I recently relocated to the Netherlands for work. In a country that rains almost 200 days a year, many Dutch people seem almost oblivious to the heavy downpour. I kid you not, some even go through life without owning a single pair of rain boots or rain jacket!
My body has not yet evolved to a Dutch level of weather-resilience, so I have been searching for the perfect pair of sustainable and waterproof winter boots that can carry me through heavy rains and snowstorms, and are chic enough for an urban lifestyle.
Here’s what to look for in eco-friendly waterproof boots:
Safe Water-Proof Coating
For decades, most conventional waterproof boots have been coated with PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a family of chemicals that can make your boots and clothing water- and stain-resistant while breathable. But PFAS can leach into the air, soil, and drinking water, and are very harmful to the environment and human health. Abundant scientific studies have shown that exposure to PFAS can damage the liver, immune system, the brain, and lead to cancers, especially for the workers who make and use these coatings.
Some outdoor companies have been working on developing less toxic waterproof processes. Green Science Policy Institute has compiled a list of brands that have made PFAS-free commitment. But even the most progressive ones are struggling to eliminate PFAs of concerns completely, without compromising on performance and comfort. You may also see PFC-free labels on some products. PFC can actually mean two things: 1) perfluorinated chemicals, which include PFAS, or 2) perfluorocarbons, which are not toxic but are very potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
At present, the most promising alternative methods are to add a waterproof membrane like (reformulated) Gore-Tex or apply PFC- or fluorine-free coating. Gore-Tex is a special material that contains tiny breathable pores, which can keep out large droplets of rainwater while letting smaller water molecules (a.k.a. sweat) pass through. Gore-Tex used to treat the membrane of some of its products with PFC to reinforce the waterproof properties, but it announced in 2017 that it would eliminate the most toxic kinds of PFCs from all of its products and manufacturing process. It’s not perfect, but it is better.
I recommend prioritizing boots made from renewable materials that are processed without harmful chemicals. For example, responsibly-sourced wool, vegetable-tanned, and chromium-free leather, and fabric made from recycled materials will have a much lower impact than their conventional counterparts. Look for certifications like OEKO-TEX, which tests for toxic chemicals; Leather Working Group (LWG), which runs the world’s largest leather sustainability program that rates tanneries on their water, energy, and waste management practices; and ZQ responsible wool.
Quality and Comfort
I wouldn’t want to trek in the most sustainable boots if they gave me blisters or can’t keep my feet dry. Investing in a good pair of timeless boots can go a long way. Good traction, water protection, and cushion are paramount to protect you from harsh weather and slippery ice or snow. If you can, go to a local store to try on your favorites to make sure they’re comfortable.
Below I have compiled a list of eco-friendly and weather-proof boots to keep you warm in the winter:
Alice + Whittles The Weekend Boot
Alice + Whittles is a Canadian startup that focuses on sustainable footwear. They try to reduce waste by designing simple, versatile, and high-quality products, and 90% of the materials used are traceable and more sustainable than conventional ones. All of their footwear is virgin-plastic-free, and they use natural fair-trade rubber, reclaimed ocean plastics, recycled PET, and vegan water-based glue.
The weekend boots are rugged enough for hiking yet stylish enough for a brunch with friends. The water-resistant upper is made from reclaimed ocean plastics and the lining from recycled synthetic wool. The glue that binds the upper and the sole together is vegan-based, the sole is made from 45% recycled rubber and natural rubber from sustainably-managed forests. The company says that the boots are “made in a family-run factory in Portugal”. Many past customers rave about the comfort and durability of the boots, but caution that the boots are made in European size. So you might want to order a size up if you plan to wear thick socks.
I came to know Will’s Vegan store through a good friend of mine, who has been vegan for many years and is one of the most environmentally-conscious people I know. We went for a walk to enjoy the fall foliage one day, and her boots caught my attention: a pair of dark brown Chelsea boots with a beautiful, subtle shine. Her boots come from Will’s Vegan store, a UK-based sustainable fashion e-commerce that only uses vegan materials, from uppers and linings to the glue. All of their products are registered with the Vegan Society and the company is PETA Approved.
These waterproof boots are made from plant-based vegan leather from organic cereal oil grown in Northern Europe and recycled rubber soles from Spain. The boots have a waterproof membrane and treated uppers that balance breathability, softness, and water-proof protection. The company notes, “Unlike leather or suede, our materials do not spoil or mark even when in contact with road salt and snow slush in winter conditions. This footwear is waterproof. This means you can wear for extended periods of time in the rain, walk through puddles, walk through wet grass, light snow and have dry feet. You can also wear in deep snow, deep puddles, running water, or extended periods of heavy rain.”
Pro-tip, when the weather drops below freezing, opt for thicker wool socks as those boots are not insulated.
