We recently tested a pair of Panther high-cut shoes from Wildling Shoes, one of the most promising sustainable shoemakers we’ve found. This minimal shoe, which encourages a natural gait and has held up wonderfully during two months of use, is representative of Wildling’s line of shoes. It exemplifies a handmade ethos that deserves to be called a Greener Shopping Difference Maker.
A Certified B Corp. based in Engelskirchen, Germany, Wildling is working to reinvent shoes after starting out as a response to the founders’ frustration with the shoes available for their children. “They just didn’t walk right,” Anna Yona said of her three children’s first shoes. She and her husband, Ran, a sports therapist, decided to design and build shoes that allow the foot to move naturally, using regeneratively produced materials. The resulting minimal shoe is extremely comfortable.
“[Our shoes] make you feel differently and prevent foot problems throughout life,” Yona added. Buying from the company can also make a positive impact. A 1% for the Planet participant, Wildling invests in restorative programs at its farms, and the company supports rewilding programs in Eastern Europe designed to restore forests and wildlife.
The Wildling Panther ($149), the shoe Earth911 tested, is made with a certified organic cotton upper and hemp-flax fleece lining, with a recyclable outsole of partially recycled synthetic rubber and cork. The Panther is a tough, minimal boot-like shoe that has performed great on pavement and groomed trails. The sole of the shoe is thin enough that it is not comfortable on rocky, uneven terrain. But that makes it extremely comfortable for daily wear in most other situations.
We recommend the Panther for walkers and light hiking. The design and, in particular, the minimal sole of this lightweight, ergonomic shoe have attracted lots of questions and comments from people who see them. Other shoes in the Wildling catalog are vegan and the company is readying repair and recycling programs that will further reduce the shoes’ environmental footprint. If you need sustainable shoes, the entire Wildling catalog deserves a look. Shoes for adults range from $89 to $149, shoes for kids from $79 to $129, and toddler shoes range from $59 to $74.
Estimating Wildling’s Carbon Footprint
We give the designation “Greener Shopping Difference Maker” only to products that reduce their environmental impacts by more than 50%. Like many young companies, Wildling is working to gather information about its environmental impact and has not published a life cycle assessment of its products.
During a series of calls, we were able to confirm the company’s Scope 1 (direct) and 2 (immediately indirect, from energy purchases) greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, Wildling’s shoes averaged 0.258 pounds of Scope 1 and 2 emissions per pair. Since Scope 3 emissions typically account for 90% or more of the total carbon emissions associated with a product, we estimated that the total carbon footprint of the average pair of Wildling shoes is about 4.5 pounds per pair.
While ours is a rough estimate, we’re confident that Wildlings has delivered a low-carbon shoe and will continue to reduce its product footprints. Compared to the typical athletic shoe, which a 2013 MIT study found produces an average of about 30 pounds of CO2 per pair, Wildling shoes will save as much as 25 pounds of CO2 compared to a traditional pair of shoes. By comparison with other low-carbon options, Wildling appears to perform as well or better than Adidas and AllBirds’ recently announced shoe that produces only 6.48 pounds of CO2 per pair.
Many shoemakers are taking important steps toward sustainability, and Wildling is a leader.
Made With Increasingly Natural Components
The Panther combines many organic, natural materials with a shrinking percentage of petroleum-based materials, such as a virgin polyester membrane in the upper and polyamide and polyurethane edging along the bottom of the shoe upper. Yona explained that in the next generation of Wildling shoes, the polyester membrane will be made from recycled plastic. For now, however, Yona said it is difficult to replace the microfiber edging with natural alternatives without weakening the shoe. Wildling designers are currently working with wool as a potential microfiber replacement.
Wildling has experimented widely with new materials, including bio-based and recycled materials. The outsole, or bottom of the shoe, is currently made from 80% synthetic rubber, 40% of which is sourced from recycled materials, and 20% cork material recovered from recycled wine corks. The soles are fully recyclable, and Wildling will recycle any outsoles removed as part of a shoe repair.
The shoe upper, interior, and linings are made from organically grown cotton, hemp, and flax. These crops can carry a heavy water footprint. However, Wildling is shifting its sourcing of materials to farms and companies within the EU, with a few necessary exceptions, so it can monitor sources and minimize shipping. We consider these decisions, at the current stage of Wildling’s evolution, to be understandable trade-offs.
“We never stop improving the sustainability of our shoes,” Yona said. She explained that the company is working to transition to regeneratively produced materials. “We look at each [shoe] model to see what stands in the way of a circular model. Every model has at least a few improvements.”
The company is committed to use only natural and circular materials by 2030. Although it has not finalized its GHG emissions tracking, Wildling is working to reduce its carbon footprint as much as possible over time, without the use of limited carbon offsets, so that it can focus on emission reductions and low-impact, renewable energy sources.
“We put the focus on really reducing emissions,” Yona said. “We’re working on the indicators that will help us understand what is important to measure.”
Packaging, Repair, and Recycling
The product packaging we received is made from recycled paper and was plastic-free, except for the plastic sleeves that held the shipping label. A return shipping label and plastic sleeve are also included.
Wildling has launched a new repair program for its shoes. Repairing a product reduces its lifetime carbon footprint. Yona said the program is not currently promoted but that customers can call and request repairs now.
Wildling will also introduce a recycling program over the next year, Yona said. The company has reduced its manufacturing waste through internal recycling efforts and it wants to ensure that all the materials it collects can be processed before introducing the recycling option. Those efforts to standardize on recyclable materials should contribute to more convenient recycling at consumers’ homes. By eliminating unrecyclable components, manufacturers can increase the likelihood their products can be recycled in curbside or drop-off programs.
Circular thinking appears to drive most decisions at Wildling. When we asked about the potential to compost a shoe, Yona replied that they would prefer to reuse cotton and wool fibers to make new products in lieu of composting the materials.
In addition to its extensive wilderness and restorative agriculture investments, Wildling has established close partnerships with the factories where its shoes are made in Portugal and Spain. These operations are managed using fair labor practices that encourage feedback from workers. The attention to detail in these handmade shoes shows that every one of them is consistent yet unique.
Wildling Shoes perform great in real-world use and tick all the boxes necessary to reduce the footprint of its typical shoe by more than 50% compared to most shoes available today. The company is making earnest investments to reduce waste and improve the sourcing of materials to eliminate CO2 emissions.
Customers are able to send Wildling shoes for repair, which extends the product’s life while reducing its carbon footprint, and will have mail-in recycling options available by the end of 2023. We were particularly encouraged by Anna Yona’s commitment to making every pair of Wildling Shoes 100% recyclable. The company’s commitment to regenerative materials and rewilding Europe, including its 1% for the Planet contributions, are positive efforts that reinforce our confidence that Wildling is a company making an Earth-positive difference.
While they are not perfectly sustainable, Wildling Shoes are on the right track and improving consistently. The company’s aggressive commitment to using all-natural and recyclable materials by 2030 makes them a Greener Shopping Difference Maker that you can support with confidence.