September 2016

Footwear businesses opt for eco-friendly practices

 In an industry where comfort and pain relief will always come first and the cost of quality footwear can be intimidating for some customers, adding eco-friendly practices to the equation can be a challenge. But a growing number of businesses are making it a priority.

By Kristine Thomas

For Lise Dallien MacMillan, BScKin, CPed(C); Michael Duvdevani, CPed; Dillon Dardano; Don Stowell; and Meredith Crary-Johanson, CPed, the decision to use environmentally friendly practices and products in their footwear businesses wasn’t based on crunching numbers or analyzing trends.

Simply put, they all believe it is the right thing to do.

“It’s doing what’s right for the environment and making sound decisions that are for the greater good,” said Stowell, operations manager for Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, which has six locations in Maine. “We need to be responsible and take care of the environment for our kids and our grandkids.”

Lamey-Wellehan’s philosophy is that every choice must be made with the future in mind. Choices that benefit the environment are also good business decisions, Stowell said. That idea is echoed in other parts of the US and Canada.

“Our philosophy is not about just selling shoes,” said Duvdevani, owner of Complete Feet in Birmingham, AL. “We work with people to find the best shoe that fits their lifestyle, and we promote practices that support the environment.”

Comfort and therapeutic footwear business owners say educating customers about the benefits of purchasing eco-friendly products is one of their biggest challenges.

Dallien MacMillan, co-owner of Orthoquest Pedorthics and Rehabilitation in Kelowna, BC, said her staff is always looking for opportunities to reduce its carbon footprint—from employees walking or riding their bikes to work to becoming a paperless company.

“Our team at Orthoquest are nature enthusiasts, animal lovers, and health and well-being promoters and have a growing concern for the future of our planet,” Dallien MacMillan said.

Crary-Johanson is vice president of Crary Shoes, a full-service pedorthic facility and custom shoe manufacturing company in Portland, OR, in business since 1978.

“Our motivation to be eco-friendly is mostly out of the desire to do our part to decrease our carbon footprint,” Crary-Johanson said.

Despite a general increase in consumer awareness and support for eco-friendly products in recent years, comfort or therapeutic footwear businesses that have taken the steps to be eco-friendly say they’ve done so more because of their own beliefs than the desire of the consumer—most of whom are primarily concerned with finding quality shoes to allow them to carry on with their daily activities and alleviate their health condition or pain. These businesses also cite educating customers about the benefits of purchasing eco-friendly products—including those made by companies that employ fair trade labor practices or use locally sourced or sustainable materials—as one of their biggest challenges.

Complete Feet – Birmingham, AL

For Michael Duvdevani, CPed, the ideas to think about how his actions impacted the earth began when he was a child growing up on a family farm in Israel.

“My parents were ideological farmers,” he said. “They could make the desert bloom. They taught us to respect the land and to think about how we were using the land and water.”

When he went four-wheeling in the desert, he was taught to remain on the trail, and never veered off it because he realized the damage he could do to the ecosystem.

Duvdevani understands he is a bit of a trailblazer by adhering to eco-friendly practices at Complete Feet. On a daily basis, he does what he can to think about how his actions could impact the environment—from using a hydro-flask water bottle to walking to work to recycling.

 Most of his customers are not thinking about eco-friendly shoes when they visit his retail stores and clinic, he says.

“They are thinking about a pair of shoes that will take care of their feet,” he said. “Since the customers don’t come in looking for it, it’s our job to explain the benefits of some of the products we carry that are eco-friendly.”

The responsibility to think about the environment rests on Duv­devani’s shoulders. He encourages his staff to recycle materials, and he looks for brands that are eco-friendly.

“We each have to do our share to protect the environment,” he said. “We are definitely doing our share to shift to renewable products.”

