Keen Footwear: hybrid footwear
If one were to ask what three things best summarize apparel makers Keen Footwear, the best answer would probably be a company that gives back, takes action, and works constantly to reduce its environmental impact. That’s because those are the three things Keen itself takes very seriously as part of the Keen Effect, a holistic vision that ensures each product is made ethically, sustainably, and responsibly.
While skeptics may view the Keen Effect’s high-flying language as nothing more than cheap talk, the company has consistently put its effort and money where its mouth is, most recently with its Pair with Purpose campaign. The fundraising partnership with Mercy Corps, which was dedicated to helping those in crisis zones all around the world, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars during the 2017 holiday season, and truly epitomizes the Keen Effect as a whole. I interviewed Mark Steinbuck, Keen Effect grants/community specialist, to talk more about Pair with Purpose, the Keen Effect, and the direction of the company as a whole.
Q. How did Keen originally begin?
Keen is a family-owned company that started in 2003 in Alameda, California with one product in our line called the Newport Sandal, now celebrating its 15-year anniversary. The novelty of that product was that it brought two different worlds of footwear together, and is really the first example of what we like to call “hybrid footwear”, blending the technical aspects of a sports sandal with other toe-protective footwear. Since inventing the Newport and developing a line around it, we’ve branched out into trail shoes as well as casual and work shoes. In the mid-2000s we moved up to Portland, Oregon, which is where we’re now headquartered.
In the photo: Keen staff Credit: Keen Footwear
Q. Keen has a set of three core principles, which include giving back, taking action, and reducing impact. How has the company taken those ideas from beliefs to reality?
Ever since the start of our company, we’ve been interfacing with all three of these buckets to different degrees.
The whole Keen Effect department was really started because of the “giving back” philosophy, which in turn was present almost at the beginning of our company in 2004 when the tsunami came through Southeast Asia. We put our first marketing budget of $1 million towards relief of the tsunami, and to create the program that is now known as the Keen Effect.
But it was really in 2013 when we formally created a department within our company called the Keen Effect, which includes myself. We have a staff of people who specifically activate those values within our brand.
For instance, “giving back” represents our corporate philanthropy. We have a grant program that grants $100,000 a year to children that are battling nature deficit disorder by funding programs that get kids out into nature. We also have strategic partnerships with groups like Leave No Trace, The Conservation Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, Forest Park Conservancy, and American Whitewater. Also, every Keen employee gets 40 hours of volunteering to use towards any 501(c)3 non-profit of their choice. Those are the three major ways that we give back, but we also have other fundraisers that we’ve enacted such as the Mercy Corps Pair with Purpose campaign.
In the photo: The Newport, by Keen Credit: Keen Footwear
Q. Going into more detail about Pair with Purpose, how did that get started and what were last year’s results?
The Mercy Corps partnership came about because our e-commerce department was looking to make a positive impact during the holiday season. We decided that the appropriate theme for the holiday season was to respond to the massive amount of disaster and crisis that we were experiencing in 2017, both domestically and internationally.
We were hearing about Hurricane Harvey, Puerto Rico, as well as the constant crises that are faced all across the world, especially in Syria, Lebanon, the refugee crisis, Timor-Leste, Niger, Ethiopia, and a lot of other less talked about places. We decided to pair up with Mercy Corps, which we’d paired up with multiple times in the past but never on this scale, to create the “Pair with Purpose” campaign: every pair of footwear bought on keenfootwear.com between Thanksgiving and Christmas led to a donation of $5 directly to Mercy Corps. The end haul of that was over $212,000 directly towards Mercy Corps.
Q. What do you see as the future of Keen?
From a values standpoint we’re continually ramping up our advocacy and interactions with policy and government affairs. In 2015, we launched a program called Live Monumental, which serves to advocate for the creation of five new national monuments across the country. That was our first serious solo go at public land advocacy, and we’re continuing that fight. The political climate is different now than it was in 2015, but we’re still talking about public land and trying to widen the tent to get a lot of different stakeholders to talk about what this land does for us, how it’s part of our national heritage, how it’s good for the environment, and how it can be meeting point in an otherwise divided political landscape.
We’re also hosting events on multiple public land sites across the country this year, including a series called Story Camp, where we invite anyone who wants to come out to tell a story about their experience on public land and record those stories. We already hosted our first Story Camp in Golden Butte National Monument in Nevada earlier this year in January, and will host more events on other contested public lands throughout 2018.
In addition, we launched the Better Takes Action Phone Booth, which is an old-school phone booth retrofitted to be a citizen engagement center. It has call scripts and a binder that serves as the phonebook, so that citizens know the issues and can easily activate and call their representatives with a lot of knowledge right in front of them. This is a midterm election year, and we want to be involved in driving higher voter turnout and greater participation in the democratic process.
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