Leather: good or bad? This complex question fueled debate about what, exactly, constitutes a low-impact material. Cooler's experts contend that leather, as part of the cow, must assume responsibility for some of the carbon created in raising cattle. More than $6 billion a year is spent on hides, which makes them a commodity and a distinct part of the value chain. Patagonia counters that leather is solely a byproduct of meat production. A company spokesperson asks: "Why create new material when we can reuse waste? If we didn't buy skins, what would the slaughter industry do with them?" Says Cooler, "According to our research, almost no cow hides are thrown away."
The debate won't end here, so consider Patagonia's ranking–based on Cooler's position, which penalizes leather–as the low end of a score that rises if you concur with Patagonia. Either way, the P26 trims lots of carbon. Its tanning process uses 35 percent less energy than normal. Its outsole is 50-percent-recycled Ecostep, a rubber developed with Vibram that will be available to others in 2011. And it gets a boost from Patagonia's business practices. More than 70 percent of the company's gear uses green fibers, it takes back clothing through the Common Threads recycling program, and it runs LEED Gold distribution centers.
Testers give the P26 a thumbs-up for most trails, only drawing the line at very rugged or heavily laden hikes. "It's as comfortable as a slipper," says one, "with great underfoot protection and unbeatable traction in all conditions." Credit the extra cushion to a full inch of high-rebound EVA heel padding and almost as much up front. Nitpick: A tough-to-tighten top lace limits ankle support. $200; 2 lbs. 4 oz.; patagonia.com
*This boot had a 25-35% reduction in environmental impact over business as usual.