Groundhog’s Eco Ethos

For Kevin Bosco, going “green” wasn’t necessarily the aim with Groundhog footwear.

The eco-friendly women’s casual brand debuted in the U.S. and Canada for spring ’08 with a focus on rugged styling and natural materials.

“‘Green’ is a broad-spectrum term that a lot of people throw around and don’t really understand,” said Bosco, co-founder and SVP of Bos & Co., a footwear and distribution firm based in Burlington, Ontario. “Greenwashing is something we’re very conscious of. That’s why we don’t claim that we make a ‘green’ product. On our Website, at point of sale and in the catalog, we focus on radical transparency, being straightforward about what we do and not making claims that we can’t substantiate.”

Since launching, the line, which is carried in roughly 350 accounts across the U.S. — primarily independents in the comfort, family footwear and outdoor realms — has grown to represent about 35 percent of Bos & Co.’s $8 million to $10 million business. Bosco even calls the recession a “non-factor,” citing sales growth of 15 percent last year. The brand is projecting similar numbers in 2010, driven by expansion in new U.S. accounts and additional markets overseas. Through partnerships, the line is distributed in more than 13 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Portugal and throughout Scandinavia. Accounts in Japan opened two months ago, and Germany and Spain are likely future targets, Bosco added.

As an eco-friendly brand, Groundhog reduces its global footprint through its choice of shoe components, as well as sourcing decisions and manufacturing locations.

Styles in the line use natural crepe or 30 percent recycled natural rubber in the outsoles, and the $150-to-$310 boots, Mary Jane-style flats and laceups also include microfiber linings made from sustainably harvested bamboo and natural wool shearling on winter styles. Other shoe ingredients include coconut hair and husks, micro-fleece made from recycled PET, and accents and buttons created from tree resins. And those materials continue to change as the company grows, Bosco said.

“We’re always evolving. The first season we used water-based cements on the uppers and solvent-based cements on the soles because we couldn’t find a way to get the soles to stay on the shoes,” he said. “But with some time and working with the manufacturers, we found a water-based cement and a method that was good enough to make sure the soles stayed on.”

This year, the brand is also adding organically tanned, or white-tanned, leathers, which are treated with vegetable and synthetic-vegetable dyes (and are without chrome), and has started to use a new material called Barktex, a tree bark harvested in African villages without killing the tree, that is coated with latex to add strength and flexibility. The textured, leather-like material is used as an accent on certain styles in the fall line.

Groundhog footwear is produced in both Portugal and China (60 percent and 40 percent of the line, respectively), in part because the elements of the shoes can be sourced nearby. Crepe rubber comes from Indonesia, and vegetable-tanned leathers from Portugal.

And that emphasis on proximity applies to shipping, too. “The product that we are sourcing from Asia, we bring to the West Coast. The product we source from Europe, we bring to the East Coast,” Bosco said. “It gives us lower costs, and we can pass that on to the customer, but it also allows us the opportunity to live with the ethos of the brand.”

Such responsibility doesn’t mean the brand has abandoned its first priority: to make good-looking shoes. “People are becoming more and more [earth] conscious,” Bosco said. “It’s not just a ‘granola’ customer who wants to address this. But first and foremost, the product has to be appealing. And if you have a great story behind it, all the better.”

To grow the business, Groundhog has expanded with more fashionable product. The new Maple collection, which is being launched for fall ’10, features a slimmer outsole with a small heel on booties, laceups and a knee-high boot. And the brand is hopeful that the more streamlined looks could bring in a different buyer — and even more kinds of accounts.

“Our [Maple] collection is a step toward trying to expand that customer base,” he said. “It’s still casual, but the product base is expanding, the customer base is expanding and what we’re hoping to do is win more of the fashion customers.”

Pam Coven, owner of the two Imelda’s Shoes locations in Portland, Ore., said Groundhog’s “approachable price point” and earthy styling made the brand attractive to her consumers — and the store has bought fairly deep into the brand’s catalog. Coven gives Groundhog credit for continuing to push the fashion envelope. “Each season, [the brand] has kept the styling fresh and innovative, and that’s what our customer is looking for,” Coven said, adding that the new Maple collection could resonate with shoppers. “For our customers, styling is No. 1, and the environment is No. 2.”

Groundhog’s style and sustainable message has also made it a strong performer for Boulder, Colo.-based Pedestrian Shops, said GM Lauren Polk. “At first, we were drawn to [Groundhog] stylistically. Learning about its eco-friendly business and manufacturing practices was icing on the cake,” she said. “We’re always trying to provide the most sustainable options, but for our customers, it’s not the first thing that drives someone to pick up the shoe. … We’ve had success with Groundhog, and we’re open to where it’s going next.”

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