Patagonia is known for industry-leading gear, unconventional business practices, and a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to protecting the environment. The company is not, however, known for footwear, and it has no plans to change that—its recently restocked Wild Idea Work Boot, a regenerative, eco-conscious, hard-wearing leather boot is more of a solution to a problem than a new endeavor.
The problem? Well, it has to do with making jerky. For years now, Patagonia has been sourcing humanely harvested meat for a line of buffalo jerky made by its offshoot food brand, Patagonia Provisions. The meat comes from Wild Idea Buffalo Company, a direct-to-consumer bison-meat purveyor founded 25 years ago in the South Dakota grasslands by Dan O'Brien, a wildlife biologist and rancher.
Wild Idea has two missions: creating an alternative to industrial farming, and regenerating and preserving the Great Plains grasslands using bison herds. The herds graze and migrate across the land, disturbing only the tops of the perennial grasses and leaving their 30-foot root systems untouched. The roots, in turn, keep soil from washing or blowing away, protecting the land's biodiversity while sequestering carbon dioxide beneath the Earth's surface.
Wild Idea generates around a thousand buffalo hides per year, and before the two companies found a use for the byproduct, the hides were mostly being composted back into the Wild Idea's 6,000-acre ranch—a decent solution, but over two years of development, the companies found a better one: use the leather to make a limited-edition run of work boots, cut in a Chelsea boot style for women and a lace-up version for men.
The focus on sustainability doesn't stop there, either. The boots are constructed with 30% recycled Vibram EcoStep outsoles, which attach to the upper boot using a Goodyear welt, a method that makes replacing the outsole—and thereby extending the boots' life—much easier. And of course, the thick yet highly breathable leather is a moisture-wicking, durable material capable of conforming to your feet.
The boots themselves are crafted in Portugal by the fifth-generation custom boot maker Hugal, with aid from Chicago-based Horween Leather Co. At the initial launch in October 2020, Patagonia made only 1,000 pairs—500 for men and 500 for women. Their subsequent restocks depend on the finite (and seasonal) supply of leather from Wild Idea, meaning the production process is designed to prioritize preventing material waste over meeting consumer demand.
Patagonia's Workwear division, which makes apparel designed for years' worth of tough conditions, is known for utilizing "greener" materials, like hemp and organic cotton. Its foray into using leather took some time to conceive—for one, not many tanneries are accustomed to bison leather, nor are they set up to process the material in an environmentally sound way, without the use of harsh treatment chemicals. And some at Wild Idea, whose harvest crew skins the bison out in the same grasslands the animals were raised in, returned to traditional Lakota methods of skinning to ensure the hides were left without any knife marks, an essential detail when it comes to repurposing the material.
Blundstone-style Chelsea boots and work boots have exploded in popularity, and Patagonia's contribution shows what's possible with an environment-first approach that's the antithesis of fast fashion. Plus, the boots themselves look pretty damn good.