Jeff Dill: Footwear industry needs to focus on sustainable materials

Keen's new unit director of trailhead wants more sustainable materials in footwear.

Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

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Jeff Dill has wanted to do exactly what he does for a living since he was an elementary-school student.

Keen’s footwear guru learned at a school function that creating footwear was a career option.

“I couldn’t believe that was a thing you could do for a living and actually get paid,” Dill said. “I’ve always loved product and the stories around how the products come to life, and I have never looked back since then.”

A competitive runner throughout high school and college, Dill said since shoes were pretty much the only gear he used, he became a shoe “gear head.” His first job out of school was at a Jacksonville, Fla. specialty running store. He then moved into sales and finally into product.

Now Dill’s in charge of long-range business planning for Keen’s outdoor categories, and oversees the product creation process.

As Keen celebrates its 10th anniversary, Dill talks about how the company’s history is reflected in its new line, what he thinks is the future of trail footwear and challenges the industry needs to overcome to remain successful.

Where do you see trail running footwear going in the future?
Focusing on versatility and hybrid technologies is a big thing. Approach and water shoes with sticky rubber, and trail runners with road manners, offer people a bit more range than the ultra-specific. I also think the catalogue of materials that are currently used will explode. Too many people rely on the straight rubber/EVA/mesh/synthetic recipe and there are some great options that are currently overlooked.

What are the top characteristics of a great trail shoe, in your opinion?
Fit is king. Whatever the activity, if it doesn’t fit, nothing matters. But protection sets trail apart from other types of shoes in the form of stability, traction and cushion.

What are some innovations you’d like to see in trail footwear?
I would love to see more sustainable materials or at least more Earth-friendly materials become priority. It’s not hard today to find a fit and performance package that works for almost everyone, but we’re not quite yet up to where we could be with some more responsible sourcing, sampling and construction for footwear.

Who would you say are some of the chief innovators in the footwear industry?
The best innovators are always the core, everyday users and athletes. People who use gear up to and past their limits, or stretch the applicable usefulness of products, are where we find inspiration and ideas for innovation. It sounds terribly corny, but you really have to use the hell out of these things to mine the purest and most original insights.

How has Keen’s 10th anniversary inspired the collection you’re launching?
When we began looking at ways to celebrate our 10th, we looked at products and business practices, and how all these things have changed since we began. We also had a few beers, put on the “future goggles” and took a look at what we’d like to become 10 years from now if we focus. Like a lot of 10-year-olds, Keen is really developing a clear identity and finding our place in the world and in the industry. Looking at 2014 and 2015 with a renewed sense of purpose and a bit of experience under or belt will ultimately help us innovate, but in the most relevant and useful way possible.

What are some challenges facing the outdoor industry as a whole and how can we overcome them?
Three things: One, climate change is already impacting the length of the winter selling season, forcing brands and parks to rethink their strategies. Two: Keeping smaller and independent specialty retailers competitive in the face of bigger chain and Internet retailers will become a larger discussion as well. Three: Finding long-term sourcing and manufacturing solutions that don’t just rely on chasing cheap labor back and forth across Asia.

What are some topics pertaining to the industry that you’re interested in?
I’m interested in the evolution of specialty retail over the next 10 years. As technology puts information at a customer’s fingertips, it’s becoming more difficult for some specialty retailers to remain relevant. Too many people for some reason think it’s okay to go to a specialty shop, get fitted by an expert, find the exact model they’re shopping for, scan the barcode and leave to buy the product online or for a few dollars cheaper someplace else. I’d like to see more retailers evolve the model of charging for the actual service they provide — that is expertise, fitting, advice and service — and not compete directly on price. In other words, sell the stuff you can’t buy online or at a big box retailer.