Making the transition often isn’t easy, especially when many manufacturers and distributors are naturally concerned first and foremost about making a profit. This can make it a challenge to find eco-friendly products, and to sell them at price points that won’t intimidate customers—many of whom are already adjusting to the cost of quality shoes that will address their foot pain. Duvdevani said people who are price shoppers will walk out of his store empty-handed. But customers who value quality and clinical effectiveness often are also more receptive to eco-friendly concepts.

“Our focus is to work with people to find the best shoe for their lifestyle,” he said.

Carefully, Duvdevani merges his customers’ needs with his own eco-friendly philosophy.

“The way we treat the earth is how it will treat us back,” he said. “Everyone needs to do their fair share to protect it.”

Crary Shoes – Portland, OR

Portland is known for the way its residents have embraced sustainability, Meredith Crary-Johanson said. At Crary Shoes, linings are made from vegetable tanned leather, recycled wax is used in the custom foot orthoses, and Crary contracts with a company to make insoles from recycled plastic bottles. All custom shoes are manufactured in Portland.

While eco-friendly steps are being taken, Crary-Johanson echoed Duvdevani’s observation that the greatest challenge is keeping the cost of the shoe affordable for the client.

“High-quality footwear suitable for people with foot health issues is often not inexpensive, and eco-friendly products often aren’t either,” she said.

When a person’s feet are in pain and it impacts her ability to work or exercise, Crary-Johanson said the client isn’t thinking about what is eco-friendly “because they are so concerned about finding solutions for their painful feet as of course they should be.”

However, when she shares examples of how Crary Shoes is working to be eco-friendly such as using wax instead of plaster, she said she can tell customers certainly appreciate it.

In addition, the company offers different price points and divisions within the business.

“Our private-pay clients are usually willing to pay more for local and eco-friendly products,” she said.

The trends Crary-Johanson is seeing in being eco-friendly have to do with using less packaging, buying local, and recycling.

Manufacturing custom shoes on site allows for more control over how each shoe is made. To avoid using harsh chemicals, she said, they purchase vegetable tanned leathers whenever possible.

“We greatly reduced our waste when we went from plaster molds used to make orthotics to wax, which can be reused over and over,” she said. “We also use plastic to make all of our custom shoe lasts, which get saved and used over and over. Excess plastic can also be recycled.”

To save energy, Crary-Johanson said LED lighting and automatic shutoffs have been installed in many areas of the offices and the factory. The staff also does what it can to recycle and reuse, including repurposing shoe boxes whenever clients don’t want to take them home.

Dardano’s Shoes – Denver, CO

Dillon Dardano, store manager at Dardano’s Shoes in Denver and the great-grandson of the store’s founder, said his family’s business is focused on finding each customer a comfortable shoe, whether it’s for exploring hiking trails, traveling, or work.

“Our customers are looking for comfortable shoes to wear for their day-to-day lives,” Dardano said. “Comfort is what they are specifically looking for.”

While customers certainly appreciate what a business does to reduce its carbon footprint, Dardano said in his experience it’s normally not a motivating factor when it comes to making a shoe purchase.

“Most customers who look for eco-friendly products come into the store already knowing about the product because it’s being promoted by the company,” he said.

A few steps his company takes to do its share to be eco-friendly is to limit the amount of cardboard used, recycle whenever possible, try to use eco-friendly products when possible, and offer customers the option of repairing shoes rather than replacing them. The company also donates slightly worn shoes that have been returned to local nonprofits, including a women’s shelter.

For each pair of Oboz shoes sold, a tree is planted in partnership with Trees for the Future. Bozeman, MT-based Oboz also is known for its emphasis on reducing its carbon footprint, including donating unsellable shoes to nonprofit organizations, encouraging its employees to bike to work, and powering its headquarters using wind energy.

Each business has a responsibility to find ways to reduce its waste, give back to its community, and be more efficient, Dardano said, noting that each little thing people do to protect the environment adds up.

“It’s our social responsibility,” he said.

