Meet someone sporting Birkenstock sandals, and before introductions can be made, you expect the wearer to be a little crunchy, more interested in comfort than fashion and a big fan of the Grateful Dead.
It might not be a pretty shoe, but the Birkenstock sure conjures up an image of "tree-hugger" and "friend of the earth," perhaps more so than any other piece of footwear.
But in today's increasingly eco-conscious world, just the image of being green is not enough. How big a footprint do those supposedly earth-friendly shoes really leave on the planet?
Born in 1964 in Germany and introduced to the United States two years later, the Birkenstock sandal has earned many loyal customers for its comfort and hippie-chic appeal. More into grass-roots marketing than big ad campaigns, the company says it has also been green for more than 40 years.
One tribute to the sandal's earth-friendliness is its long life, which some say can be a decade or two, even three.
When the popular shoe starts to show wear and tear, it can be resoled and re-corked several times before it eventually hits the dumpster.
"Our products and production processes have always been sensitive to the environment," says Christina Piazza, brand manager at Birkenstock USA in Novato, Calif. "This sensitivity extends into everything we do — in our manufacturing process we strive to create minimal impact on the environment."
Taking Stock in Birks
It seems counter-eco-intuitive, then, that the sandals, which range in price from about $80 to $95, contain latex, cork and leather — a point the company explains.
For one, the cork comes from sustainable managed cork forests in Portugal, and the cork used is also a by-product from the wine-cork industry. The latex used is natural, says Piazza.
Proponents of green living say there should be an organization that holds companies responsible for their eco-claims. Until then, it's up to the eco-conscientious buyer to choose products that are better than others in a sector. For many, when shoe shopping, it's Birkenstocks that fit the bill.
"If shoes had a standard like the USDA organic standard, they would either meet the standard, or they wouldn't," says Diane MacEachern, founder and CEO of Big Green Purse, an online guide to green living based in Takoma Park, Md. "Consumers wouldn't have to guess, and manufacturers wouldn't be able to greenwash."
MacEachern adds that while nothing is perfect, Birkenstocks, from the information available, are "better" for the earth than many other shoes on the market.
Meanwhile, other Birkenstock backers say defending "greenness" is a thankless task for any company.
"I feel as though no matter how green a company is, there will be some people who challenge that they are not green enough," says Toni Budworth, co-owner of Birkenstock Midtown in Sacramento, Calif., which carries about 100 styles of Birkenstocks.
While customers usually cite comfort as the biggest reason for purchasing the sandals, the fact that the shoes are more earth-friendly than competing products doesn't hurt, says Budworth.
"I present it as a bonus," she says of Birkenstock's eco-friendliness.
Besides, the make-up of the sandal might be just one component of its total "greenness," say loyal customers like Lauren LoCascio, an attorney in New York City, who has been purchasing the shoes since 1989.
"The biggest connection that I make between Birks and being earth-friendly is that walking is good for the earth, inasmuch as I am traveling less by automotive," says LoCascio.
Now that's an earth-friendly footprint.