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Eco-Friendly Hiking Boots – How Sustainable Are They?

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The adage “leave nothing behind, but footprints” applies as much to hikers on mountain trails as beachcombers crossing the sands. The phrase sums up an approach to treading lightly on the earth and borrows from the medical profession – first, do no harm. 

Carbon-neutral, eco-friendly, recycled, sustainable and green are all terms that encourage us to believe that you are actively saving the planet by doing little harm. But how realistic is that? Is it all greenwashing and market spin designed to part you from your cash with little tangible benefit for the environment? What do you get when you invest in sustainable shoes in the absence of universal eco-friendly standards?

Generally, reduce, reuse, recycle are the three “Rs” of sustainable behavior. When assessing eco friendly shoes, it’s worth looking at the manufacturer’s approach through this perspective.

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Hiking Boot Uppers

Hiking boot uppers form the bulk of the boot. In addition, the upper provides a significant amount of support and protection for your foot on challenging trails. Unfortunately, you can’t say that any hiking boot upper is more eco-friendly than another because they all have pros and cons if looked at from their whole impact in production and disposal.

Leather Uppers Are Not All Bad

If you choose a vegan lifestyle and refuse animal products, leather is just another animal product you avoid. Leather production is seen as bad for the environment. It is associated with meat production resulting in deforestation, excess water use, and emissions. However, animal skins are a byproduct of the meat industry. If you eat meat, using leather means more of the animal finds a purpose and less goes to landfill.

Leather Working Group

Cow, sheep, pig, and goat hides transform into leather through the tanning process – a highly toxic process in bulk production. The Leather Working Group is an industry partnership committed to addressing sustainability issues in the leather industry. To produce certified better leather suppliers, subcontractors and producers meet audited standards covering:

  • Source of the animal skins.
  • Reducing the use of toxic materials in tanning.
  • Reducing energy use.
  • Decreasing water consumption.
  • Reducing air and noise pollution.
  • Treating effluent.

If your hiking or work boots have more sustainable leather uppers, then they meet audit standards for certification – Gold, Silver, or Bronze.

What This Means For Eco Friendly Hiking Shoes

Leather is a practical material for footwear, has many benefits for your feet, and is easy to maintain. You can still commit to doing your best for the environment and wear leather footwear. Selecting “better leather” hiking boots benefits the people who work in the leather industry – often in developing and poorer countries – and reduces environmental harm. 

Luxury leather goods increasingly use leather produced using old methods with natural tanning agents like oak chips. These leathers are labor-intensive and sell for a premium price. That means you are unlikely to find hiking boots (at an affordable price) made from these products. 

As a plus, leather will eventually compost back into the earth. Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts made from leather thousands of years later, but that is rare.

Synthetic Uppers Are Not all Good

Synthetic uppers involve plastics – flyknit fabrics use polyurethane (PU) and 3D printing to produce waterproof and breathable materials for hiking boot uppers. These conform to the shape of your foot, and TPU overlay reinforces areas of high wear. The advantage of synthetic uppers over leather is the reduction in weight, ease of manufacture, and economy.

A synthetic upper is not a guarantee that the footwear would be considered vegan hiking boots – you need to check the source of the glue holding the boot together. If you are looking for vegan hiking boots or shoes, check that the manufacturer classes the hiking boots as suitable for vegans. 

Hiking boot manufacturers looking to create more sustainable shoes are taking the opportunity to incorporate recycled plastic into their uppers or shoes made from recycled material. However, no one can currently produce a durable hiking boot from 100% recycled material. A synthetic upper always requires new plastic, and even with recycled plastic, when you finish with your boots, the plastic remains. Plastic waste endures in the environment for a staggeringly long time, and it actively harms habitats and animals at all levels, from single-celled plankton to humans. 

