The Green Line Series: James Curleigh + KEEN Blaze a Trail in Sustainable Footwear

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What does it mean to be sustainable? To be deeply green? Not to mince colors, but there’s a lot of gray surrounding the green scene. With that much uncertainty, how do you go about augmenting a genuine corporate pigment? There are a million things that go into it, but one crucial element is putting as much emphasis on “the green line” as you do on the bottom line.

In the Green Line Series, we interview representatives from government, non-profits, corporations and consulting firms to get the dish on how they’ve put sustainability up front and center.

This week’s interview is with James Curleigh, CEO of the pioneering footwear company, KEEN Footwear. Curleigh talks about the trailblazing responsibility that comes with being a young company, the importance of balance in your business model and living the Hybrid Life, both as a person and a corporation. If you are looking to start a business that has sustainability in mind from day one, his advice is invaluable. Already an established company? Learn how to take risks that will pay major dividends down the road.

GG: You came into KEEN somewhat recently and it’s a company that already has a connection to the environment. What kind of experience has that been? Has it been a “kid in a candy shop” scenario or are there challenges?

JC: We’re a six-year-old brand, and when you’re only six years old you do tend to think a bit differently. There’s a lot out there. The world is a big, bold, exciting, chaotic place when you’re a six-year-old—and you typically have way more questions than you have answers. That’s how we think at KEEN. We believe that the outdoors in any place without a ceiling. To be successful, we have to understand how to make the outdoors successful and that’s across products we make, across environmental causes and also encouraging people to get outdoors as well.

GG: We know KEEN is a brand that is publicly on the path to sustainability. We know that you’ve got a plan in place and that it’s award winning. Can you tell us about your plan and how it came to be?

JC: It started off with something that is one of our major philosophies and the position that we take as a company. We encourage everyone to live, what we call, “The Hybrid Life.”  That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but we summarize it by saying that it’s encouraging everybody to create, to play and to care.

The create side is to create something interesting, something cool—whether you’re an artist, whether you’re a physician, whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast—that’s interesting to you and the people around you. In terms of play—just get out there and play more often. Life is serious enough as it is, so we encourage people to play. The caring side of that equation is probably the most important, and it involves considering the actions you take, and their effects on others and on the planet. Take a stance on something that you care about and believe in, and then engage and take action. That’s our definition of “The Hybrid Life.”

Living The Hybrid Life is what we try to do to encourage people and then we also bring that attitude in-house. So when we start designing products for the future, we start by thinking about the Create-Play-Care dynamic. We ask, “what is that product going to be used for?” Then we create something cool and we try to take care with the way that we design it, produce it and bring it to the market. And that means thinking about the materials we use, where the product gets made, what its end use is going to be and how the product gets places—physically. It’s not just one easy, simple solution. It’s a bit of an obstacle course that we’ve set up and run everything through and hopefully get through to the other end.

GG: What are some of the challenges that you’ve come across in designing and implementing your obstacle course?

JC: One of the challenges is that as a young brand, we tend to be pioneers on things. When you’re a pioneer, there are a lot of risks. Think about the guys with Lewis + Clark who blazed a trial out West. Do you think there were any risks and obstacles? They’d probably have said that we couldn’t even imagine the level of risk and, of course, reward that come with it.

Another challenge is that there are so many emerging solutions out there in terms of materials and the design side of things. And not everything is going to work. When you pioneer, you take risks, but those risks can become rewards.

GG: As a young company, why do you think it’s easier for you to take risks than, say, an established company that’s been around for one hundred years and wants to start down a path of sustainability?

JC: A lot of established companies have probably come at environmental and sustainability undertakings from a fear-based stance. They don’t want to get caught doing something wrong. They don’t want to get called out by the consumer. They’re nervous about what their shareholders are going to say. So they feel like they need to get somebody in there whose green and can make their company greener. And that’s where green-washing can come into play sometimes, but I’m not a believer in being cynical about companies at least putting it on their agenda and trying to do something better than what they otherwise would have done if there wasn’t a movement on sustainability.

We’re able to do it because, first of all, we’re privately owned. We don’t have to talk about everything we do with shareholders. When you’re a big organization, you have to get so many people internally to believe in what you’re doing, that you end up mitigating and reducing the impact you could make into a very watered down solution. The reasons for that being because it costs money, because people don’t fully understand it and because you probably don’t have the expertise to do it.On our side, we might not fully understand it, but we can make fast decisions and we’re prepared to invest in it. That’s what separates us from the pack.

GG: You mentioned taking care with your actions. What are some of the specific programs going on within KEEN right now that address that idea?

JC: You’ve probably heard about this “people, profit and planet” angle or if you want to put it in order, “people, planet, profit.” We take a slightly different angle. We talk about people being the community, the planet being the environment and profit being growth. With our growth, we’ve been able to set up our Hybrid Care Program. Our Hybrid Care Program supports programs beyond just the obvious in order to grow awareness for other programs to make a positive impact on the environment. That includes groups like The Conservation Alliance, The Waterkeeper Alliance, and smaller organizations like 1 Kg More. It also includes new initiatives that we’re working on, such as a project with One Revolution, who is headed by an individual trying to get to the top of Kilimanjaro for the first time unassisted.

GG: What is your current primary goal in regards to sustainability?

