These boots are made for hiking…and the 'Zero Impact Challenge'

In late spring 2009, SNEWS® sister publication, Backpacker magazine, put out its third annual call challenging industry manufacturers to build a product that is carbon neutral. Past challenges have been difficult -- backpacks in 2007 and sleeping bags in 2008 -- but the latest test, to develop a carbon neutral hiking boot, promises to be a whopper. Footwear, by the very nature of its construction, is very environmentally unfriendly. Add to that the reality that design and production lead times for footwear are as much as two years and the challenge is daunting.
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In late spring 2009, SNEWS® sister publication, Backpacker magazine, put out its third annual call challenging industry manufacturers to build a product that is carbon neutral. Past challenges have been difficult -- backpacks in 2007 and sleeping bags in 2008 -- but the latest test, to develop a carbon neutral hiking boot, promises to be a whopper. Footwear, by the very nature of its construction, is very environmentally unfriendly in part because of materials like glue, leather, rubber, plastic, foam and fabric. Add to that the reality that design and production lead times for footwear are as much as two years and the challenge is daunting.

But where the greatest challenge lies, the greatest opportunity looms. By mid-September, five companies -- Hi-Tec, Oboz, Patagonia, La Sportiva (photo to right) and Wolverine -- will have submitted to the Backpacker test team wearable and fully functioning prototypes of mid-cut hiking boots that are suitable for carrying a 30-pound pack. Each boot must be able to hold its own against any other traditionally manufactured boot on the market -- being green is just not enough. Backpacker has also partnered with Cooler (www.climatecooler.com) and pays for its services to provide feedback and data to both Backpacker and the Zero Impact Challenge participants to help them understand the impact of its business on the environment by making a product, and how to reduce and potentially neutralize the impact.

Zero_Impact_Sportiva_eco_boot_09.jpg

Jon Dorn, Backpacker's editor in chief, told us that Backpacker first worked with Cooler in 2006 to help Backpacker become the first magazine to go carbon neutral by initially reducing its carbon footprint by 12 percent. Out of that effort and the magazine's work on its special issue on climate change in 2007, the Zero Impact Challenge was born -- a contest where every manufacturer wins and learns, and there are no costs to enter charged by Backpacker.

In the magazine's first challenge, GoLite, JanSport, L.L. Bean, Mountainsmith and Osprey stepped up to the plate to create a trail-worthy 3,500-cubic-inch pack -- click here to read the results. For the second challenge, which focused on manufacturing a 20-degree-rated sleeping bag, Big Agnes, Feathered Friends, GoLite, Sierra Designs and The North Face answered the call -- click here to read the results.

From those two Zero Impact Challenges, 2009 challenge manager Berne Broudy told SNEWS that several interesting things emerged. First, assumptions were changed, such as the belief that down was a much more green choice than recycled synthetics. It's not, and comes in essentially even with recycled synthetics. The second, and perhaps most gratifying realization, was the fact that companies truly did use the challenge to make significant changes to not just one product, but entire product lines.

"The true purpose of our Zero Impact Challenge is to learn lessons and inspire others by demonstrating that companies can come up with and manufacture commercially viable products and have them be green," said Broudy. "To see how enthusiastically participating companies are embracing the challenge is awesome."

One company, GoLite, participated in both of Backpacker's first challenges, and used them as a sort of springboard to bigger things. 

"We were already on the track to reach our goal of using environmentally preferred materials by 2010 in the majority of our product line," Kim Coupounas, GoLite co-founder and its chief sustainability officer, told SNEWS. "But backpacks were proving to be a stumbling block due to lack of availability of materials. What the Zero Impact Challenge inspired us to do was accelerate the search to find hard-to-source and previously unavailable materials such as Dyneema with recycled content."

Coupounas also told us that once GoLite realized it had a commercially viable product with the backpack it designed for the Zero Impact Challenge, the company realized it could apply those materials and design technologies to the whole backpack line and bring it all to market faster. 

This year, Patagonia Footwear has really thrown all in the quest for zero impact, by inviting anyone to follow along as the company designs a zero impact boot for Backpacker and works to build an entire zero impact footwear collection it can launch for spring 2011.

Warren McLaren of Treehugger.com writes, in his article covering Patagonia Footwear's foray into the challenge:

Now we've been invited to join Patagonia Footwear as they accept a challenge from Backpacker Magazine to build a backpacking boot with the least environmental impact, as part of the mag's "Zero Impact Challenge." TreeHugger will be tagging along as Patagonia transparently reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entire design process. Read below about this will all come together.

Backpacker Magazine's Zero Impact Challenge

Previously Backpacker Magazine have run Zero Impact Challenges for backpacks and sleeping bags. They found that overall it was easier to make a greener pack (30% reduced carbon dioxide equivalent emissions) compared to a more eco sleeping bag (10% less emissions). But the exercise certainly gets the participating manufacturers to reevaluate their products and their environment impact. And that can only be a good thing for the industry and the planet.



Corporate Transparency

For 2009 the challenge has shifted to hiking boots and Patagonia Footwear are keen to give it their best shot. And in keeping with the same pioneering corporate transparency that spawned the Footprint Chronicles they want to chart their progress during the Challenge, with sketches, letters, videos, images and findings all specific to the design and development process of this new product, whilst allowing TreeHugger readers to communicate their thoughts and ideas.

Read the rest of the article by clicking here.

Even relatively small footwear company Oboz enthusiastically dove in with both feet (sorry for the bad pun).

In a July 2 blog (click here to read), the company wrote, "We were excited when Backpacker Magazine invited us to join in on their latest Zero Impact Challenge. Excited… but not without a bit of trepidation. Building footwear is energy intensive… and our first thought was, do WE have the extra energy to pull it off? After all, we are a mighty team of four here in Bozeman plus two folks that work in their basements somewhere. We have no idea what they're doing half the time."

The company closed its blog post with this that SNEWS believes is a perfect summation of the true impact of the Zero Impact Challenge: "We're underway, scratching our heads and digging deep. And, should we fall a bit short of the ideal zero impact boot, it will be time well spent. As Backpacker's editor Kristin Hostetter summed it up, 'The coolest thing about the Zero Impact Challenge is that everyone learns how to build greener products -- that's the spirit of it.'"

Indeed.

--Michael Hodgson

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