Over the past two years, consumers in the U.S. have been beating the drum of sustainability, calling for manufacturers and retailers to change their ways. And many in the footwear space have answered that call.
But in the work category, major players say the demand for eco-conscious products is still heavily outweighed by other factors, namely price and performance.
Robin Skillings, VP and global GM of Keen Utility, told FN, “At this point, [our] retail partners tell us they’re not getting questions from their customers about whether the footwear is eco-friendly.”
However, like their customers, Keen Utility and other work boot makers have begun building for the next generation, incorporating environmental considerations into their processes either in anticipation of future demand — or driven by their own corporate commitments.
“We know that obviously there’s going to be an expanding audience for the sustainability as that younger generation is moving into careers that require footwear or safety footwear,” said Karen McSorley, brand manager of Kodiak. “They’re demanding better from brands. Sustainability is important to them.”
Lee Lemon, VP of sales at Twisted X, agreed: “This is not a trend that’s going away. As consumers continue to become more aware of the benefits of sustainably made products, they’re going to expect to find footwear options that incorporate sustainable components. Retailers will certainly need to have something to offer them.”
For her part, Laurie Grijalva, chief merchandising officer at Boot Barn, which sells work footwear in its nearly 300 stores, said the chain would welcome more eco-friendly options in that category. “I wish we saw more, but we don’t see a lot of it,” said Grijalva.
She noted that Boot Barn has been seeking out more Made in America product in order to lessen the impact of transit. “But even that’s difficult. I think if more [sustainable product] was available, we would definitely want it.”
But, she added, brands do face the challenge of pricing. If sustainability raises costs, it could be a major deterrent.
Additionally, work shoes must continue to adhere to strict government safety standards, which means it is very difficult to alter certain components, such as protective toe caps, puncture-resistant plates, electric-hazard resistance and other elements.
Here are four examples of how boot makers are addressing environmental concerns in their work businesses now.
THE NEWCOMER: KODIAK
This spring, Kodiak will introduce its first eco-friendly work footwear, starting with the Quicktrail, a hike-inspired safety sneaker for men and women. The shoe is made with a minimum of 50% recycled content in the upper, has 100% recycled laces and Kodiak created a custom insole with OrthoLite’s Hybrid compound that consists of 26% eco content.
McSorley said the launch is a continuation of Kodiak’s “Built for What Matters” initiative, introduced in spring ’21. “It is essentially a seven-step journey to begin sourcing more recycled, renewable and eco-considered materials,” she said. “No. 1, we’re looking at dealing with partners that offer traceable recycled, recyclable, organic and renewable materials. The majority of our leathers for many years have come from tanneries exclusively approved by the Leather Working Group, but now we’re making a concerted effort to ensure that everything comes from those tanneries — and all are gold rated.”
McSorley noted Kodiak initially began applying these standards in its outdoor lifestyle collection last spring, but saw opportunity in safety footwear as well. “We expect that there’s going to be inevitable growth of sustainability in the work category overall,” she said.
After launching the Quicktrail this season, Kodiak’s sustainable work story will continue in fall ’22 with the Whitton, a women’s-only safety boot that incorporates algae-based Bloom foam into its slip-resistant outsole. That will be followed in fall ’23 by a men’s version using a larger percentage of the Bloom compound.
THE INNOVATOR: TWISTED X
Since entering the work category in 2007, Texas-based brand Twisted X has developed in-house technologies like CellStretch that up the comfort feel in safety footwear. And the company, which was certified climate neutral in 2020, also has applied its efforts to green innovations such as EcoTWX, a textile that is 100% upcycled from recycled PET water bottles. The brand estimates each pair of shoes using EcoTWX removes an average of 13 plastic bottles from landfills.
The material is used for uppers in numerous Twisted X casual and outdoor shoes, as well as in its Work Kicks shoe, equipped with a nano-composite safety toe. “This style appeals to a younger audience because it’s a blend of the athletic look they love with the sustainability components they demand added right in,” said Lemon. “We’re getting ready to add a few more colors in the fall to continue to meet their needs.”
The company also has incorporated green materials into the Wrangler casual and work shoe collections, which Twisted X produces under license.
Lemon noted that demand for eco-conscious work gear will only increase in the coming years, as the next generation enters the trades and fuels a shift in the marketplace.
“There really has been a movement led by this younger generation because sustainability is so relevant right now and is more heavily promoted in schools and colleges,” he explained. “That consumer places great importance on this when they make decisions, as they want and expect sustainability to be a part of the products they use in their day-to-day lives.”
THE LOCAL: KEEN UTILITY
When it comes to sustainability, Keen Utility has a unique selling point: Many of the company’s work boots have a lower carbon footprint because they are assembled domestically in its Portland, Ore., factory.
However, Keen Utility told FN its foremost commitment is to crafting tough boots that can hold up season after season, thus keeping fewer shoes out of landfills.
“The work consumer continues to focus on the question of quality materials and durability, and we’re addressing that by building our boots to last longer, which inevitably helps the environment,” said Skillings.
One of its newest innovations to extend the life of its boots is Keen.Bellows Flex, a technology that reduces cracking by allowing footwear to bend and flex up to three times easier.
And throughout its supply chain, the company has worked to eliminate toxic chemicals from its operations, such as PFCs, “a forever chemical” that doesn’t break down in the environment. Keen spent four years and roughly $1 million developing a process to find and remove PFCs applied to components and materials in its supply chain, and last year it shared the information in a public “green paper” that has been accessed by more than 700 external developers and supply chain experts.
“We’re working toward sustainability across all aspects of our brand and business,” said Skillings. “We want to continue to lead, while also helping the industry overall improve, as, in the end, we’re all in this together.”
THE ALL-ROUNDER: TIMBERLAND PRO
For nearly 30 years, Timberland has been a leader in sustainability in the footwear industry, as an early participant in the Leather Working Group and a longtime supporter of tree-planting projects throughout the world.
More recently, the brand has become a proponent of regenerative farming. The agricultural technique helps conserve natural resources by, for instance, rotating cattle so that pastures have time to restore their biodiversity and absorb more carbon from the environment.
Bert Spiller, VP of product creation at Timberland Pro, said, “In fall ’21, we launched the Gridworks EK+ work boot made with leather sourced from farms using regenerative farming practices. We’re following this up with the fall ’22 launch of the men’s 6-inch Nashoba EK+ work boot.” Both styles also feature Timberland’s ReBotl linings, made with at least 50% recycled polyester, as well as key safety features.
Meanwhile, Timberland also is addressing the lifecycle of its products with Timberloop, a program launched last year that encourages customers to return their used Timberland or Timberland Pro footwear, apparel and accessories in stores, instead of throwing them away.
“Our circularity platform refurbishes worn products for resale, or if they’re beyond repair, we take them apart and reuse or recycle the pieces into new materials,” said Spiller.
The brand exec added that while durability and value remain the essential attributes for work boots, Timberland sees continuing upside in going green.
“Our recent purchase tracker data shows that around 85% of Pro buyers see value in purchasing from a company with higher sustainability standards and would even pay more for the product,” said Spiller. He also noted that an increasing number of people are employed in renewable energy industries such as solar, wind, geothermal or hydroelectric. That could lead to more eco-minded customers in the future.