Building the Tesla of Running Shoes with Michael Doughty
Can Hylo Athletics crack the conundrum of building a zero-waste running shoe that doesn't sacrifice performance? Michael Doughty, an ex-pro soccer player, believes he's building that bright future.
How many pairs of running shoes do you own? It’s a common joke among us runners. Once you hit the 350miles/500km mark you put those compacted midsoles out to pasture first as dog-walking shoes and then as gardening shoes, right? And you just keep buying more.
The alternative to using them to walk Fido down the road and then to mow the lawn is throwing those shoes in the trash, and if adding 30lbs/14kg of unrecycled carbon emissions to landfill 2-4 times a year feels wasteful to you, you’re already thinking sustainably about the environment.
You understand that you undertake an activity that contributes to high consumption of plastics. You might have thought about buying less, but you have to run, and you don’t want to get injured with poorly cushioned shoes.
What if there was a new standard of sustainability? Where the running shoe industry’s reliance on fossil fuels was minimized, but performance was not sacrificed.
Michael Doughty says that in 2024 Hylo Athletics will sell the first road running shoe that at least matches competitor equivalent shoes (Hoka, Brooks) for pace and comfort AND is a zero-waste product. This is the future.
Electric vehicles enjoyed that inflection point when Tesla produced a vehicle that had elite performance and did not use gasoline. While issues remain about how the electricity is made and the lifecycle of the batteries, the huge uptake of Tesla vehicles in the 2010s (79.4% of EV market share by 2020) was a bold and exciting move away from direct usage of fossil fuels.
Could Hylo, a three-year-old British running brand headed by an ex-professional football [soccer, but I’m going to call it football] player, really be the equivalent answer for the running world? That’s the goal.
I met Michael at the company’s offices in Hackney Downs, east London to talk about his mission for the company, his thoughts on the world, and how, with Hylo, he is doing something genuinely different (and better) than the other running shoe manufacturers.
As we walk around the green space by the office, Michael immediately starts talking about being inspired by Courtney Dauwalter’s recent 100-mile exploits at Western States and Hardrock. Having recently embarked upon the training for his own 15-hour race, he talks of searching for the qualities that define running for him. He’s settled on finding peacefulness and enjoyment as his reason.
“I've done professional sport and it’s been quite toxic… super toxic. I’ve just had two weeks of really consistent running and I have been so happy - so happy.”
Michael retired from being a footballer at the end of the 2020 season to go full-time with Hylo. At the time, he was as physically fit as you’d expect a pro athlete to be, but he moved from one toxic environment to another.
The pressures of making it as a footballer are constant. From the childhood pipedream of playing the game you love as your job to the constant threat of a new manager not being able to fit your talent profile into their tactical system or thinking of finding a new club - a new home - every summer once you have made it as a pro. Michael traded that in for the start-up world.
That he’s well-educated and a multi-millionaire businessman’s son adds another level to it all, of course, but he didn’t gain his Premier League minutes through being a nepo baby.
As you could imagine, however, the dressing room and his peer group were culturally miles apart and it feels like he was a square peg in both situations. Mocked as the posh lad by his teammates, it was only when he started a forward-thinking sports business that his close friends’ interest was piqued.
Retiring his considerable talents from the sport at the age of 27 was a bold move, but Michael believed in his new path. He leaned into it. A little too much, perhaps.
“I was in this toxic work space where I overworking, 12-hour days, wasn’t exercising, and by the end of that first full year, I was just exhausted and mentally completely finished.”
“I went away at Christmas and just spent some time reflecting. In that period, I started to miss being an athlete - the structure and the discipline - and I made a commitment to myself that I would start to live like an athlete again.”
Out of shape both mentally and physically, Michael started the new year in 2021 like so many of us: with a couple of 3km/2mile runs. He talks of facing that new, unfit version of himself, experiencing the endorphins, and gradually feeling better as he learned to use running to regulate himself. He talks of learning about what kind of future he wanted.
“My experience from that point is this idea of compounding. It’s only in the last month that I made this strong commitment to myself. Since 2021, I've been through phases of running a lot and running a little. I got to a point about four weeks ago, where I asked, ‘Why am I stepping away from this? Everything is telling me to be in it. Everything is telling me to make good decisions.”
“In my life, I've seen that continual good decisions compound. Running is the beginning of that for me.”
Erudite and thoughtful, he switches frequently between wide-eyed seriousness and a broad grin through a broader beard while talking about the incredibly personal process he’s been through. A process that running has helped him with far more than his first love of football ever did.
