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Pioneering Sustainable Footwear Technology

An Interview with Glenn Barrett, Founder, Ortholite
Jana Pijak
June 3rd, 2024

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Fashion, Health, Home, Shoes
Entrepreneur Glenn Barrett revolutionized the footwear segment of the sporting goods industry by making shoes more comfortable. In 1997, Barrett introduced an open-cell PU foam insole technology that led OrthoLite to become recognized as the world leader in branded footwear component technologies. OrthoLite also is the innovator and creator of Cirql™, the sustainable materials solutions provider for the global footwear industry. This relentless commitment to innovation led to Barrett’s selection for induction in the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame Class of 2024. OrthoLite’s biggest markets are running, performance athletic and technical outdoor footwear and also counts fashion, luxury, workwear/safety and more casual footwear categories among its 550 global brand partners.

1. Congratulations on being recently inducted into the National Sporting Goods Association Hall of Fame! What does innovation mean to you?

Thank you. It’s a distinguished honor for a Shoe Dog, and I am humbled.

Innovation has been the driving force of OrthoLite for the past 27 years. As our company has grown, innovation has taken different shapes and continues to evolve. The one commonality of innovation at OrthoLite and now with our sustainable materials solutions subsidiary, Cirql, is that our people know that innovation for our brand partners is what drives success in all we do.

OrthoLite owns six manufacturing facilities in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and in Spain. The Cirql Center of Excellence in Vietnam is also a factory we own.

We consider constant improvement in how we make our products as a key factor for our innovation. Creating and operationalizing less impactful manufacturing practices, taking great care of our people and the communities within which we manufacture are three ways that we innovate every day.

On the product side, innovation drives our R&D, prototyping and bringing new ideas to life to solve our customers’ business challenges. Since day one at my brands, our teams find opportunities where our competitors see risk.

Since I founded OrthoLite, innovation equates to building solutions for our brand partners. It’s the lodestar that motivates me and the OrthoLite and Cirql global teams to continually seek the newest, most sustainable, technologically advanced ways of making footwear more comfortable and perform better.

OrthoLite is the first point of contact between the shoe and the person wearing the shoe - we make the biggest impact on the consumer of the comfort of the shoe. That is a responsibility that we take very seriously as it is what frames the consumers’ experience of their purchase. What’s more, OrthoLite insoles also extend the intended performance of the shoe, no matter what the category.

In March 2022, OrthoLite first introduced Cirql to the footwear industry. Two years later, we are expanding Cirql’s product offerings with new sustainable materials solutions. Cirql represents not only an entirely new product category and patented foaming process for OrthoLite, it also is an opportunity to minimize waste and pollution on a wide scale across all footwear. The big picture goal of Cirql is to help move the footwear industry toward true circularity, by reducing carbon footprints, delivering more sustainable materials solutions, and eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing process.

2. How does your team generate new ideas? What rituals do you rely on to reset creativity?

OrthoLite and Cirql’s innovation happens in our regional hubs every week of every month of every year. Innovation ideas are constantly generated through our regional teams and they share best practices weekly. This creates the world’s best product as well as the consistency across our facilities, which is super important to the trust and collaboration with our brand partners. Our sales people are ex-footwear developers and designers and work side-by-side with our footwear brand partners to develop OrthoLite formulations and specs that deliver the promise of the shoe to the consumer. Innovation follows every meeting we have with our brand partners, and that’s what drives our team to be successful.

3. What is the biggest challenge you face while innovating?

As I mentioned, we own and operate all of our factories across the globe. This is a huge benefit and a huge challenge when it comes to innovation. Consider the language challenges and also, how many brand partners we serve. It’s difficult to create efficiencies around innovations at OrthoLite and Cirql, so we commit the resources to ensure we are driving excellence in all we do.

We pride ourselves on being foam innovators for footwear-specific applications. I’d say that one of the bigger challenges today is exploration of less impactful materials and studying the advancement of ‘take back’ programs that so many of our brands are looking into now. Once we have more optionality at that point, we feel that rolling out what we’ve been working with regarding less impactful innovations and materials for brands will hit a fast pace.

4. OrthoLite has become a leader in branded comfort technologies. Could you discuss the evolution of your open-cell PU foam insole technology and its impact on the footwear industry over the past two decades?

When I founded OrthoLite, I saw an opportunity to address the interior environment of footwear. You know that hot sweaty, smelly place where you put your feet?