Will’s vegan shoes are manufactured in Portugal from leather made in Italy and Spain that meet OEKO-TEX 100 and REACH regulations, the best-known labels for tests of harmful substances. The company even went a step further to offset all of its carbon emissions in production, shipping, packaging, and sales by investing in renewable energy projects. They went through independent assessment under the Carbon Neutral Protocol and have become carbon-neutral at both the product level and company level.
I got a pair of Allbirds Wool Runners three years ago. They are still so comfortable today after jogging and biking and hiking in them that I bought two pairs each for my mom, dad, and auntie. The only drawback is that they can get dirty easily, especially if you wear them on a rainy day. Although they are machine-washable, some muddy spots are quite difficult to get off.
That’s why I’m quite glad to see Allbirds launching a rain-ready version, the Mizzles. The wool upper has a bio-based water repellent shield and is treated with an OEKO-TEX-certified fluorine-free water repellent coating. The merino wool is ZQ certified, the highest ethical and sustainable standards for wool. They can keep your feet warm and dry in light rain, and through a dry winter, although I wouldn’t wear them for extended periods in heavy thunderstorms.
The rest of the sneakers use the same eco-friendly materials as the original wool runner. The midsoles derive from sugarcane waste and FSC certified natural rubber, which creates enough bounce and traction while purporting to be carbon-negative. The insole is made from castor bean oil, which the company says reduces odor and also cuts carbon emission compared to conventional petroleum-based ones. The shoelaces come from recycled plastic bottles and the packaging from recycled cardboard.
In addition to minimizing their environmental impacts by sourcing sustainable materials, Allbirds is also one of the first companies to publicly share product-level carbon footprints just like nutrition labels on food. A pair of Wool Runner Mizzles emit 9.4 kg of CO2, and Allbirds offsets it by investing in regenerative projects.
Timberland has more than just rugged-looking boots for the wilderness. They have recently launched some collections that look chic enough to dress up while maintaining the hardcore waterproof performance and durability for the outdoor. This women’s Chelsea boot is made with full-grain Better Leather from a sustainable tannery rated Silver by the Leather Working Group (LWG). The boot is treated with Defender Repellent, a PFC-free waterproof coating. The fabric lining ReBOTL is made with at least 50% recycled PET, and the OrthoLite footbed provides a supportive cushion, breathability, and antimicrobial function.
In addition, Timberland ranks among the most forward-looking brands that try to integrate sustainability throughout its operation. The company recently started sourcing leather from regenerative ranches, recycles leather scrap to make new leather rolls, and as of 2019, more than 96% of their tanneries are rated silver or gold in environmental performance. They plan to be 100% PFC-free by 2020 (91% in 2017) and reduce the use of volatile organic compounds in the footwear.
Of course, you can always opt for used boots if you are keen on reducing your environmental footprints even further. There are a couple of stylish options on the REI used gear website. For example, the Mahone Insulated Waterproof Boots or Fernie Insulated Waterproof Boots from Kodiak are both made from Waterproof SaltShield™ leather, which contains waterproof membranes and sealed seams to keep out the elements. Merrell’s Legacy Laced Waterproof Boots have full-grain waterproof leather uppers and sheepskin-wrapped footbeds to keep your feet dry and comfy.
Poppy Barley is a certified B Corp based in Canada. A direct-to-consumer startup, Poppy Barley tries to source at least 25% of their materials from plant-based materials, chromium-free leather, and eco-fabric such as Tencel, linen, and organic cotton. The company maintains high standards for working conditions at its partner factories, screening them for living wages, working hours, and benefits, etc. The company ships out products in dust bags and recycled paper packaging instead of plastic, while aiming to offset all ground shipping emissions.
At the end of product life, the company has donated or recycled leftover products to partners like Soles4Souls, Suit Herself, and in their annual shoe drive, providing a discount for customers who donate any pair of gently-worn shoes.
Poppy Barley offers a variety of water-resistant leather boots that can keep you in style, rain or shine. Beware though, they can withstand light rain but are not waterproof, so you will want to blot off excess water to prevent moisture seeping into the leather.
Think! is an Austria-based footwear brand founded in 1990. The founder comes from a multi-generation shoe-making family that spans over 200 years. Think! sources water- and dirt- repellent leather from Heinen, a German leather factory consistently ranked among the top in LWG’s environmental responsibility and quality review.
Think! is also the first shoe manufacturer to receive the Austrian Ecolabel and Blue Angel, two of the most rigorous sustainability certificates in Europe, which mandates the leather to be vegetable-tanned, free from chromium, PVC, or perfluorinated chemicals.
Think! has a good selection of stylish, waterproof winter boots that use Gore-Tex membrane. Most of their boots are elegantly-designed and are perfect desk-to-dinner shoes that complement every look. The company also partners with NGOs on sustainability initiatives such as Seaqual Initiative in order to make their sneaker collection from recycled marine plastic and PET bottles. One thing to note is that Think! only ships to Europe.