Many moons ago, when this TreeHugger used to sell hiking boots he was often asked, "which brand do you recommend?" The response: "The one that fits the best." Advice gleaned from enduring many long, blister-filled days in the hills. Recently we were lucky enough to test drive some new Patagonia footwear to see where they stood.
At first glance we found the Rum & Cola clunky looking, and a little heavy, but shrugging that off, we pulled them on and subjected them to days of stomping around at our day job, and on walks in the bush to determine comfort levels. Conclusion: Just like wearing a pair of slippers. For this testers feet, anyhow. Very comfy, surprisingly so. Equally at home leaping about on rocks and logs, or cycling to the commuter train. And they squish flat for travelling.
What about their green credentials? Materialwise, the outsole is 70% natural rubber latex. A lot of rubber these days has a synthetic origin. The foam footbed is recycled EVA (polyethylene vinyl acetate) and the foot-frame recycled (and instep strap) are from recycled TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). The upper is leather, but more on that later.We assume the boots, on the left, are called Rum & Cola (there is also a shoe - Toast and Jam, plus some Mary Janes - Sugar and Spice - pictured above right) to infer that combinations can be greater than the sum of their parts. In this case, it's the footwear equivalent of a Russian doll (see pic below). The spongy footbed clicks into the supportive footframe, which in turn slips inside the soft pigskin leather boot, that itself slides within the rubber outsole. The intention is that the flexible boot can worn around on its own, but when you head off to pound the path or pavement, you can also have a robust wrap of grippy rubber protecting your foot, and that inner boot.
None of these elements are particularly revolutionary. Ski and mountaineering boots have long had removable inners, that double as hut slippers. The inner boot here draws its looks from the ancient soft leather kletterschuh, an early rockclimbing boot, before the days of sticky rubber. The oversized rubber toe bumper is reminiscent of sandals from Keen or Mion. The glue-free, click-in footframe is an idea that Nike, of all people, pioneered in their Nike Considered range, though they used it for outsoles, rather than insoles.
What Patagonia have achieved here, however, is quite possibly a delicious accident. In seeking ways to radically reduce the toxic solvents and adhesives so commonly used in footwear construction they've ended up giving their customer two shoes for the price of one ($140 USD for the boot - less for the other models). Maybe they have also inadvertently solved the problem of longevity in footwear. If any of the four parts of the shoe were to wear out before the others, you'd hope they might sell you the worn-out piece, instead of having to buy a whole new boot. Like a replaceable head toothbrush.
We wonder though, whether the small gap between inner boot (rum?) and rubber sole (cola?) will grow wider with continued use, letting in sand, dirt, twigs, grass seeds and other irritants. Maybe the reverse will occur, with the inner broadening to fill more of the sole wrap. Time will tell.
We would prefer that Patagonia were not relying on chrome tanning for their leather footwear, but vegetable tanning, using the tannin from potentially renewable tree bark is more suited to stiffer leathers, than the soft pigskins used here. Trivalent chromium III, as used by the tanning industry, can produce a highly toxic by-product know as chromium IV (hexavalent), which often contaminates ground water surrounding leather tanneries. Chromium IV was the carcinogen found in the water supply of the Californian town of Hinkley, which Erin Brockovich so famously campaigned on behalf of.
Although Patagonia state that their leather is sourced from tanneries that are ISO 14001 accredited, we note what a study into similarly specced Canadian businesses found that "Although rigorous compliance with the standard often resulted in real improvements, these improvements were primarily technical and administrative in nature." And another report notes that "A company does not have to solve all its environmental problems in order to get certification to ISO 14001." We trust that Patagonia's tanneries, beyond being ISO 14001 certified, also appropriately contain their waste water and recycle their chromium waste. And we wonder if the company plan to move to plant-based tanning sometime down the track.
This concern aside, we think their line of footwear makes other significant environmental advances. Though we are pleased to see that new eco offerings coming to the market from the likes of Simple, Teva and Timberland will keep them on their toes, so to speak. ::Patagonia Footwear
PS. Our advice remains. No matter how eco the brand of shoes you are looking at, the greenest ones will those that fit your feet the best. Because you will wear them to death, rather than replacing them early on with something more comfortable. Less is more.
Disclosure: The test drive footwear noted above were samples provided gratis.