Responsible Positioning Means Taking Control

As a leader of branded, high performance comfort footwear solutions, OrthoLite has made it the company’s mission to be at the forefront of the sustainability revolution in the industry. But pursuing sustainability for OrthoLite was not a decision made lightly, but rather part of the company’s core values since the launching 25 years ago with insoles that were made with 5 percent recycled rubber.

Notably, since 1997 OrthoLite has produced billions of insoles and are used in over 500 million pairs of shoes every year – creating an impressive global reach.

“Originally, we made certain choices, like using recycled rubber, closed-loop recycling and respectful employment, because we knew it was the right thing to do,” said John Barrett, President of OrthoLite. “I don’t think we thought brands or consumers would necessarily be demanding these practices 10 years down the road.”

In no small part because of its efforts have had a massive impact, OrthoLite continues to take its responsibility seriously as a steward for sustainability in the footwear industry with the intent to not only minimize its own environmental footprint, but also lead others to do the same.

For OrthoLite, operating sustainably first means being aware and respectful of the resources being used, the waste being produced and the effects of both on people and the planet. And second is taking action to minimizing detrimental effects and improving the health of the environment.

Today, Barrett said, what propels OrthoLite forward in its mission to achieve even better sustainability as its global footprint grows, knowing that there is always room to do better. And ultimately, the company’s continued push for sustainability has also served to differentiate OrthoLite from its competitors in the market.

OrthoLite’s new HybridPlus-Recycled.
CREDIT: Dennis Helmar

“We’re out to create the best footwear components in the most sustainable way for our partners, for consumers, and for the planet,” said Barrett. “To that end, sustainability and innovation go hand in hand. For a global manufacturer like OrthoLite, it requires a thoughtful and calibrated understanding of many factors. Though we may never achieve perfect sustainability, we will always expect and work toward continuous improvement.”

In 2010, OrthoLite opened its first wholly owned and operated factory, the Dongguan Eco Polymer company (DGEP) which set its global expansion in motion and served as the original proof of concept for the company’s vertically integrated model. In 2021, OrthoLite has 10 owned and operated locations across six countries and three continents.

Moreover, recently OrthoLite announced its Zero Waste initiative, which will serve as a significant step toward pollution reduction and the regeneration of natural systems. The commitment includes investment in a proprietary manufacturing system that evaluates waste minimization and management beyond the traditional standards of lean manufacturing. It also includes participation with the Higg Index to transparently share the company’s progress and help other manufacturers work toward the same results.

By taking control of – and responsibility for – every step of the manufacturing process, Barrett said, the company is able to ensure not only best practices in sustainability but also premium quality, unmatched consistency and speed to market.

In fact, while so many brands struggled to adjust supply chain operations due to disruptions in the pandemic, OrthoLite was able to maintain consistency because of its vertical integration model.

“Having full control and ownership of our raw materials and capacity output means we consistently provide on time delivery for our brand partners,” said Barrett. “With strategic focus on investments in risk mitigation across our global organization, we have the ability to navigate around supply chain disruptions or geo-political shifts such as the current pandemic with minimal to no disruption for our brand partners. With the recent spike in e-commerce and consumer demand shifting due to the pandemic, speed to market of the utmost importance and it’s more critical than ever to serve our partners in the countries where their shoes are made.”

Notably, Barrett has a unique history with factories, having grown up in the footwear industry and being exposed both in and around factories. In fact, Barrett spent summers working at a boot factory in Mexico and when he began at OrthoLite it was as an entry-level team member in China with the responsibility of observing and learning the business.

“The years I spent in China were incredibly eye opening and led me to key takeaways that helped inform OrthoLite’s current vertical integration model,” said Barrett. “First, because we didn’t own our own factories at the time, we were at the whim of our suppliers and the factories so if they wanted to change prices or production we had no leverage. At the same time, I was blown away by the talent of our team and other people we were working with, and we weren’t utilizing the full depth of our talent. They had so many ideas, but no one had ever asked questions. In China, if you don’t ask the questions, no one is going to volunteer an answer.”

To that end, Barrett also credits the people at the factory level who he said have shown incredible resilience since the start of the pandemic. “We are blessed with loyal teams across our geographies who are simply all in,” said Barrett. “Our team rose to the occasion, accepted the challenge and made herculean efforts to make it all work. I have never been prouder of our OrthoLite family. Our production means nothing without our people. As a global brand with an expanding footprint, we succeed on the strength of our team. As humans who care about one another, fostering a protective and dignified work environment is paramount.”

Looking towards the future, Barrett said there is no end point to OrthoLite’s sustainability mission because it is a part of who the company is. “We are an innovation solutions company that intends to rapidly shift the landscape of the entire footwear industry with a sustainable technology that delivers unprecedented comfort and performance,” said Barrett. “Our next big leap in sustainable innovation is just around the corner and will change how brands consider sustainability in footwear.”

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