For the past month or so we've been in conversation with the newish start-up: END (Environmentally Neutral Design) Outdoor. The company will, as of August 2008, be selling a range of eco-aware athletic footwear for the outdoors. They say they'll be "questioning every seam, every stitch and every material. Once a new design is born, we will replace toxic materials, glues and solvents with renewable, sustainable or recycled (R/S/R) materials that can withstand the rigor our outdoor athletes require."
Based out of Oregon, a small team has been hard at work for the past 18 months or more, refining their designs. They haven't been slack on the funding side of things either, scoring a goodly whack of Angel Investor finance along the way. Like winning hundreds of thousands in both the "Best Non-Technology Company" and "Best Overall Investment Opportunity" categories from the Zino Zillionaire Investment Forum. They also teamed with sustainability consultant, Jon Blumenauer, of Hutani Sustainability Strategies to audit all aspects of the design, materials and manufacturing for their line.
The shoes are designed by Andrew Etsey, END's Creative Director, who's a former Global Design Director of Footwear at Nike. His co-founder and business partner, who previously work with eFusion, GE and Philips is Ben Finklea, who's handling the Sales & Marketing. Hear what Ben has to say about their business adventure, in an extended interview after the fold. TreeHugger: For your first season, your objectives include; Reducing waste and toxics,Â using less coal generated energy,Â materials reduced, and complex parts eliminated. Can you explain how you plan to affect a 59% reduction in these aspects.
Ben Finklea: As Andrew and I began our journey, the timing was interesting last summer as the 2007 Outside Magazine's Summer "Gear of the Year" was just published. We went out and bought a number of the top five shoes rated as the best trail runners and began to literally take them apart piece by piece and component by component. Andrew's background then lent itself to us being able to quantify and measure how much "stuff" went into these shoes. We literally counted total number of pieces, parts and components. Measured out and counted number of layers and were able to arrive at a number in which we could confidentaly say we had a total number of components and complex parts used in each shoe. We then measured our Stumptown 12oz Trail Trainer [top photo] against these top five and found that the 12oz represented a reduction in complex parts of between 35%-59% when ranked against our competition.
TH: Your early marketing suggest competition shoes are 'over-engineered'. Yet visually at least, the competition looks to have an equal amount of external detailing as the END shoes. How then is the END shoe less over-engineered?Â
Ben: The END shoe is dramatically different because of what is not seen. The shoe has no liner or internal foam packages on the inside. It also has a track and field or cross country inspired heel counter that shaves off a tremendous amount of mass when compared against a typical trail shoe. So while it might look similar on the outside, keep in mind the stuff there is the stuff we want there to provide the type of support Andrew wants on that shoe. The major footwear companies have done an amazing marketing job over the last 15-20 years convincing us that we need more stuff, more technology. Our Stumptown shoe is, at the time I write this, the most lightweight shoe in it's class at 12oz. It is also our most stable platform, perfect for a pronator or supenator due to the posting we put into the medial EVA. As we then move from the 12oz to the 10oz [pictured above] and then finally the 8.5oz our END story then becomes about building shoes for different journeys and the different feet out there.
TH: In the second season I understand you're striving for a 75% reduction of cements & glues. Tell us about that goal?
Ben: In season one, any glues or cements used are rice or water based. As we get to season two, we will bring two distinct new shoes to compliment the trail offering in the way of street and water shoes. The season one advances will be the line in the sand. Reducing glues and cements by 75% will be the highlight of season two in terms of moving the bar forward. We are still working through a number of areas to bring this glue reduction to the season one lineup, but when compared to a typical street running shoe, we have in fact achieved a significant reduction in glues and cements.
TH: What is the benchmark for these reductions?
Ben: This is the $64,000 question, because there is no industry benchmark right now. What END is trying to do is bring a bright light to the discussion and make it so we can get a number of us around the table and decide as an industry what are the indexes and measures we all ought to be using? I am working very hard on connecting with other footwear executives at events like Outdoor Retailer and The Running Event so we can sit down and discuss this. In the meantime, END is going to be the leader in candor and transparency about our design, manufacturing and materials process, because bottom line it is all we have right now, and it is the one thing people and consumers care about. Â
TH: In what ways will END footwear be different to what already exists?
Ben: We've learned two things...first that sustainability dramatically improved performance by allowing us to reduce weight. Second was that sustainable materials were easy for people to grasp when talking about sustainability. However we also knew it was the one place a lot of "greenwashing" was going on when companies just replaced bad materials for good without regard to the design process or the manufacturing process.
To us, "true" sustainability begins on the design board. That's where Andrew goes to work and proves through using design as a weapon that we can in fact do more with less. That we can build a better fitting, more comfortable shoe without playing by the same old rules. So to us, how we measure ourselves, it all hangs on three areas: Design, Manufacture & Materials. These are the three areas we felt we could in fact make an impact and as long as we are open and transparent and willing to take criticism, we felt we were on to something.
TH: Your marketing hints at manufacturing in China?
Ben: After a lot of looking at other countries and locations we made a decision last year that has proved to be an absolutely amazing experience for Andrew, myself and the END brand....to be part of the solution in China, instead of perpetuating the same old problem. END fundamentally believes that US companies must change how and what we order from Chinese factories if we ever have any hope of helping them get out of the awful polluting environment we helped them create.
As such, END spent two full weeks last summer literally retraining the factory workers on how we want them to construct out product and they really took to it! So far we feel we have been able to shave off about 1/3 of the manpower, molds and electricity needed to run a competitors lineup through typical production. Now when you talk about verifying and measuring this one, it can get real tricky because we come back to the industry standards question. What we have done is actually filmed our process and it will be available for all to see on the web site when the new web site launches prior to August. We have nothing to hide and welcome all to provide feedback.
