KEEN Footwear: Kids, the Environment and Even Jerry Garcia
By Brian E. Clark
I’ve long been a fan of traditional sandals for use in warm weather.
Which meant that I regularly stubbed and sometimes split open my big toes when those poor toes collided with rocks, tree roots, and the occasional piece of uplifted sidewalk.
So when I discovered KEEN’s Newport sandals – with their protective black toe bumpers – about 15 years ago, I was hooked. My days of damaging my distal phalanges (fancy words for toes) are mere unpleasant memories. As a side effect, the tops of my feet have been striped from May through October since then, due to the gaps in the Newport upper webbing.
I’m not the only one who appreciates those sandals and other footwear produced by KEEN. The company has grown steadily since it launched in 2003 in Alameda, California.
“The initial concept was simple and built on the idea of toe protection,” said Erik Burbank, a KEEN executive who has worked for Nike and spent eight years in Norway toiling for Helly Hansen. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, where KEEN relocated in 2006 to be closer to other shoe manufacturers like Nike, Adidas, and Columbia. KEEN has had a factory in Portland for the past decade.
The basic idea behind the Newport was that a sandal can do more and be functional, good-looking and give the wearer toe protection, he said.
When the design came along, Burbank noted, it was so unusual that other footwear brands weren’t interested in it. But a small group of designers ran with the idea and KEEN was born.
“It was a success pretty much right out of the box,” explained Burbank, who said that the company quickly moved on to hiking boots, lifestyle, and other kinds of footwear, including shoes and sandals for kids – which are often passed down through families and then given away.
Burbank said KEEN had double-digit growth last year and is expected to do the same this year. But 2020 started off shakily with the arrival of COVID.
“When the pandemic hit, we shut our offices on March 13 and we’ve been working virtually since then,” he said. “Many retailers closed their doors, too, and there was a lot of caution in the marketplace.
“But people wanted to get outside in a big way and our fans started looking for our products online and on our website,” he added. “Things rebounded rapidly.”
Burbank said business had been growing well prior to 2020 both because of upticks in participation in outdoor activities and interest by consumers who saw KEEN footwear as fashionable.
“Gucci even came out with a sandal that was impressively inspired by or certainly looked similar to our Newport sandal,” he said. “And that was absolutely a compliment.
“When we saw that, we thought it is so cool that what we are doing in this little industry that we put all our energy into – not because it is the fastest way to riches – is being picked up by some of the biggest style brands in the world,” he said.
Burbank said sandals remain the company’s top-selling category, with waterproof hiking boots – known for their comfort – coming in a close second.
He said KEEN’s designers wanted to create hiking boots that didn’t initially hurt wearers’ feet.
“If you go back to the days of our youth, hiking boots came with instructions to wear them around the house to break them in, get them wet and then go for a walk of maybe a mile or so before doing much more with them,” he said.
“With our Targhee boot, though, you could literally take them out of the box to go hiking and that was something radically different,” he said. “Reviewers said the comfort level was off the charts.”
In its quest to improve its footwear, Burbank KEEN introduced its Ridgeflex waterproof hiker last fall that is built on a Targhee platform but comes with bellows where the toes join the body of the foot. The aim, he said, is to reduce the energy each step takes and prolong the life of the boots.
“There had been very little meaningful innovation in hiking boots since the mid-80s, so our team began working on bringing ours into the modern era,” he explained. “You see bellows on machinery that repetitive motions millions of times.
“So when we put Bellows Flex technology into our boots, we found the durability increased by a huge amount. While companies might do 10,000 to 20,000 flexes to test a boot, we’d generally do 100,000. But with the bellows, we’ve done long-term tests of 1 million-plus flexes and they don’t break down.
“Moreover, in testing with a local lab that we work with called BioMechanica, we discovered it takes 60 percent less energy to flex our boot than a standard leather boot. That means when you put your foot in there, you can walk much easier. We also improved the heel, with added foam that wraps around the Achilles and anchors your foot snugly and comfortably.”
Burbank said KEEN has taken a robust environmental stand, eliminating PFC “forever” chemicals used to make products water-resistant. Through its work with the Leather Working Guild, it contracts with tanneries that use a zero-waste technology program, he added.
In addition, KEEN has stopped using pesticides and herbicides to kill odor in its footbeds.
“We’ve been able to work with an external partner who has helped us come up with an environmentally clean way for stopping foot odor without using toxic chemicals,” he noted. “We actually have a guy whose responsibilities are mostly around fit, but he’s also in charge of shoe sniffing and testing to make sure that we’re keeping foot odor down while not using chemicals.”
Because of this, he said the company is no longer releasing 7,500 kilograms (16,500 pounds) of pesticides into the environment.
“That’s just little ol’ KEEN,” Burbank said. “So you can imagine how many kilos of pesticides the footwear industry is putting out into there.
“The current statistic is that 24 billion pair of footwear are produced a year,” he said. “Our reduction may not be that much overall, but it is one of the elements that we’re attacking in what we call our ‘detox journey.’”
Burbank said the company is also seeking to have a social impact with its KEEN Effect program, which – among other things – gives grants to groups in an effort to get more kids from underserved communities outside.
“The KEEN Effect tries to help ensure that our values are coming to life through everything that we do,” Burbank said. “One of the core things in our mission is to help provide access for everyone to be outside because we all know there are great benefits to our physical and mental health. Yet the outdoors isn’t accessible to all.”
Now in its seventh year, he said KEEN’s Kids Grants Program has invested more than $750,000 and served more than 120,000 youngsters.
“It’s all about finding grantees that are super scrappy, local grass-coots organizations passionate about getting kids outdoors,” he said. “If we can give them $5,000 or $10,000, it’s a boost. We just closed the grants period and we had 383 groups submit applications, an increase of 50 percent over last year. Out of that we were able to fund 10 of them.
“It’s clear we need to do more because the need is so big. But it’s something we are passionate about continuing because access to the outdoors is not equal. Seventy percent of low-income communities live in nature-deprived areas, with communities of color three times more likely than white communities to be deprived of outdoor experiences.
“Our grants help fund local programs that get kids outside to play, helping to reduce ADHD symptoms and stress, while enhancing social skills and building physical and emotional health. This has always been part of who KEEN is. We’re honored to continue this work and be in the trenches with grassroots partners working to get kids outside.”
Last but not least, no story on KEEN would be complete without mentioning the colorful new sandals inspired by the artwork of the late musician Jerry Garcia.
One of the first pairs of Newports I owned was a rusty orange and eventually, I wore mine out. Try as I might, I couldn’t find colorful replacements. It seemed over the past decade or so the only colors available for men were blue and brown and gray. Women, however, had a bouquet of vibrant options. I was jealous.
Now, thanks to the Grateful Dead frontman’s inspiration, I have a pair of KEEN X Jerry Garcia sandals that look like a brilliant sunset with splashes of red, pink, yellow, and even a dash of blue on both the uppers and the soles. They’ll be the hit of any whitewater river trip I join. Or, what the heck, even a stroll in my local park.
“We’re having a little fun with that,” laughed Will Schuh, a KEEN product manager. “We were given license to be more creative with color. And thanks to a connection to the Garcia family, we got access to his artwork and we’re running with it.”
And in a move Garcia, a supporter of rainforest and coral reef preservation, surely would have appreciated, 1 percent of the proceeds from products using his art – including other sandals, kids’ shoes, handbags, and even covid face masks – will go to environmental groups.
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Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.