Your Next Pair of Hiking Boots Could Contain Leather Scraps from Car Seats

Footwear company KEEN is upcycling leather that would otherwise go to waste.

KEEN upcycled leather
KEEN plans to use upcycled leather scraps in select styles.


For a long time, shoe companies were lagging behind other parts of the fashion industry when it came to innovation, recycling, and embracing sustainable design. But now they are really making up for lost time! It seems that every week I hear from another company that's on a mission to shrink its footprint in ways that are quite smart. We are reaching a point where, if you need to replace a pair of shoes, there's really no excuse for not buying a pair that meets higher environmental standards.

One such example is KEEN, which already runs the respectable Detox the Planet initiative and has just announced an expansion of it to include using leather scraps from car seat production in select styles, including its best-selling Targhee boot. These scraps would otherwise go to waste, as they've been cut from larger pieces to make the seats and cannot be repurposed by the automotive industry.

The pieces would not have to be reprocessed in any way to be used for shoes, only sorted by size and reused. A spokesperson told Treehugger: "The scraps from auto seats are relatively large, so we are able to cut the relatively smaller pieces needed for footwear." The goal is for upcycled leather to replace all virgin leather in this collection.

Repurposing a resource-intensive material that would otherwise go to waste is a worthy mission, but KEEN doesn't stop there. It only takes leather from tanneries that have achieved gold-level certification from the Leather Working Group, a non-profit that oversees leather manufacturing standards.

A press release says, "This rating has only been achieved by approximately 5% of the world’s tanneries, and signals that they employ a closed-loop, zero liquid waste discharge system that dramatically reduces water consumption and eliminates groundwater pollution."

Erik Burbank, vice president of KEEN Effect, said of the new initiative: "This effort is both gathering waste before it goes into landfills and reducing the amount of new leather that needs to be created. We’re taking the uncommon approach of working directly with a world-class tannery serving the auto industry located near our KEEN factory in Thailand. We think it is cool that scrap leather from an SUV seat can be turned into an outdoor sandal or hiking boot."

KEEN's other Detox the Planet initiatives include using PFC-free water repellency to avoid adding this 'forever chemical' to the environment; using recycled PET in webbing, lining, and laces; buying American-made, American-spun wool and cotton, as well as recycled wool; creating collections of shoes made from upcycled denim and flip-flops from shoe waste; and using water-based solvents, recycled aluminum eyelets, and plant-based cushioning for a biodegradable insole.

It's worth mentioning, too, that KEEN makes high-quality shoes that are built to last — and this fact alone is worth as much as any efforts toward greater sustainability. My own children have worn KEEN sandals for years and they've lasted longer than any other footwear, and have even been successfully repaired. This is a company that cares about how it uses the Earth's resources and is worth supporting as a result.