The scientific search is ongoing to find an organism that can eat and break down plastic as this is likely to be the best solution to the mountains of plastic waste our modern lifestyle generates. Currently, plastic waste mainly goes to landfills, some recycled (less than 30%), and some burnt to provide energy. 

eco friendly shoes

Alternative Natural Materials For Sustainable Shoes

Sneaker manufacturers are experimenting with alternative materials like fibers made from bamboo, sugarcane, and some trees. The idea is that these natural fibers are compostable and won’t harm the environment. Unfortunately, the chemical and manufacturing processes involve some environmental harms, and to make them work as shoe uppers, plastic or epoxy resin is necessary as part of the construction. 

Cork leather has the advantage of being a renewable resource and finding increasing use in the footwear industry. So far, it is not available in hiking boot uppers and is only available in sandals and clogs. The downside of cork leather is the necessity for a backing – PVC. Unfortunately, PVC is one of the worst types of plastics for the environment.

eco friendly shoes
Timberland hiking boots with outsoles with recycled plastics.

Hiking Boot Outsoles For More Sustainable Shoes

Currently, the only viable material for hiking boot outsoles is rubber – durable, abrasion-resistant, and moldable. Timberland hiking boots lead the way in using “green rubber” by recycling (up to 50%) old tire material into their boot outsoles in some of their ranges. Most hiking boot outsoles come from synthetic rubber. Rubber pollution (rubber breaks down into dust particles) has a similar impact to plastics as rubber is a polymer like plastic. Most rubber pollution comes from road tires rather than the humble hiking boot outsole. 

For more sustainable shoes, you can opt for hiking boots that use recycled rubber as part of the outsole. This reduces the amount of new rubber involved in manufacturing and old rubber in the environment as waste material. 

Better Hiking Boot Midsoles For Sustainable Shoes

Hiking boot midsoles now provide superb levels of comfort and support to keep you walking for longer. The foam that provides the cushioning and support is a derivative of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam. When you throw your boots out, and this foam starts decomposing, it releases VOC (volatile organic compounds). This contributes to high altitude ozone (in the troposphere) and pollution. 

A potential solution is the increasing use of a biodegradable foam in eco friendly shoes created from the problem algae that produces blooms responsible for “red tide” and others. Some of the biggest brands like Adidas (hiking boots and shoes), Bogs, Puma, and Jack Wolfskin embrace this new foam as a replacement for traditional EVA.

What Do You Do with Worn Out Hiking Boots?

Hiking boots aren’t an issue to the environment while you are wearing them. However, when it is time for them to leave your life, what do you do with them?

If you can, avoid sending your hiking boots to landfill. If you invest in leather hiking boots, a local leatherworker may consider converting the leather uppers into small items for resale. Other possibilities include:

  • Shoe banks and thrift shops – if there is some life left in your hiking boots, someone else can benefit from them. 
  • Return to Brand – some brands offer to trade in your old hiking boots for a voucher off your new boots. It is worth checking if this scheme is available to you. 
  • Creative reuse – with a bit of imagination, old hiking boots can have a second life as quirky plant pots, innovative nesting boxes, door stops, or perhaps conversions into a doll or fairy house. 
sustainable shoes

How Green are Your Hiking Boots?

People who hike love the outdoors and treasure wild spaces. Hiking boots are essential to grant safe access to explore challenging terrains. Hiking boots materials and construction are for performance, and like any manufactured product, hiking boots have an environmental impact. Choosing or finding ethical shoe brands and shoes isn’t easy because everyone has their own ethical considerations and priorities. However, worthy goals include:

  • Ensuring poor populations have work and a fair deal.
  • Not using any animal products.
  • Reducing pollution.
  • Using sustainable resources.
  • Finding shoes made from recycled plastics.
  • Being carbon neutral.
  • Supporting recycling.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one hiking boot that meets all these diverse goals. In the absence of a standardized green rating system, it is also impossible to fairly compare one boots sustainable or eco-friendly credentials with another.  In practice, the best approach is to buy a high quality (over $200) hiking boot and extend its life through resoling and replacing the insoles. Then, when the time comes to retire your boots, try to do so responsibly. 

In the meantime, if you want to improve your contribution to the planet, lace up your hiking boots and pick up litter as you go. You can even volunteer your time to plant trees, or participate in any of the wonderful local projects working to make life better for us and wildlife.  

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