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On World Water Day, Keen Challenges the Footwear Industry to Become PFC Free

With World Water Day here, Keen is challenging brands to be PFC free by 2025.

Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFCs do not break down in the environment. To hit its PFC-free goal, Keen said it has committed 10,000 hours and spent more than $1 million, resulting in saving more than 180 tons of fluorinated chemicals from being introduced into the environment.

The company stated it has discovered a process to find and remove PFCs applied to both components and materials unnecessarily, auditing of every spec sheet and working with partners to quickly remove roughly 65% of the PFCs the supply chain. For the remaining percentage of PFCs, the company said it has invested time and resources over the past four years working with experts in the development of non-PFC water repellency solutions, accomplished over thousands of hours of lab and field testing.

Although proud of how far it has come, Keen believes its own accomplishments are the start of something bigger. To help make this a reality, the company has established open sourcing for how it makes PFC-free shoes. To announce this endeavor, Keen ran a full-page ad in today’s New York Times, which also applauded the similar efforts of a competitor, Salomon.

“We feel really good about the results that we’ve had, but we’re just a small group of shoemakers in Portland, Ore., and while we feel good about the milestones we’ve been able to click through, we need to look at the industry as a whole,” Erik Burbank, VP of The Keen Effect, told FN. “We’re a small percentage of the 24 billion pairs of shoes that are made in the world every year. And when we saw Solomon’s declaration that they were also committed to PFC free, we realized that our community is too small. We thought about what we could do not just to improve our own processes, but to help others join in that same journey.”

 For product developers interested in viewing Keen’s process, the brand set up a landing page on its website — Keenfootwear.com/Detox — to see the details that it has followed since 2014.

“The last year has made all of us think very differently and impacted how we conduct business on a daily basis. Keen’s open sourcing will accelerate industry innovation creating better solutions for people, products and the planet. We applaud Keen’s effort and collaborative spirit,” Green Science Policy Institute executive director Arlene Blum said of Keen’s efforts in a statement.

Burbank also explained to FN why Keen decided to deliver this news on World Water Day.

“PFCs are really heinous chemicals, and because of their pervasive nature, they don’t break down.  One of the primary ways that they circulate is through our water — groundwater to rivers, streams, oceans,” Burbank said. “That’s why you see PFCs showing up in the blood of polar bears, for example, and also the primary way that people ingest PFCs is through contaminated water. So PFCs are very much tied to the water of the world.”

This PFC-free initiative is the latest in its Keen Detox program, which was established in 2012 to remove harmful chemicals in its supply chain and replace them with safe alternatives. Beyond this effort, Keen also announced it has started to reuse leather scraps from car seat manufacturers and upcycled them into footwear, which it believes could keep millions of pounds of waste from going to landfills, if this practice is broadly adopted.

“A conversation started with one of the tanneries we know in Thailand around one of their primary focuses, which is working on car seats for the auto industry. Somehow in that conversation, the discussion of the waste around car seats came up,” Burbank said. “We said maybe we can use their scrap so it doesn’t go to a landfill, and we started experimenting. They provided the remnants, we kept them from going to landfills and we were able to start building footwear, our iconic styles, and testing to see how that leather works best in different shoes.”

The first shoes, according to Keen, will arrive in spring ’22 and will feature select styles such as the Targhee.

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