Outdoor Footwear manufacturers are looking in three different performance and comfort categories this year and while there have been some meaningful advancements to reducing environmental impacts in the footwear industry, there are more incremental, evolutionary technical improvements to footwear performance than there are radical, market-changing breakthroughs. One footwear sales rep put it best when he said, “everyone has a trail runner, a Keen knock-off, and a Crocs knock-off…”

While there was certainly a great deal of flattery by means of imitation on the show floor this year, many manufacturers have been able to differentiate themselves from the crowd with some interesting stylistic and technical improvements to their line.

Timberland is looking at the end consumer and designing product specifically for the time-compressed outdoor enthusiast, like many other companies. However at the same time, the company is looking at the recreation habits of these enthusiasts and finding that they want to do multiple sports in one day, and want footwear that can handle it all. In conjunction with their product design, Timberland has started a marketing campaign based on having a “three sport day.”

Timberland is also finding that eco-friendly materials and production processes are migrating up the supply chain. Today it is much easier to find the materials needed, from soles to cushioning to uppers, in order to produce more earth-friendly footwear. In response to this, Timberland is issuing a call to action for other footwear companies to take a closer look at their production and materials. Timberland’s new Greenscapes program places a label on every pair of shoes, outlining the exact environmental impact caused by production. This “green index” rates footwear on three different criteria – climate impact, or greenhouse gas emissions caused by manufacturing; chemicals used, primarily solvents, glues, PVC, and chrome in leather; and materials used, which looks at recycled and/or recyclable material content, organic materials, and rapidly renewable resources.

Timberland is openly inviting other footwear manufacturers to adopt the Green Index program so consumers can see a consistent label, across brands that can educate them on the impact of their buying decisions.

Another project that Timberland has been working on is GoLite footwear, which actually lived up to most of the hype and secrecy that surrounded the product. Timberland’s Innovation Factory created an interesting new technology called Metamorphic Suspension, which is soft against the ground, and more supportive close to the foot. On the more aggressive trail racing and training models, this technology incorporates tooth-like cleats that compress to mold to the irregularities in the trail. While this technology has only had a few months of real-world testing, so far durability has not been an issue and the product offers a different, visible technology that jumps off the shelf.

Merrell also showed up at OR with a new brand and some interesting product. The company had a considerable amount of new product in its race category, which encompasses adventure racing and trail running. They also re-designed some new aqua sport products to capture more share in this market. However, Merrell’s largest category globally remains in the fashion area, and their fastest growing category is performance fashion – specifically driven by women’s product. In fact, the company pointed out that their second biggest success, after the Jungle Moc, was the women’s land sandal.

Merrell was also showing its new Patagonia footwear line in a different booth, with a separate brand president, Craig Thorn, and a separate sales team. Merrell certainly worked hard to capture the image and ethos of Patagonia in its new line, with Vibram eco-step soles, ISO 14001 certified tanneries, and natural latex soles. The designs of their more lifestyle-oriented collections certainly correspond with Patagonia’s look, while some of the more performance-oriented product was more Merrell-esque.

Keen broke the mold this year and launched several new open-toed styles for both men and women. This product is designed more as a comfort sandal than performance with a 20% natural cork dual-density foot bed that can mold to the foot and offer cushioning. The company also tweaked its trail running offering to accommodate a wider variety of foot types. The Wasatch Crest is essentially a narrower, more aggressive version of the Ochoco, launched a winter market.

While many manufacturers are chasing trends, the Italian footwear manufacturers have been creating footwear in their own unique style.

Garmont has been capturing shelf space and improving sell-through with its Nasty and Naughty models. These shoes have an exaggerated toughness and rugged look that crosses over well between lifestyle and performance. The company is also creating several higher performance models in the tradition of the Sticky Weekend – the Sticky Feat is a stripped-down approach shoe, while the Sticky Cat is an approach shoe with running-inspired heel cushioning.

LaSportiva is creating some trail running shoes that are designed to appeal more to the mountain athlete than the road runner who is crossing over. The lower profile, very stable design philosophy of the new RaceBlade offers a bit more cushioning than previous models, but still maintains the stability and agility needed for the trail. The company is also now working with hemp in some of its lifestyle/approach models and its factory in Italy has received ISO 14001 certification.

Scarpa is addressing the approach category with some product that looks good enough for a fashion boutique, but is just as comfortable on fifth class terrain. The three-product group, designed by Heinz Mariacher, ranges from a highly technical shoe well suited for rock climbing to footwear that’s more cushioned for long approaches. The company is also disbursing some of its more advanced technology across it’s hiking and light mountaineering boots.