The Running Shoe Leading the Race to Sustainability

As a social responsibility professional who enjoys trail running, seeing more athletic companies pick up the pace on sustainability is a welcome trend. One business at the front of the pack is Brooks, whose modest marketing approach has left its efforts less known than peers.

It's likely that will change with the launch of the Green Silence, a shoe that exemplifies its commitment from heel to toe, bringing visibility to a successful example of sustainability leadership.

Several team members took time to discuss Brooks' approach, product innovation and a view of what's next -- Future Concepts Manager Derek Campbell, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Stacey Gamble, Corporate Communications Manager Tamara Hills and Scott Jurek, sponsored athlete.

[Disclosure: Brooks provided the author with a free pair of its Green Silence shoes to test for this piece. The writer made a donation to environmental causes equaling the value of the shoes.]

The Play Book

Overall, Brooks' social responsibility framework is comprehensive and principled, encompassing social and environmental issues, looking across the supply chain and guided by lifecycle analyses. It's also grounded in frameworks such as Cradle-to-Cradle, Green Chemistry and Design for Environment.

Multiple motivations guide Brooks' course. "We know sustainability is important to [runners]," says Hills. "They want clean air and pathways to run on. It's also important to employees. Our culture attracts people who are looking for more sustainable ways of living and we get excited about opportunities to change products. From a business perspective, being smarter about materials, processes, and amount of materials increases business sustainability."

The company toes its line of communications with integrity.

"We're careful not to oversell, overpromise or greenwash," Hills says. "It's important to be accurate and honest as we let [runners] know the good things we're doing." The company's website and packaging inform and engage consumers and others around key efforts.

Game-Changing Innovation

Brooks has been working to improve its products' environmental impact for several years, focused on packaging, reducing non-renewable materials, extending durability and optimizing end-of-life outcomes. Campbell says these comprise the largest impacts and are aspects they control, yielding the biggest near-term benefits.

Many shoes have High Performance Rubber Green (HPR Green) outsoles, made with sand rather than petroleum. Recycled materials have woven their way into laces, shoe and apparel fabrics, hangtags and packaging. The company seeks suppliers with bluesign certification, governing environmental practices in textile manufacturing.

In 2008, Brooks introduced the biodegradable BioMoGo midsole, used in a number of its shoes. An additive in the foam allows anaerobic microbes to eat the material once it hits a biologically active landfill, breaking it into nontoxic byproducts in 20 years (versus 1,000 years for a standard midsole).