The Running Shoe Leading the Race to Sustainability

Cradle to Cradle

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."

{related_content}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).

Brooks has put the BioMoGo additive technology into the public domain to encourage wider adoption, a refreshing act of sustainable sportsmanship.

Granted, the resulting byproducts aren't mined from dumps to rebuild soil, but Brooks sees this as a step in the right direction on an ongoing journey and offers tips to maximize footwear's useful life and stave off landfilling.

The Green Silence, a performance racing shoe introduced in January, manifests Brooks environmental principles throughout, which Campbell terms "360 degree sustainability." Its name reflects Brooks' vision for a future where green is an unspoken given.

The shoe has a slim eco-footprint, with half the pieces found in similar styles, improved durability and extensive use of recycled and biodegradable materials. Brooks saved the equivalent of half a liter of oil and 41 percent of the energy used to make each pair.

Overall, 75 percent of its components are made with post-consumer recycled content and 3 percent contain post-industrial content, such as multiple pieces of the upper, laces, heel counters and rubber outsoles.

By weight, 52 percent of materials are post-consumer recycled and 7 percent are post-industrial recycled-yielding 60 percent total recycled content. Biodegradable components include the BioMoGo midsole, insole and collar foams. Brooks reduced volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 65 percent, using low- and non-VOC materials and inks, and water-based adhesives. The sole is HPRGreen.

Brooks put the Green Silence through extensive testing in house with external wear-testers to ensure it met the highest standards of performance. Having run in it myself on road and track surfaces, I found it stable, cushioned and supportive, more so than I would have expected given its weight, number of components and structure. The soft mesh materials also make for a customizable, comfortable fit.

Despite its name, the Green Silence sports visually loud reds and yellows.

"We wanted to create something that wasn't brown, green or gray, using strong colors to make a statement that something bold and beautiful can be sustainable," says Hills. When wearing these, I consistently received positive comments on their look and style, inviting conversation about the potential of sustainable innovation.

A Team Effort

Brooks has made sustainability a shared endeavor via a cross-functional leadership team that develops strategy and managers who drive implementation. Each employee develops sustainability goals as part of overall performance management planning, linking it to compensation.

"I love the fact that we work for a company that recognizes personal choices we make," says Campbell.

The company collaborates with peers through Business for Social Responsibility and the Outdoor Industry Association Eco Working Group, where it's taken a leadership role to drive wider change. It also works with diverse partners such as the EPA, the Zero Waste Alliance, the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and others.

One of Brooks' sponsored athletes, Scott Jurek, has jumped into the game to help the company green up. Jurek is a world-renowned, championship ultrarunner (races longer than a marathon, often up to 100 miles) and the seven-time winner and course record holder of Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, among other accomplishments. He's worked with the company for about six years, infusing his personal passion for the planet into his guidance on product design and communications with runners.

Jurek explains his motivations, saying, "After spending a lot of time outdoors, on trails, being in nature and running in the places where I've been able to run, I've asked myself whether it make sense to go through several pairs in six months. I grapple with that, knowing about chemicals used in manufacturing and impact on the disposal end. Taking it to individual level is important. So, how can I have a role in [improving] design, materials and what happens afterward?"

Jurek believes careful design can deliver performance with a conscience.

"We consider what features runners need and how can we make those features as sustainable as possible," he says. "People may assume that if a product is green is will not be as durable. The Cascadia and Green Silence soles, made with HPR Green Rubber, are more durable than soles with petroleum-based rubber. And, for racing shoes, we're not sacrificing lightweight performance with the Green Silence."

The Road Ahead

Campbell admits room for improvement remains, and he's eager to embrace the challenge. "The Green Silence represents state of the art in sustainable performance footwear," he says. "It's hard to find that 360-degree coverage among performance running shoes. Yet, while each part of the Green Silence has a sustainability story, that shoe is not 100 percent sustainable."

Campbell envisions extending the "360 sustainability" approach across the company's shoe and apparel lines, while addressing impacts further up the supply chain.

Hills concurs. "We're proud of the efforts we've made and we hope that runners appreciate it and are inspired," she says. "Yet, we fully admit we have a long way to go. We can't tackle it all at once, though we wish we could. We've identified sticking points and have plans to address them, working toward it with energy and excitement."

Let's hope this is one never-ending run, and a race every company wins. Happy trails!
 

Melissa Schweisguth is director of membership development and education for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association and an independent consultant on CSR/sustainability and marketing/communications.

Images courtesy of Brooks.