The P26. Patagonia Footwear's Answer to Backpacker's Zero Impact Challenge

Patagonia Footwear P26 boot photo

Photo: Logo - Patagonia, Boot - Backpacker

Can you make a walking boot with less environmental impact? This is the question Backpacker magazine posed to 60 footwear companies. But only five rallied to their 'zero impact challenge.' Patagonia Footwear was one of that handful, and we've been following their response to that dare.

Details of Patagonia's boot recently came to light. It is known, rather unevocatively, as the P26. P for Patagonia (doh!), and apparently the human foot has 26 bones, whilst also covering 26 square inches when it comes in contact with the earth's surface! Although not available until October 2010, we can convey some of what makes this a greener backpacking boot.According to the assessors at Backpacker magazine the P26 has "a 25-35% reduction in environmental impact over business as usual." A chunk of this was achieved when Patagonia worked with Vibram to extend their Ecostep sole from 30% recycled content to 50%.

Womens Wear Daily (WWD) also report that the P26 sports 20% recycled EVA in the footbed/insole, 20% recycled rubber in toe bumper rand, recycled zinc lace hooks which require substantially less heat (and thus energy) to mould. and all leathers sourced from tanneries with gold status accreditation from with the Leather Working Group.

It was this latter element, the use of leather, that held Patagonia's P26 back when gongs were being handed out by Backpacker magazine. The mag's life cycle assessment experts, Cooler, told the magazine that leather, as part of the cow, must assume responsibility for some of the carbon created in raising cattle. Patagonia, in return, believe that leather is solely a byproduct of meat production.

And here is one of those "irresistible force meet immovable object" moments in ecodesign. Are all eco-attributes equally weighed? Are they all of comparative value? Leather is a highly durable material for footwear, especially if well maintained. To wit the world's oldest leather shoe was discovered this year and dated as 5,500 years old. Leather is derived from a renewable resource, and can be returned to soil -- given appropriate conditions. On the flip side leather is a byproduct of meat production. The same meat production the United Nations want us to reduce, because it contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than worldwide transport. Not to mention issues of animal welfare.

Backpacker magazine does note, however, that the leather tanning process Patagonia employs for their P26 uppers uses 35% less energy than normal.

But it's not as if it's a question with an easy answer. Leather's alternatives, especially for backpacking boots that are subject to heavy wear, are not without their own problems. Synthetics are usually derived from virgin petroleum, and we are all now acutely aware of the environmental risks inherent in oil extraction.

Deja Shoe, with a commitment to vegan footwear, wrestled with these conundrums back the early 90's with partial success. They made boots with hemp uppers, reinforced with TreeTap natural rubber reinforcing. But neither material was the equal of leather for strength and durability. Deja Shoe also used are synthetic leather, tagged Terraguard, made from 60% nylon and 40% polyurethane in a non-woven construction. Even though this offered many of the attributes of leather it remained an oil derived material.

If only the answers were as simple as the question.

backpacker zero challenge boots photo

Photos: Backpacker Magazine. Oboz, La Sportiva, Hi-Tec and Wolverine boots L to R

The other brave companies participating Backpacker's 'zero impact challenge' also struggled with the same issue. Hi-Tec went with a lighter leather. La Sportiva used the lowest percentage of leather by weight amongst the contenders, backing it with a 100% recycled mesh. Wolverine, although making a very lightweight shoe, still retained the use of leather. Oboz, however, broke ranks and used a recycled, ultrasuede microfiber for their uppers, a material said to have 35 times less impact than leather.

We've been sent a pre-production sample of the Patagonia P26, so will report back how they hold up to real world use.

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