Boots: Zero Impact Challenge

Five manufacturers answer our call to design greener trail shoes.

We dare you to debate this assertion: Sustainability is the biggest challenge facing gear designers today. Warmth, waterproofing, durability–whatever product category you examine, the major performance measures are pretty well dialed. But our sport is a long way from low-impact in its materials and manufacturing. Which is why, for the third year running, BACKPACKER challenged outdoor manufacturers to reinvent a product category–this time, boots.

Five of the 60 companies we contacted last spring signed on for what promised to be a difficult task. 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. Building a new boot from the ground up usually requires 18 months; we gave contestants five.

So a round of applause for Hi-Tec, La Sportiva, Patagonia, Oboz, and Wolverine. Each company delivered new midweight boots capable of carrying 30-pound loads. Our testers worked these boots hard, hiking 2,000 miles from Vermont to Colorado and Alaska to Switzerland.

What we learned With our climate partner, Cooler (climatecooler.com), we analyzed the carbon created in making and shipping a typical leather midcut (it's 150 pounds per pair), then compared the five boots here based on data from their makers. For a normal boot, 70 percent of the impact comes in manufacturing and assembling the parts; 27 percent is from transportation and energy use at stores and company offices.

The manufacturing portion breaks down into three major components: fossil fuel consumption (56 percent), nitrous oxide from fertilizer production and manure (23 percent), and methane released from ... you guessed it, cow farts (18 percent). Two of the three manufacturing processes relate directly to leather production, which emits significantly more carbon than other upper materials. According to Cooler, leather has five times the impact of nylon and 30 times the impact of recycled PET (plastic from milk jugs). Assuming an equal lifecycle for leather and comparable synthetics, manufacturers could cut the footprint of leather boots by 35 percent just by using nylon. (We assumed an equal lifecycle based on our field-testing; we've seen no significant durability difference between leather and synthetic uppers of similar weights. We've also found that midsoles and treads typically wear out before uppers do. Not everyone agrees that synthetics are better, though, including Patagonia.)

The boots we received reflect the opportunities and challenges facing designers. Recycled fabrics, bio-based materials like bamboo, and designs that ease resoling or recycling hold great promise. But some carbon costs remain opaque; several companies, for instance, could not determine what kind of energy their factories use. Cooler says the choice between wind, nuclear, and coal can create variances of up to 10 percent, which is why we graded the boots on a scale rather than assigning specific numerical scores.

The good news is that the boots all achieved a 25 percent or greater reduction versus the typical leather midweight. And as the reviews demonstrate, they did it without sacrificing trail performance. And the winners are:

Patagonia P26

La Sportiva FC ECO 3.0 GTX

Wolverine Zeke

Hi-Tec Altitude IV Enviro

Oboz Beartooth Boots