Go Green: The Sole Solution—Making Shoes Sustainable

Text by Catharine Livingston; Photographs courtesy of Mountain Soles

In many ways, 2008 was a banner year for eco-friendly footwear. Brooks launched the world’s first biodegradable midsole. END Footwear opened its doors as perhaps the first performance shoe company dedicated entirely to green kicks. Heck, even Payless announced its first eco line. But for all the buzz surrounding glue-free construction and recycled-rubber outsoles, relatively little attention was paid to what might be the greenest shoe story of all: Cobbling.

We broached this subject last October in an article about the greening of footwear, and as I edited the piece, one particular quote struck me harder than the rest. It came from Vasque‘s product manager Brian Hall: “Hardly anyone resoles their hiking boots anymore—the art has gone away.”  

View Images

Bit by bit, outdoor footwear brands are warming up to the idea of creating more cobbler-friendly trail shoes. In that same interview, Hall hinted that Vasque might be bringing back some more old-school durability into future lines. And just last month, Patagonia announced an exclusive partnership with Mountain Soles, a Portland, Oregon-based outdoor footwear repair shop that now offers services for several of Patagonia’s spring styles. But there’s still a long ways to go.

View Images

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is our 21st-century demand for lightweight gear. “In the last ten years, as footwear has gotten lighter, it’s also become less resole-able,” Mountain Soles owner Matt Menely told me when I called him the other day. “That’s because there’s less shoe there basically to resole.”

Believe it or not, of all the trail shoes out there today, a relatively small percentage of them are actually resole-able. This gets back to the lightweight movement—the lighter the shoe, the less there is to keep alive—but it’s also a matter of quality. “There’s always a certain percentage of shoes that walk in the door that are not worth repairing because the quality wasn’t that high to begin with,” Menely said. “Sometimes when we tear something open to resole it, it opens a bigger can of worms to try and put it back together than its worth.”

So where can you find these elusive, cobbler-friendly trail shoes? Menely suggested checking out top-of-the-line styles from brands like La Sportiva and Scarpa. And getting ready to drop $200 or more–anything less than that and your shoe will likely have issues with reincarnation. Quality repair work doesn’t come cheap, either. Menely said he charges upwards of $75 to resole a pair of hiking boots.

Menely’s reverence for the hefty-and-expensive isn’t just antithetical to our current appetite for lightweight, low-cost footwear—it also flies in the face of today’s prevailing eco-footwear slogan that less is more. Whereas shoe brands are increasingly touting their minimalist designs—which use fewer materials and require less energy to produce—Menely believes that perhaps we need to rethink our definition of sustainable footwear altogether. And here’s where our conversation got really interesting:

Menely: Let’s say you make a shoe that is totally “sustainable.” It still is only going to last a certain number of resoles, and then you’ll have to do something with it. So then, you make it “recyclable,” which really means it will get down-cycled into some other product, whether it’s a plastic park bench or a basketball court—Nike’s grinding this stuff up and turning it into basketball courts and running tracks. And eventually those will wear out and will have to get thrown away, too. Or maybe Nike has a way of just perpetually re-grinding that stuff into more tracks and basketball courts—”

Me: So what you’re saying is, we might define “sustainable” as how much a particular material can be down-cycled–even if it’s the worst material in the world. In other words, if something can be used over and over and over, then it’s sustainable?

Menely: Sure. “Sustainable” to me would mean something that you can make last a lot longer and would use a lot less resources during its lifespan. I mean in the end, all shoes are going to end up in the garbage. Unless you’re going to make a shoe out of materials that you could compost.

Now we’re talking. 

How old can you go? Tell us about the longest-lasting trail shoe you’ve ever owned.