Inside Scoop: Leather
A look at the controversial, but tried-and-true material that’s enabled outdoor survival and exploration since time immemorial
Leather has been one of the most consistent materials used in the outdoors, thanks to its durability, flexibility, and ability to withstand all sorts of weather. The first boots on Everest were leather, as Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay wore British-designed leather boots specifically crafted for warmth and water repellency. But the use of leather dates back much further than 20th century mountaineering.
Images courtesy of Forsake
Since the literal dawn of human history, leather has been used as a highly versatile and coveted tool. Clothing, mobile shelters, armor, household items—the process of turning animal hides into products that enable and enhance the human experience began in the Stone Age. Leather was critical in keeping homo sapiens warm during different periods of the Ice Age, and the material eventually grew to play an outsized role in the Roman Empire (as its military’s main source of armor) before it faded in popularity as other technologies improved and new materials were discovered.
Today, leather is still commonly found in hiking and casual boots alike. Rightfully so, many organizations have raised questions in recent decades about the ethical and environmental implications of leather production. Ethically speaking, people wonder if killing animals for the express purpose of clothing humans is irresponsible. Environmentally, many question the use of chemicals involved during the tanning process and how resource-intensive it is to raise animals.
One way to sort through these philosophical qualms is to get into the nitty-gritty of how certain leathers are produced, and what leather can add to conversations about sustainability from the perspective of durability and its longevity. Now, independent and international organizations exist (more on that below) to help audit leather producers, ensuring certain standards are met from both ethical and environmental standards.
Standardized certifications are helpful not only for conscious companies like Forsake and Keen that purchase leather from tanneries to make their boots, but also for conscious consumers striving to “vote” with their dollars and advocate for a better planet and healthier future. So long as leather is derived respectfully, the material can add a lot of value to outdoorists closets from a durability and performance perspective. Leather products, if well taken care of, can last for years—generations, even—which enables multiple owners to enjoy such products, and also reduces the need to buy new shoes every few years when synthetic boots wear down, crack, and are tossed in the trash.
Sam Barstow, co-founder and head of product at Forsake, believes companies and product-producers have a responsibility to protect the planet. This starts in the design and production rooms, and extends throughout the life of the product once it’s in consumer hands. “We take a holistic approach to sustainability when it comes to product,” he explains. “That includes quality and durability because keeping our shoes on people's feet and out of landfills is the best thing we can do for the environment.”
Forsake, a climate-neutral certified company, manufactures all-season hiking boots and everyday shoes. “Our sustainability mission is to understand the impact our operations have on the environment and reduce that impact in meaningful and measurable ways,” he says. “We analyze, measure, and offset the impact of every one of our business activities from sourcing materials to shipping finished goods to the customers and are always looking for areas to improve.”
All things considered, leather has earned its place in the outdoor adventure world, and factoring longevity and durability into conversations about environmentalism makes a strong case for leather as a sustainable option when looking to add hiking boots to your adventure kit.
Sourcing and production
Typically, factories buy and receive leather in large swaths of hide. The hides are then cut into specific shapes and pieces, which are sewn together to create boots or other leather goods. Forsake’s Barstow compares the process of using a cutting die to that of using a large cookie cutter. Like trying to maximize cookie dough usage, “There's a real art form to designing these cutting dies and arranging them on the hide so there is as little leather wasted as possible,” he explains. Up next is shoe construction: “The pieces are then stretched and stitched together around a foot shaped recyclable plastic last (mold). The final step is gluing the rubber outsole onto the upper.”
Forsake sources the leather used in its shoes from two of the leading tanneries in the footwear industry: Prime Asia and Tyche. Both are Leather Working Group Gold certified tanneries, a certification that ensures the companies take responsible and ethical leather production seriously.
Barstow explains the Leather Working Group (LWG) certification is important and valuable due to its independent non-profit certification process. “Any tannery, or brand for that matter, can say that they're focusing on improving their environmental impact, but LWG conducts comprehensive audits to verify and quantify the steps being taken. They're also pushing the industry to improve by providing clear and tangible goals for tanneries to improve their processes.”
For consumers, looking for brands that work with LWG-certified tanneries is a way to ensure any personal ethical standards you may have are met. As Barstow puts it: “Independent certifications like LWG provide verification that a brand isn't just green washing.”
The pros, the cons
The main benefits of leather in footwear are twofold: the durability and fit. Leather is extremely durable—with a high tensile strength (meaning it takes a lot of force to tear), leather products are able to withstand significant abrasions in both wet and dry conditions in addition to punctures. Leather is also naturally resistant to fire, mold or fungi growth, and deterioration from chemicals (like city pollution). Leather is super flexible—able to bend and bend and bend without wearing thin—which makes it highly suitable for shoes that need to be able to flex and bend while also maintaining a degree of sturdiness. And, because leather stretches, or "breaks in" to fit your foot as you wear it, “the fit is essentially customized,” Barstow points out. Leather can re-mold itself, so it’s able to take on many forms throughout its lifespan.
The main drawbacks are leather’s sourcing. Leather comes from animals, which are highly resource intensive to raise. Also, leather is generally warmer than other footwear materials, such as breathable mesh—so it depends if you’re aiming to keep your feet warm, say in the winter, or trying to stay cool, say on a humid summer hike. “The breathability is part of the trade off for durability,” Barstow notes.
Caring for leather
Cleaning and treating the leather on your shoes regularly can greatly extend their life and look.
In general, you’ll want to gently clean your leather products with light soaps and a toothbrush or Magic Eraser. Make sure you fully dry your shoes after use on a rainy day or when washing, so as to ensure bacteria doesn’t grow. Leather can be resealed and re-waterproofed numerous times over its lifespan, so check out eco-friendly sealants like Nikwax.
For more tips, visit Forsake’s Shoe Care page.
“There's a really strong push from consumers and brands, especially in the outdoor space, to focus on and improve sustainability and environmental impact in the leather industry,” Barstow says. “The suppliers are responding in really positive ways by reducing their water, energy use, and waste, as well as tracing the leather back to the farms to ensure the animals are raised and treated properly. I think we'll continue to see improvements in all of these areas.”
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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