JC: The main goal is to try and remain balanced. There are some companies that are so focused on being on the forefront of sustainability that they forget that the consumer is not there yet. Name one brand that 100 percent leads with sustainability and is highly successful. Who is it? Even brands like Whole Foods—which is a really interesting, progressive concept for a grocery store—they have beautiful merchandising, they have great product, they have an organic dynamic to it, but there is still a value proposition there that is interesting to the consumer without leading 100 percent with sustainability.

The important thing—at least for us—is to stay on the front end of that sustainability dynamic, but to remain balanced in the way we run our business and the way we evolve our brand and speak to people. That’s very very important. If you’re out of balance, you’re either behind the sustainability curve and you’re always going to play catch up, or you’re so far on the front side that consumers won’t understand what you’re trying to do. I could list a few brands that have done that and are no longer here or a shadow of what they thought they would be, because they lead with sustainability and the consumer isn’t there yet. We live in Portland, Oregon where the Hybrid Life consumer is all around us, but you go hang out in Cleveland, Ohio, New York City, parts of Florida, even California and you’ll find that not everybody is in that Hybrid Life movement.

GG: Tell us about the KEEN Report Card. Why did KEEN decide to go public with this kind of information?

JC: One of our values is to be transparent. Again, six-year-olds still run around naked sometimes and don’t see any problem with it. As a six-year-old brand we say, “Why not tell everyone what we’re up to? We don’t have anything to hide.” We truly want to build a relationship with our fan base beyond, “Here’s some shoes and thanks for your money.” We have to let them know what we’re doing in our world and we thought the best way to do that was to create a report card to set a benchmark for ourselves to understand where we’ve been, where we are, and more importantly, where we think we can go.

GG: What did KEEN learn from that process?

JC: What we learned is that there are, quite literally, hundreds and hundreds of points of consideration when you put a report card together for your organization. Some of them are highly quantitative, some of them are highly qualitative and lot of them fit inside that gray area between science and art. One of the most important things you realize is exactly where you are today, which helps you focus on the areas where you think you can make the most difference in the future.

An example of that: We make some shoes with a production process called “Direct Inject,” which eliminates the need for glue. Now we have a benchmark for making 10-12 percent of our products using Direct Inject. And now we can set specific targets for making 20 percent of our products with Direct Inject within three years.

Another example is shifting your production. If 93 percent of your production is in a certain place in China, look at maybe sending some to the Dominican Republic. That could possibly reduce your environmental footprint, transportation and logistics, and at the same time help a community to thrive and survive, plus use a manufacturing process that has less of an impact on the environment. The point is that there’s not just one dimension of approach, they all roll into one another in a solution that lands somewhere between science and art.

GG: Can you have sustainability and extreme quality in the same product?

JC: I believe so. The early days of sustainability were a bit of rough start. The pioneers came in and it was probably similar to when cars were introduced. Automakers said, “I know you’ve been using this horse and buggy for a while and you’re comfortable with it. You know your horse and you know your buggy, but here’s this thing called an automobile. It’s got an engine and you can get rid of the horse.” And it didn’t work perfectly. It took people out of their comfort zone. I think what happened with the sustainability movement when it launched 10 years ago or so, was that some of the product features and benefits—apart from being sustainable—weren’t up to snuff. They cost more and delivered sub-standard performance, whether it was in fit, feel or comfort. That’s come so far in the last 10 years. The gap really has been closed and we’re seeing a lot of products out there that perform to very high standards AND have a sustainability dimension built in.

GG: Is that sustainability dimension going to help KEEN grow as a brand?

JC: Absolutely. It’s not going to, it already is. When we’re in product meetings and when we go over to factories, we sometimes become the accidental environmentalist. We see a factory with a bunch of scrap aluminum and we ask what they’re going to do with it. They tell us they’re just going to sweep it up and throw it away. So instead, we ask if we can have it and the next thing you know, the eyelets in many of our shoes and buckles on our bags are made from recycled aluminum. We didn’t design that into the front side of our product. We saw an opportunity with some scrap material and turned it into a finished product. That’s just one way that it already is helping us in measurable ways. Another example is our Harvest Collection bags. Those were literally rice paper bags on their way to the landfill and we turned them into re-purposed messenger bags and wallets, etc. That line has been a huge success for us.

GG: There are a lot of businesses out there that want to start on a path to sustainability. Any advice for them? Must dos. Actions to avoid at all costs?

JC: For anyone who wants to make sustainability the center point of their business or their brand, take one hour or one day in your business model and ask, “would this business or brand still thrive and survive if we don’t build a sustainable nature into it?” If the answer is yes, then chances are you can take advantage of sustainability. If you’re putting yourself out there purely on the advantage that you’re more sustainable than the next brand, expect to have some challenges getting that message across to the consumer.

James Curleigh is the CEO of KEEN Footwear and a featured speaker at the Go Green ’09 Conference on October 7th, 2009 in Portland Oregon. To register for the Go Green Conference ’09, please visit: http://www.gogreenpdx.com/registration. Go Green ’08 sold out early, so make sure to sign up soon! Curleigh and our other 40+ eco-visionary speakers are going to rock your green world.

For more on Keen and The Hybrid Life, please visit: http://www.keenfootwear.com

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