Until then, the key component of the insole was basically overlooked. OrthoLite open-cell foam set and reset a new standard in comfort every season. Our technology continues to deliver a cooler, drier, and more comfortable interior within the shoe. We branded this innovation and delivered a first-ever premium comfort solution to the best brands in footwear.

I’m so proud of everyone who’s worked so hard to bring OrthoLite the success it has experienced. Hundreds of millions of people are more comfortable every step, thanks to the OrthoLite products and team. And I couldn’t be more excited for the future of footwear with our new sustainable innovations planned from Cirql.

5. Sustainability is a key focus for OrthoLite, with innovations like using recycled outsole rubber waste material in your products. How do you balance innovation, performance, and sustainability in your company's approach to footwear solutions?

Since the very beginning, we have aspired to be better to the planet. Before sustainability was even a conversation in the industry, we were putting recycled rubber tire crumb into our insoles. Every OrthoLite product, since our first insole in 1997, has included a minimum of 5% recycled material.

We didn’t do this for marketing purposes; in fact we never even talked about it at all for a very long time. We did it because it was the right thing to do.

We employ 3,500 incredible people full time in our owned manufacturing facilities and we view Environmental Health and Safety as the screen through which we view our sustainability initiatives. We put our people first; that is what our Operational Excellence is about. Our people live in the communities where we make our product, so taking care of those communities and those regions by constantly improving our impact and more sustainable manufacturing practices directly supports the health and well being of our poeple. From there, we consider broader global sustainability goals. We know that when we commercialize a less impactful product or material innovation, we are helping our 550 brand partners reach their own product goals.

As part of the global footwear industry, and as the category founder and leader, we feel a huge responsibility to accelerate the pace of positive change in terms of lowering our impact and that is our ongoing journey to continual improvement. We prioritize our people, our regional communities and how we make our products as our focal point for all we do in what we consider to be our sustainable business practices.

We envision that we can support a more circular product path with Cirql materials by reducing carbon footprints, delivering more sustainable materials solutions, minimizing waste, and eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals in the manufacturing process. Cirql will continue to be a big focus for our company in how we offer solutions to our brand partners.

6. Could you share insights into the collaborative process between OrthoLite and the 550+ footwear brands you partner with?

We’re seeking to solve problems for our brand partners, it drives everything we do. We collaborate directly with the brands to create and produce custom insole formulations and now, Cirql midsoles.

We intentionally invested in building factories in the heart of the world’s most prominent footwear manufacturing centers. This operational organization results in reliability, timely delivery, and consistency. We’re able to provide localized support to our brands, which is growing in value to our partners every month, it seems.

We are all connected in the supply chain. We know that the footwear industry’s journey to being less impactful is dependent on industry collaboration.

7. As a member of the sporting goods industry for several decades, what advice would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to make a significant impact in the field?

Listen to your customers, that’s number one. A close second? Take the more challenging road because that is how you will build something unique.

8. Your involvement with the Two Ten Footwear Foundation highlights a commitment to supporting industry professionals. How has your experience with organizations like Two Ten influenced your approach to leadership and philanthropy within OrthoLite?

The Two Ten Foundation is hugely important to the footwear industry. Two Ten allows us to take care of each other with crisis hardship aid, scholarships, and grants. I am proud that my family and I have been able to support this important organization for the past three decades.

I believe that when you achieve success at any level, it is important to give back. I’ve been lucky in my life, and there’s a special place in my heart for supporting fellow Shoe Dogs and their families.

Two Ten reminds us that it’s all about community and supporting each other. That’s something that permeates the culture of OrthoLite and Cirql.

9. Looking to the future, how will OrthoLite continue to be a leader in innovation?

OrthoLite and Cirql will continue to serve and inspire brands, their retailers and end consumers through our relentless commitment to innovation to make shoes more comfortable and perform better. We are also wholly committed to our journey toward a less impactful footprint on this great planet.

We know this begins at ‘home.’ Our brilliant chemists and inventors have unmatched creativity, which is the spark for our innovations. Their ideas do not–and cannot–come to fruition and potential without the rest of the OrthoLite and Cirql teams. I’m incredibly proud of each of the 3,500+ OrthoLite and Cirql team members around the world. They carry out our global mission and vision around innovation every day. Their commitment to excellence is what powers not only our innovation, but also our brand promise. I never lose sight of that.

Alone, we just have ideas. Together, we can change the world.
References: ortholite