flop that is due to hit the market later this spring. What makes this particular sandal special is that it is made entirely from up-cycled materials. In other words, it was created from the scraps that are leftover from the manufacturing process of some of Keen’s other footwear. This unique looking flip-flop is likely to be a big hit with fans, which is good for any company’s bottom line. But in this case, the shoe will also keep a lot of previously-unused waste out of the landfill too.

For Keen, that goes way beyond a win-win.

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