Lamey-Wellehan Shoes – Multiple locations, ME

Don Stowell recalls the image as though it were yesterday. A shipment of shoes had arrived at a store and as employees were unpacking the boxes, a pile of paper and cardboard accumulated and was thrown away.

“That’s when we realized we needed to do the right thing and stop filling landfills with items that could be recycled,” Stowell said.

Since beginning its recycling program in 1993, the company has recycled 95% of the material that comes into its six stores. Other ways the company is eco-friendly includes using programmable thermostats, finding insulation spots, switching to hybrid designs for company cars, tracking carbon emissions, and using bio-diesel in its trucks.

Lamey Wellehan’s stores were designed with the environment in mind, from using recycled materials to using energy-efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs to refurbishing equipment and furniture rather than purchasing new items—efforts that have been recognized by the state of Maine.

Stowell said customers appreciate the efforts the company has made to be eco-friendly, including a recent decision to stop providing shopping bags.

“If you were to see a picture of our ocean, you would see areas with large amounts of plastic floating around,” Stowell said. “We decided to go bagless at all six stores, and we’ve only have had three or four people complain. Some of our customers even leave the shoebox with us to recycle or reuse.”

As the buyer for men’s shoes, Stowell said it’s a challenge to find eco-friendly products that are within a customer’s budget. But customers who appreciate Maine’s coastline, lakes, and mountains also appreciate what Lamey-Wellehan does to protect the environment. And Stowell said each little effort makes a difference.

Orthoquest Pedorthics – Kelowna, BC, Canada

Being eco-friendly is one of the key values at Orthoquest. Clients’ files are stored in safe electronic files, eliminating the need for paper charts and records. There is a conscious effort to reduce the amount of paper, including using hand towels in the washrooms instead of paper towels and glassware instead of paper cups for the water dispenser. Staff members are encouraged to walk or bike to work or use public transportation.

Lise Dallien MacMillan is the key player to the environmentally friendly drive at Orthoquest. While her husband and business partner, Sean MacMillan, CPed(C), believes in eco-friendly principles, Lise Dallien MacMillan said she is “definitely” the more passionate of the two.

“I’ve been striving to be creative to support environmentally responsible practices as well as create awareness for our team, clients, and the community,” she said. “We believe choices that we make daily can have a profound effect on the health and vitality of our homes, communities and the planet.”

Like other environmentally conscious footwear retailers, Dallien MacMillan said being eco-friendly isn’t limited to what is offered to clients—it’s also about creating an eco-friendly culture in the workplace.

The demand from the community to support such practices is increasing slowly, Dallien MacMillan said.

“We are learning that people sharing our passion seek out companies like us,” she said. “I do the same when researching which products and services I choose to support.”

Finding high-quality—and especially medical-quality—products such as shoes, socks, or materials that are also environmentally friendly has presented a challenge, Dallien MacMillan said, though she noted more options are becoming available.

“Companies are making efforts to be more responsible with material sourcing, manufacturing practices, corporate policies, and community support,” she said. “We are proud to support the suppliers that we carefully source.”

One key to keeping the business profitable is marketing it as a specialty shoe store and medical service provider, she said. Providing quality customer service and developing a trusted relationship pays off when clients return for future purchases, Dallien MacMillan said.

“This reputation is what has allowed our business to grow,” she said. “We would like to think that the service should support the product. Most of our clients return due to the service, knowledge, experience, and care spent, as well as our social consciousness and brand loyalty.”

Shopping bag with recycle symbol.

To promote itself as eco-friendly, Dallien MacMillan said the company is planning to apply for B Corporation Assessment and Certification.

Every purchase a customer makes is a choice, Dallien Mac­Millan said; customers who are concerned about environmental friendly practices conduct research on companies who share their ideals and philosophy about the importance of caring for the earth. Then they spend their money with companies that meet their criteria.

“It is a passion and way of life for them,” she said. “Every purchase we make is a choice and ultimately supports a way of life.”

Kristine Thomas is a freelance writer based in Silverton, OR.

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