He talks about the clarity that running affords his mind in order to make good decisions throughout his life. He tells me how the meditative effect of running has allowed him to think more about building a framework for staying calm in intense moments, whether at home or at work.
“There’s this mantra that I’ve been saying to myself when a potentially bad decision comes into my head, like a fourth coffee of the day. I say ‘Good decisions,’ to myself and the difference in myself is quite profound.”
“I feel it so passionately. When I run and I make good decisions, I’m in this untouchable place. I settled on these three words: Good Decisions Compound.”
To the business of what Michael Doughty wants these good decisions to compound for: with Hylo, he’s building the new benchmark in environmental sustainability for the running industry.
With a midsole and upper using renewable, recyclable corn fiber instead of EVA rubber, Hylo shoes have 50% of the carbon footprint of their competitors and the whole shoe is completely recyclable. Natural rubber soles that are heat-formed rather than glued add to the thoughtfully sustainable nature of the shoes.
It’s a move away from fossil fuels that, of the big sports companies, only Adidas pays lip service to with their Parley range, which loudly uses recycled ocean plastics rather than building a truly environmentally sustainable product.
With Hylo, Michael is trying to do more than that. Ultimately, he wants Hylo to create a performance running shoe to the point that the incredibly worthy sustainable environmental practices are simply a footnote.
He’s trying to build a shoe that people want for its speed. He wants the circular nature of the production and materials to become the new normal.
Why is sustainability so important to you?
“I think nature has been the foundation of pretty much all of my experience. Playing so much football, my whole life has been spent outside. I see a definite correlation between my own happiness and time spent in nature. I think that is the starting point of sustainability.”
Why running shoes and not football boots (soccer cleats)?
“Aside from the performance requirements for football boots being incredibly high, when we started to explore the idea more, [running] seemed like the most needed place.”
We talk more about the short lifespan of running shoes and how you really do need to get a new pair every 350mi/500km in order to have enough midsole cushioning to protect your joints.
Over a billion pairs of running shoes are sold each year, and each pair generates 30lbs/14kg of carbon emissions, mostly during the manufacturing process. A lot of this is being solved by Hylo by using those different materials and techniques. The lifecycle issue remains, however.
There are no repairs to be made, so if you’re running 15 miles a week, that’s a new pair every 6 months. Football boots/cleats do not require the same amount of cushioning and therefore can be worn for significantly longer.
“Running shoes are one of the most consumed products out there, but it’s been static in terms of sustainable innovation for a long time. We wanted to do something that felt challenging and transformative.”
Hylo offers a $10 credit for sending your old running shoes in. The only big recycling programs I can recall were run by Levi’s and Nudie - both denim companies, and a quick search tells me that both programs are now defunct. It begs the question why one of the multi-billion-dollar-valued sports companies doesn’t offer recycling.
Why hasn’t a Nike or an Adidas come in and done this?
“We've been in an era where performance improvement and incrementality has been the absolute north star above anything else. The idea that potential can be optimized by something that you're wearing? It’s a really amazing thing but that narrow viewpoint is symptomatic of an industry so obsessed with performance gains and a consumption mindset that we've not really thought about the other costs.”
“What I'm conscious of stressing is that we're not not focused on those things. We are. We just factor in an additional layer of costs, which is environmental impact.”
With “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in mind, how do you rationalize adding another product to the market?
“That dichotomy of consumption and selling things and trying to be a sustainable brand is the most confronting part of the job. How does my role exists within those two worlds?”
“When I've got really existential about it, this idea of running and what running has done for me and for so many people around me is so beautiful. If the world ran more, I believe it would be a much more compassionate, caring, better world.”
“When I start to think about that, I’m really positive about creating a product, and positive about making things better, because the alternative is you just tap out and you say, ‘I'm not going to be a part of it, and we're going to continue as we are.’”
“I don't think there's the ambition or desire of another company like there is of Hylo’s to actually tangibly make improvements.”
Whether you’re developing a sustainable mindset about your running practice, thinking sustainably about your purchasing habits, or - like Michael - trying to build the next generation of running shoes that leads the industry pack in both sustainability and performance, there is a common theme: a desire to think positively.
Good decisions compound, indeed, and it starts with running.
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
I’m doing it again, so I guess this is poetry corner! Welcome. Here’s my haiku inspired by this article.
Goals for the future:
Run fast or save the planet?
Why not both? Aim high.
Please, please leave your own haiku (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables) about your running week in a comment. The couple left last week was brilliant encouragement, so let’s keep it going!
Other places to recycle running shoes:
Lapsed corporate recycling schemes:
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