Birkenstock: a Green Business, or Just Hippie Cred?

If you see the phrase “Birkenstock-clad” in a description, it’s almost always preceded or followed by “treehugging,” “dirt-worshipping,” or “granola-eating” (and all are used to modify “hippie”). As such, it’s tempting to look at a pair of leather Birkenstock sandals or clogs, and assume the company gets a ‘green by association” pass. After all, how green can casual footwear be… right? Isn’t it just another consumer product?

Perhaps. But a little digging into Birkenstock’s manufacturing and packaging practices shows that the company has earned a good deal of its green credibility. While there are issues one could point out (and which I’ll touch on later), the sandal, clog, and shoe maker has implemented a number of green practices that other footwear companies would do well to follow.

Long-lasting quality

It’s tempting to jump right into sourcing and production issues with consumer products, but those only go so far if they’re created to meet the latest fashion… and likely discarded or replaced once styles change. Even the reliably green skeptical FOX News notes that Birkenstock’s products can last for decades.

Furthermore, the company designs the shoes for repair. A customer with well-worn Birkenstocks can drop them off at one of the company’s store locations, or use the website’s shoe repair locator to find a cobbler.

Birkenstock’s Green Materials and Production

Designing their products to last, rather than for disposal, already sets the company apart from most shoe makers, but Birkenstock also uses materials and production practices that minimize the company’s footprint.

  • Materials: Birkenstock’s classic footbed contain natural latex and cork… both renewable, non-toxic resources. Soles are made from EVA — yes, a vinyl product, but a much safer alternative to the much nastier PVC.
  • Material and heat recovery: Excess leather is used in the production of other materials; leftover EVA is used for children’s playgrounds, sport fields and sound barriers along freeways.” Heat from machinery is recovered to use for drying cork footbeds.
  • Packaging: Made from 90% recycled material, and designed to meet Germany’s stringent der Grüne Punkt standard.

What Can Birkenstock Do Better?

Despite these pretty impressive practices, Birkenstock doesn’t quite meet Ethical Consumer’s Best Buy” standard for footwear (though they’re just below those that do). Their use of leather may play into this (though they offer a wide range of vegan options); there may also be disclosure and reporting issues (I was unable to find a corporate social responsibility or sustainability report). Unfortunately, neither the freely available information, or a paid PDF report, specified issues with the company.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. Got experience with Birkenstock’s sustainability or corporate social responsibility initiatives? Let us know what you know…

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of long-running sustainability blog sustainablog. The site’s new Green Choices product comparison engine lists Birkenstock products, including the classic Arizona sandals.

Image credit: zombieite at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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