Merrell’s first experiment with eco-friendly footwear was a disaster. Inspired by the trekking sandals of Nepalese and Kenyan porters, the Mozambique hit stores in 1994 with a durable rubber outsole made from recycled car tires. "There was a pretty steep learning curve," recalls Charles Willis, the company’s creative director for product development. "Retailers complained that the left and right soles didn’t match. We developed a recycled shoebox that was glueless and stapleless, but it fell apart." Merrell discontinued the shoe two years later.
How times have changed. These days, you can’t browse an REI shoe section without noticing some kind of sustainable triumph, be it a bamboo lining or a cork latex outsole. Last year saw a 14 percent increase in footwear products boasting eco-friendly credentials, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. "With the exception of food and auto products, footwear has been a step ahead in playing the eco-card," says NPD analyst Marshal Cohen.
Merrell’s early fumble highlights the unique challenge faced by outdoor shoe brands wanting to go green. Unlike, say, a merino mid-layer or a pair of recycled-polyester long johns, a shoe typically requires a number of unhealthy elements—glues, synthetics, plastics, petroleum-based rubber—to stay intact. Eco-friendlier ingredients have found their way to market, as evidenced by the latest offerings, but maintaining high performance standards remains the holy grail. "That’s far and away the biggest hurdle," says Vasque product manager Brian Hall. To get there, shoe brands are tinkering with new technologies, including a reverse-vulcanization process that can return a worn-down truck tire to its original, outsole-ready state (grippy and durable). Another strategy is to design shoes that require fewer plastics, glues, and excess components. Such is the mission of END Footwear, an upstart brand with a lofty goal: pioneer a new age of outdoor gear products with an "environmentally neutral design" (hence the acronym).
In the long run, though, it’s going to take more than greener technologies and designs to lead the sustainable charge—the entire industry is due for a paradigm shift. Perhaps instead of churning out more eco-friendly shoes, suppliers should make fewer. Remember the old-school hiking boot, with its hand-sewn welts and infinite lifespan? "Hardly anyone resoles their hiking boots anymore—the art has gone away," says Hall, adding that Vasque plans to recapture the near immortality of those earlier models in an upcoming line. Longevity may not seem good for business, but Hall believes his brand will in turn gain loyalty. "If we build products that our customers can believe in for the long term, we have customers for life and they will buy more styles from us."
Given that most performance shoes are made in Chinese factories and shipped great distances, another key challenge is distribution. The North Face is working to minimize the "dead air" in shipping containers (packing more shoes per trip), but it’s also considering a more substantial change: boosting local production. Vasque plans to make some boots domestically in 2010—around the same time that Patagonia Footwear hopes to manufacture shoes closer to the sites from which it will source recycled materials. "In an ideal world, I would promote local production of footwear made from recycled shoes and sold to the neighborhood, easy to repair," says Jean-Yves Couput, Salomon’s U.S. marketing director. "This may be the next successful business model in the footwear industry."