One of the things I am really looking forward to is that this summer, the International MBA students at Portland State University will be doing their summer project around our "carbon footprint" of which the factory is a huge piece. Lucky for us, the entire class has traveled to China and many are Chinese nationals who will be able to bring a very discerning eye to it all we feel.
TH: Are any of the models weatherproof? If so, what technology is employed?
Ben: No Gore-tex is our slogan! All of our shoes are water-resistant, not waterproof. When we poled our potential customers more and more of them told us waterproofing on trail product was not a big deal. In fact many said they were going away from Gore-tex for moisture wicking reasons as well as environmental concerns.
TH: You note that your electricity is not coal based. Is this alternative power for manufacturing, as well for office and warehousing?
Ben: 100% of our local office electricity is bought through the local power company, PGE's renewable sources program. Â We are too little to effect how the factory generates, but we knew if we could focus on shortening the time we needed the line to run, we could take a first step. Especially in China, we are not totally sold on the offsets program and want to see it develop a bit further before we deploy capital behind it. We are keeping ourselves open to new ideas, but right now we just want to be lightening efficient at the factory so we are not creating waste and are not causing them to burn an ounce of electricity more than what we need them to. We fully agree coal based electricity in China has to go, but a lot of work is still needed here.
TH: What are the motivating factors behind you taking on this venture?
Ben: We're both nuts. We are committed to changing the world one pair of shoes at a time. We wanted to give athletes a chance to extend their sustainability beliefs out another level. Add to that, we both grew up in the elements. Andrew [left] is a surf kid from SoCal [Southern California] originally and grew up in the water and has become a pretty serious snow boarder. I [right] am a life long Oregonian who grew up in an amazing state and was constantly surrounded by some pretty majestic mountains, streams and deserts. Grew up skiing, hiking and eventually found trail running, which became a big passion. Add to that we both have a gaggle of kids who we are committed to handing this planet back to a little better than we found it.
In footwear today there is no governing body, no internationally accepted standard or no mainstream index for rating and ranking the overall "sustainability" of a given shoe. This is one of the reasons we started END. What we did know was that we could operate very differently than our competition by opening up the robe and being 100% transparent about 100% of our products and show the good, the bad and the ugly when it came to our designs and builds. We knew going in that no one had attempted to bring performance footwear into the sustainability realm and that season one was going to be about putting the line in the sand. We wanted to make something for athletes because footwear companies were ignoring their needs in the area of sustainability. I have a lot of admiration for the folks at Simple Shoes for example, but we all know I am not going to go do a 10K trail run in them.
At the end of the day (no pun intended), we did not want to create just another "company." The world has plenty of them. We wanted to create a culture obsessed with reducing the amount of stuff we use in all aspects of the business, not just products. I tell people all the time I was raised by hippies here in Oregon as a kid (true story) and that my parents raised me on the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra. However as "green" has become cool, too often I feel people forget the first two words...'Reduce' and 'Reuse.'Â It is unfortunate, because if those two words were used more, and made to be as cool as the word 'recycle' has become, we would have a movement that was even more interesting. Â
TH: What are the end-use expectations for the various models of shoe in the line? Weight seems to one determining point of difference, but what does this mean?
Ben: You have hit on the main differentiators in the line...weight. Â Again, going back to one of my earlier comments; we knew the product would be light, but we just did not fully understand how lightweight things would become when we really applied a sustainability wrapper to it all...design, manufacture and materials. Also, we wanted to start bringing in more and more sustainable materials like reground rubber in the outsole, adding recycled content to the midsole, recycled laces, bamboo collars, etc. etc. The rest of the story is that we wanted to create different equipment options for different journeys. The trails we all face out there are different and unique, just like an individuals foot and we wanted to create a line that allowed people to go for an hour on a trail in our 10oz, and then transition into maybe our 8.5oz with a pair of jeans for a date night. Â
TH: When will the product go on sale? And will it be hrough the normal outdoor retail outlets?
Ben: Shoes will go on sale August 1st at Zappos.com, Backcountry.com , Climbinggear.com all will carry 100% of our line up. Then almost 100 specialty outdoor retailers around the US will also launch on August 1st and will be carrying a good deal of then line. REI is testing us in NW focused stores, but is also putting us on REI.com and will carry a number of products from the line.
"Let me close with this point, as it is not well represented in our early marketing material, and that is the issue of price. Right now in the US, sustainability is awfully expensive. People do not jokingly call Whole Foods by it's nickname "Whole Paycheck" for nothing.Â In fact the total number of Americans who can access the sustainable market right now is way, way, way too small. It seems that for the majority of Americans, if you want to buy wind powered energy at home, organic produce at the market or a bamboo shirt then you better be prepared to pay anywhere from 10%-40% more for that product versus a comparable "non-green" everyday option. Well, bottomline, that is not a very sustainable way of doing business. Â
Maybe the single biggest driver for Andrew and I in starting END was our absolute and total commitment to making an entire lineup of products that are affordable and sustainable. We wanted to make a shoe that was a lightweight leader, fit better, lasted longer and over all was better than what was on the market today. Â
We have a paradigm to shift to effect here, as we want to demonstrate to people they are actually getting a better shoe that is actually a few dollars less and is good for the environment. It is a challenge we and our outdoor retail partners think we can climb, in fact it is something we must climb. For example, No shoe in our line up is over $100. Our 12oz will retail for $80, the 10oz for $70 and the 8.5oz for $60. All while still delivering great margins to the retailer and good ones to END. If we can walk away at the end of season one saying we have created a tipping point in footwear for sustainability, then we will have made a good first step." Â
[Thanks to Ben for taking time from his busy schedule to talk with us. The brand was formally launched in Portland, Oregon, Thursday last week. Keep a look out for the shoes in a month or so.]