Oregon shoe companies big and small step up green initiatives

Softstar Shoes makes handcrafted footwear at the company’s workshop in Philomath. Softstar also embraces eco-friendly businesses practices. (Camila Adem)

Tricia Salcido had a confession to make on a recent afternoon: She brought a single-use coffee cup to work.

Salcido owns Softstar Shoes, a handmade leather shoemaker that is one of Oregon’s greenest footwear businesses. She said her 32 employees would never carry in a single-use cup.

“No way,” she said.

Softstar, located in Philomath, a small town outside Corvallis, has long embraced sustainability as a key tenet of its operations. Now the company plans to try out reusable packaging. The company will ship buyers their shoes in reusable bags as part of a pilot program that launches July 23.

Softstar’s decision reflects a broader movement among Oregon footwear companies, big and small, to adopt eco-friendly business practices.

Companies have a vested interest in sustainability for two reasons: using fewer resources cuts costs and eco-friendliness can help sales, said Nathan Buehler, a spokesman for Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency.

In Oregon, the shoe industry has an outsized economic footprint.

“It is part of our brand,” Buehler said.

As they work to become greener, footwear companies have scrutinized every aspect of their business, from manufacturing to sales, said Matt Powell, a senior industry adviser for sports at The NPD Group, a market research firm.

Some manufacturers want to shift production closer to the United States, as shoes made in Asia can spend months on shipping vessels that spew diesel emissions into the air, Powell said.

To further reduce waste, athleticwear brands including Oregon-based Nike are changing how some of their shoes are made, Powell said.

“Quality has not suffered at all,” Powell said.

Tricia Salcido runs Softstar Shoes, a Philomath footwear manufacturer that embraces eco-friendly business policies. (Garon Jones)

Salcido said she wants to create a sustainable company with products that are healthy for her customers. The company sells about 36,000 pairs of shoes a year that are made in its workshop located along Philomath’s Main Street.

The company sources leather from tanneries that don’t use formaldehyde, a move aimed at keeping their shoes as free as possible of chemicals. The leather comes from countries such as Germany and South Korea.

A pair of leather Chukkas runs $190, while the athletic DASH RunAmoc shoes cost $130. The company also offers some vegan shoes.

“It’s a very niche market that we are filling right now,” Salcido said.

As part of a pilot, the company plans to ship 200 buyers their shoes in the reusable packaging, from a company called RePack. The new reusable packages could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent compared to traditional shipping over the lifespan of the packaging, according to company documents.

In exchange for sending the package back to RePack, customers will earn $10 in store credit from Softstar.

Softstar’s sustainability efforts extend beyond shipping. The company gives workers a small pay bump for carpooling with colleagues to work. Drivers earn anywhere from $5 to $50 a week depending on how many rides they give to coworkers.

Softstar also sources all of its power from wind and solar energy. Inside a restroom, customers can use washable hand towels instead of traditional paper towels that end up in the garbage.

“It can be challenging because you’re never done,” Salcido said. “You can always improve.”

— Camila Adem, Parkrose High School

— Garon Jones, David Douglas High School