Building an environmentally conscious hiking boot that’s also a top performer is no easy task. Design and construction are complex; so is the supply chain.
As Backpacker magazine put it: “Boots are the most complex gear in our kit, with numerous components – fabrics, leathers, soles, shanks, glues, padding, laces, hardware – plus myriad sewing processes, fit intricacies and the hurdle of translating sophisticated blueprints to assembly lines a world away.”
This complexity is reflected by the fact that only five footwear companies responded to Backpacker’s 2010 Zero Impact Challenge, which invited 60 companies to build a hiking boot with the least environmental impact and the highest quality. Only three companies have actually gone to market with a commercial product.
Patagonia Footwear is one of those companies. We used our experience building environmentally conscious, high-quality products, and the experience of our footwear partner Wolverine World Wide in manufacturing top-performing shoes, to build the P26 Mid, featured in the latest round of The Footprint Chronicles.
[Our decision to use leather in the construction of our P26 – Backpacker's decision that leather gave the P26 a higher environmental impact – sparked an online debate about the use of leather. Backpacker said that synthetic uppers could deliver the same performance and durability as all-leather ones, while drastically reducing environmental impact. We disagreed, believing that leather’s performance and durability are unsurpassed – and that leather and synthetic shoes should be in different categories. Links to the online discussions at Backpacker magazine and Treehugger.com can be found a few paragraphs after the jump.]
In designing our entry, Patagonia’s environmental impact team interviewed industry friends, ambassadors and hardcore hikers, and reviewed what the competition was doing. We came up with five design criteria (fit, protection, efficiency, climate control and clean design) that needed to be considered – and balanced – to produce the best boot to meet the needs of both fast-packers and traditional thru-hikers.
After establishing the criteria, we looked for suppliers who could meet them. We approached tanneries certified “gold” by the Leather Working Group (LWG) – an association of brands, suppliers and audited tanners promoting environmental stewardship practices in the leather industry.
We included an insole and dual density footbed with 15 percent recycled ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) in the design, and a new outsole, the EcoStep Plus, developed with Vibram®. It contained 50 percent recycled rubber – up from 30 percent recycled rubber in the Vibram EcoStep.
Backpacker magazine gave us kudos for our efforts. They determined that our tanning process used 35 percent less carbon-producing energy than normal and that the P26 Mid had a “25-35 percent reduction in environmental impact over business as usual.”
They also penalized us for using all-leather, sparking an online debate. Backpacker said that synthetic uppers could deliver the same performance and durability as all-leather ones, while drastically reducing environmental impact. We disagreed, believing that synthetic uppers like nylon also have an environmental dark side, and that leather’s performance and durability are unsurpassed. Read some of the coverage in Backpacker and Treehugger.
The debate reminded us of the difficult decisions that are made – and the different opinions that arise – when setting out to make products with less environmental impact.
It also reminded us that we need to continue working to reduce the impact of our footwear. There are some clear steps we can take. We can audit our leather supply chain beyond the tanneries, as is done in Europe, to make sure that all steps in production have the least possible impact. The Leather Working Group, an association of brands, suppliers and audited tanners promoting environmental stewardship practices in the leather industry, says they are moving in this direction. They are requiring audits next year of the tanneries that produce wet blues (hides treated with chromium), however, full traceability will take time.
Other steps to reduce impact will require a design change. For example, the sole of a shoe usually wears out long before the leather uppers. We could make a truly long-lasting shoe if the P26 could be resoled, though it would probably still not outlast the world’s oldest leather shoe (found this year preserved in an Armenian cave in sheep dung and dating 5,500 years).
[Top – The attempt to build a boot with a lighter environmental impact reminded us that we need to continue working to reduce the impact of our footwear materials. There are some clear steps we can take. We can audit our leather supply chain beyond the tanneries, as is done in Europe, to make sure that all steps in production have the least possible impact. The Leather Working Group says they are moving in this direction, requiring audits next year of the tanneries that produce wet blues (hides treated with chromium). Full traceability will take time. Photo Credit: Simona Tanning, Inc.
Middle – The winner of Backpacker’s 2010 Editors’ Choice Green Award, La Sportiva’s FC ECO 3.0 GTX, also had a 25-35 percent reduction in environmental impact. However, the magazine cited other factors in awarding them top honors, such as their combined use of 100% recycled nylon and leather in its upper, which gave it the lowest percentage of leather by weight (leather has a higher footprint when you factor in cattle raising), and the fact that the shoe can be resoled. Photo Credit: Backpacker.com
Bottom – Solid tanning by-products are separated during the manufacturing process, and up to 70 percent are reused or recycled. Photo Credit: Simona Tanning, Inc.]