Back in April, iRunFar noted that we were interested to what would come out of END Footwear (nee Outdoor) – a company committed to sustainable footwear from its founding. Four months later END is on the verge of releasing its first lineup of shoes on August 1. In this busy and exciting time for END, one the company’s co-founders, Ben Finklea, kindly spoke at length with iRunFar.
Due to the wealth of information that Finklea shared, iRunFar will devote two posts to END Footwear. In Part 1, iRunFar looks at END Footwear’s approach to sustainability in the design, manufacturing, and marketing of high performance running shoes. In Part 2, iRunFar discusses END’s website, running outreach, current and future shoes.
END’s Commitment to Sustainability
END’s very name embodies its commitment to sustainability – END stands for Environmentally Neutral Design. “Environmental neutrality” is an ambitious goal for a performance shoe and one that cannot be achieved overnight. Indeed, Ben acknowledges that the first step towards this goal is putting shoes on the market and that END must initially strive for “progress, not perfection.” Instead, END has the goal of being close to 100% sustainable within five years. During the interim they will set annual sustainability targets to spur the company toward its overarching goal. Ben explained that END is committed to being transparent regarding the steps END takes toward achieving sustainability.
Like any performance shoe company, END wants to design comfortable, durable, good-looking shoes that performs. Beyond that, END challenges the norms long-established by shoe designers and marketers. Specifically, END avoids the marketers’ assumption that runners want more and more technology in their shoes and instead challenges the necessity and purpose of every part and stitch to see what runners really need.
As noted in our review of the END Stumptown 12 oz, Andrew Estey, a former Nike designer who co-founded END with Ben, really went to town in reducing, removing, or combining standard running shoe elements. Fewer components mean less material is needed, less complicated assembly with a corresponding drop in manufacturing plant energy use, and a lighter shoe. Easy examples of Estey’s reductions by design include the reduction or removal of foam padding from shoes’ uppers, elimination of shoe liners, and the strategic use of glue. Rather than slather glue between pieces that must adhere, Andrew engineered a spot gluing technique that reduces glue use, but holds just as strong. In addition, the Stumptown 12 oz and the two hikers both incorporate one piece midsoles and outsoles, which cuts down on the complexity of the manufacturing process leading to less energy use, fewer solvents, and fewer molds.
Of course, END can’t design sustainability into its shoes in a theoretical vacuum. During our interview Finklea acknowledged, “You cannot ask an athlete to take a step back.” We agree. A running shoe is worthless if it doesn’t perform, won’t sell if it doesn’t look good, and won’t attract loyalty if it doesn’t last. While sometimes performance and sustainability go hand-in-hand, that’s not always the case. END gets that and knows that sometimes it will have to yield its core value in favor of performance… at least temporarily. For instance, with the Stumptown END began its prototyping using 30% reground rubber in the outsole and 30% recycled PET in the EVA midsole, but found that the midsole compressed too quickly and the outsole wore out too soon. In response, Estey reduced the proportion of sustainable material in both components to 10% to insure that the shoe would meet or exceed trail runner’s expectations regarding performance and durability.
Unlike some previous efforts to make more sustainable shoes, END is willing to acknowledge that an ugly shoe is not a sustainable shoe. If no one buys the more sustainable of two shoes, there is no shift towards sustainability – it’s just the status quo with the unsold “sustainable” shoes rotting in a warehouse. With that in mind, END considers the aesthetic aspect of its shoes a vital part of the design process. As with its current Stumptown soles and midsoles, END is willing to make small and considered compromises, such as including colored materials into their shoes.
In terms of sustainability, one advantage END enjoys is that it’s not increasing the sustainability of its line one shoe at a time. END can design its entire line in a manner that will maximize the whole lineup’s sustainability. Lineup-wide design might incorporate an engineering advance, such as Estey’s gluing technique, into all the shoes. It might also mean taking steps that streamline production or reduce the amount of equipment needed in the manufacturing process. For instance, the outsole used in the Stumptown 12 oz is currently used in multiple END models, which reduces the number of molds that must be made.
That brings us to the topic of manufacturing. First off, END’s shoes are manufactured in Guangzhou, China. END is open about this and is willing to discuss concerns about manufacturing in China. Actually, they come out and ask for folks to raise concerns. Here’s what Finklea recently wrote about END’s activities in China:
“We get a lot of questions about doing business in China. Our manufacturing process is groundbreaking because it takes the workers health into account; it removes steps, requires fewer workers and does take less energy. China is making great strides in creating a cleaner manufacturing process and we are frankly honored to be part of this process.”
As suggested in the discussion of design above, END attempts to design its shoes to minimize the amount of material waste (E
ND aims for less than 5% manufacturing waste), energy, and machinery used in construction. Streamlining manufacturing saves times and less time means less energy used to power machinery. Estey spent two weeks in China working on the factory floor working towards this goal as well as aiming to reduce worker exposure to solvents.
On the ground in China, END looks beyond the factory gates. First off, it is conscientious of the distance its materials must travel. The company attempts to source all material from within four hours of the factory. END even looks at the practices of the materials suppliers of its suppliers. (Is the cotton organic? How is the bamboo processed?)
The consideration that END puts into its design and manufacturing extends to its marketing efforts. For starters, you aren’t going to hear “green” this and “green” that from end. They recognize that “green” has become a buzz word without any meaning. In fact, END hopes to address the lack of any sustainability standards or benchmarks in the outdoor industry, but that’s a subject for Part 2.
When it comes to sales, many outdoor product companies rely on independent manufacturers representatives to travel between stores explaining their products and END is no exception. The reps travel from store to store can significantly increase an outdoor company’s carbon footprint. However, END is doing what it can (within the confines of its industry) to reduced its carbon emissions from rep travel. For instance, it is encouraging its reps to use technologies such as Skype or video conferencing as substitutes for face-to-face meetings where possible. END is also asking its reps to schedule their travel conscientiously, such as meeting with a store about many of the rep’s companies at one time. (Independent reps typically represent a constellation of companies.) END isn’t only asking its reps to be thoughtful, though; Finklea is also modifying his travel when possible.
On the advertising front, iRunFar was shocked when it learned END would not be doing ANY print advertising. Instead, the company will rely on a heavy online presence, outreach on college campuses, and building relationships with blogs like iRunFar.
One great example of END’s commitment to sustainability is its both from this year’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. This is one of two huge outdoor retailer shows held in the US and it is THE place to get your product noticed. Well, rather than build a standard fancy, but disposable convention booth, END reused old materials. The two main elements of the booth were reclaimed wood from an old bridge in Oregon and canvas. For a podium, END found a kitchen cabinet on Craigslist and painted it with recycled paint from Portland’s Metro Paint Recycling. All the materials END brough for the booth fit into two 4′ by 8′ boxes. The company purchased any small metal parts it needed for the booth locally. Finklea also noted that END will minimize the amount of marketing schwag it gives away at such shows.
So that’s what iRunFar’s got on END’s approach to sustainability. Check back soon for Part 2 and a look at END’s current and future products as well as how END sees the future of sustainability in the outdoor retail industry. In the mean time, share what you think out END’s approach to sustainable performance shoes.