Last updated: August 2016
Ethical footprint of your walking boots
On the table above we rate some of the biggest outdoor gear companies as well as smaller ethical brands on our ethical criteria covering some of the most important issues in the market including, toxics and PFCs, leather and workers rights.
There’s a great irony that those who love the outdoors can have such a negative environmental impact through the kit they buy to enjoy it. Few companies rated in this guide have environmental policies, with only Eco Vegan Shoes getting a Best rating in our Environmental Reporting category.
Unfortunately, most of the big brands are also still using hazardous PFCs which are prevalent in the outdoor-gear industry because of their waterproofing properties.
PFCs (perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds) make materials stain resistant and waterproof. They are either used in waterproof and breathable membranes, like Gore-Tex, or they are used as coatings.
The problem is that some chemicals in this group are known to be toxic (poisonous), persistent (non-degradable) or bioaccumulative (they build up in organisms).
There are two walking boots leaders in the PFC field:
- Adidas is 90% PFC-free and will have banned them all by the end of 2017.
- Jack Wolfskin – All waterproof membranes and coatings have been 100% PFC-free since 2013 (PU based).
Greenpeace’s ‘Detox Outdoors’ campaign demands that outdoor clothing brands take the lead and set short-term deadlines for completely phasing out the use of all PFCs in production processes.
Greenpeace target Mammut & North Face in Outdoor Gear campaign.
According to Greenpeace:
“PFCs are incredibly resistant to breakdown; some have the potential to remain in the environment for hundreds of years after being released. They are turning up in unexpected places around the world. These pollutants have been found in secluded mountain lakes, they’ve been discovered in the livers of polar bears in the Arctic and even in human blood.”
Read more about the campaign in our ‘Toxic Outdoor Clothing’ feature.
Alternatives to Gore-Tex
Gore-Tex is the brand name of a waterproof membrane often used in waterproof coats, walking boots and shoes. The brand has switched from using ‘long-chain’ PFCs in its product but still uses short chain ones.
Gore-Tex claim: “Treatments that are not based on fluorinated compounds show little or no oil repellency which results in low durability of water repellency in normal use. This is why developing a non-PFC based DWR (a durable water repellent polymer) is a challenge for the whole outdoor industry.”
However, Paramo have successfully been using PFC-free waterproofing from their sister company Nikwax. And Greenpeace tests have shown that PFC-free alternatives perform similarly in terms of waterproof or water repellent properties. Only in terms of oil and dirt repellency are controversial PFCs still superior to PFC-free alternatives.
Watch out out for other membranes similar to Gore-Tex, such as eVent and Teflon, which also contain PFCs.
Non-PFC membranes include Sympatex, Paltex or Toray. Also look out for alternative finishes and coatings such as waxes, paraffins (such as ecorepel®), dendrimers (such as Bionic Finish Eco®), and polyurethane (PU).
Waterproofing your footwear
For do-it-yourself waterproofing or re-proofing:
Dubbin is a wax waterproofer that can be used for shoes and walking boots although it can be made of tallow (animal fat), but Vegetarian Shoes sell an animal-free version.
Nikwax, made by Paramo, is water based and PFC free. The company has never used PFCs.
See our 'Rebooting Footwear' article for ways to repair, reuse and recycle.
Policies on workers’ rights in the outdoor market lag behind other clothing sectors and even the shoe industry. While scandals about conditions in clothing supply chains have hit the big fashion labels and retailers, prompting change, the outdoor brands have failed to keep up.
Only four companies out of the 26 covered, got a ‘best’ rating for managing workers’ rights in their supply chains and ensuring their suppliers had good pay and working conditions. They were: Eco Vegan Shoes, Mammut, Berghaus and Jack Wolfskin.
Smaller companies, like Vegetarian Shoes, Wills Vegan Shoes and Ethical Wares said their shoes were made in Europe but did not get a best rating for supply chain management without some detail about the specific factories they worked with. A generic ‘Made in Europe’ label is not enough to guarantee workers’ rights.
If you want to avoid the use of leather, there are many mainstream boots made of synthetic materials but they may still be using animal glues.
To avoid leather and animal glues, you need to seek out the following vegan brands and models:
Only sell vegan walking boots: Wills, Vegetarian Shoes, Ethical Wares, Eco Vegan Shoes
Sell some vegan models: adidias (Terrex Swift Mid GTX), Merrell (Capra Mid Sport Gore-Tex), Arc’teryx (Bora Mid GTX), Mammut (T Aenergy GTX), Zamberlan (SH Crosser Plus GTX RR).
Our ethical guide to shoes explains the various ethical issues surrounding the production of leather.
Company behind the brand
Jack Wolfskin is a German producer of outdoor gear which is owned by the US private equity group, Blackstone.
The Blackstone Group is one of the largest real estate, private equity, and alternative asset managers in the world, with around $340 billion in assets under management. Blackstone causes Jack Wolfskin to lose marks, most notably because it has investments in Sealife and Seaworld captive animal centres which have boycott calls against them (see photo).
Since July 2010, Jack Wolfskin has been a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, a multi-stakeholder initiative working to improve workplace conditions in the garment and textile industry. It is rated by Fair Wear as a ‘Leader’ and is only one of a handful of walking boot companies to get our best rating for supply chain management. It also only uses organic cotton.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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