Enter a web search for “natural rubber wellies” and dozens of products will pop up. But just how ‘natural’ is the rubber used in most wellingtons and rubber or gum boots? Many consumers will be surprised to learn that the real natural (latex) rubber content can be as low as 15% of the overall polymer in rubber boots. And any brand claiming its rubber boots are “100% natural rubber” is not being fully transparent – i.e. it’s not telling you the full story.
The fact is the ‘rubber’ in any rubber boot or shoe is actually a polymer – i.e. a combination of synthetic and natural rubber. Synthetic (butadiene) rubber is synthesizedfrom petroleum by product, while natural rubber (latex) is tapped from rubber trees. There are also essential bulking agents, typically calcium carbonate (chalk), which are added to the polymer as well as lubricating oils, dyes and other substances like weather-proofing chemicals. The typical percentage of a standard (low-end) rubber welly can be as low as 30% within the total rubber content (or 15% within the total polymer).
At the high-end – in other words brands who are marketing their wellingtons and rain boots on the strength of their high natural rubber content – the maximum possible percentage of natural rubber is 75–80% of the total rubber content within the polymer (or 90% for children’s boots because they don’t take as much wear and tear). There are only a handful of factories around the world who manufacture rubber boots with such a high percentage. The price of the boot will typically by higher.
Beware of boots claiming to be “100% natural rubber”
It is simply not possible to make rubber wellingtons with 100% natural rubber. The latex must be reinforced, or it would literally slip off the foot. In fact, the higher the synthetic content, the more abrasion the boot can withstand, which is why the polymer used for the outsole and heel needs to have a higher synthetic content. The upper part of the boot can use a higher percentage of natural tree rubber to make it more flexible where it fits around the ankle and cone of the foot.
Is “natural rubber” sustainable?
Natural does not necessarily mean sustainable or environmentally-friendly either. The price of natural rubber has been historically low for over ten years. Unfortunately, this has meant that thousands of hectares of natural rainforest in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and have been cleared to produce rubber plantations which have been managed in an unsustainable way.
The sad fact is, the vast majority of factories making rubber products across the globe – and this includes many top and “luxury” wellington brands – use SVR or ‘Standard Vietnamese Rubber’. This means they buy it from resellers who mix it from hundreds of different sources – in other words it is impossible to verify the provenance of the rubber.
Consumer demand will drive change
This needs to change – but the demand for sustainable rubber needs to come from the consumer. If customers don’t ask these questions, brands won’t bother to change their formulations or put pressure on their producers to lean on their suppliers to change. The rubber tyre industry (which accounts for 75% of all natural rubber consumed) is starting to transform itself. In 2019, they set up the GSPNR consortium to switch to sustainable sources, but they are a few years away from being fully sustainable. A handful of footwear brands are starting to change too. This year Hunter will launch their first sustainable rubber boot – a collaboration with Stella McCartney.
If you care about the fact your wellies are made with sustainably-sourced rubber, then only buy from brands who can absolutely guaranteethat their rubber is sustainably sourced – i.e. their suppliers have the proper certification from FSC and/or the Fair Rubber association. The Fair Rubber association (a spin-off from the Fair Trade association) works with a handful of hevea brasiliensisrubber plantations to ensure that not only are the trees sustainably managed, the people who work on the plantations get a fair wage, decent living standards and extra benefits from the Fair trade. This is made possible by the Fair premium ($0.50) per kilo of rubber sold, which goes back to the community for investing into community projects like education and sports projects, clean water pumps, shower facilities for the workers, or sponsorships for young people.
Brands which carry the Fair Rubber stamp are guaranteed to be ethical and sustainable and also give back to the community.
Spats Boots – making sustainability the top priority
In 2020, Spats Boots joined the Fair Rubber association and will be switching production to a Fair Rubber, FSC approved factory in Sri Lanka. The founder, Imogen O’Rorke, explains why she is making the change:
“When I first started producing Spats in a family-run factory in Calcutta in 2008, I was assured by my factory that the boots used “100% natural rubber”(!) When I became a little bit savvier about the manufacturing process, I realised that what they meant was the natural rubber used was indeed 100% natural (and it was truly high grade Keralan latex), but not the whole polymer. There were several other components in the polymer which they ‘didn’t want to bother me with’. I learned from this experience that factories tell their clients what they want to hear – just as many brands pass onto their customers what they want to hear, or don’t bother to question their suppliers.
Rather reluctantly, I moved the production of Spats Boots moved to China in 2013, after the 100-year-old factory in Calcutta closed down. I made sure I put into the new contract the exact rubber formulation to be used in Spats (which was no-less-than 55% natural to 45% synthetic within the rubber mix (upper and lower) – the highest they were capable of.
But then in 2015, I first learned about damage the cheap and unchecked rubber industry was doing to natural environments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I determined to do make the product more sustainable and asked the factory if they could source sustainable natural rubber – or at least verify the original source of their rubber. My question was met with bafflement, even amusement, and ultimately ignored.
Finally, after several years of looking for factories who could produce sustainably, I came across the Fair Rubber association, which was set up by Martin Kunz, who was one of the founding fathers of the Fair Trade movement. Through them I managed to find one of a couple of factories in the world that has a personal relationship with the producers of their rubber and those plantations are FSC (Forestry Commission) - verified as sustainably managing their forests.”
Fair Rubber requires its licensees to pay a premium of ($0.50 per kilo – i.e. £0.50-1.00) per pair of boots) which goes directly back to the tappers and the community to manage the forests. This premium is used to fix and enhance schools and nurseries, to improve their living conditions, sports and community facilities, amongst other things. The plantation communities get to choose how best to spend the Fair Rubber money.
FSC and Fair Trade natural, sustainable rubber is more expensive to purchase than commonly traded standard Vietnamese rubber (SVR) – which can offer no hard assurances that ecosystems aren’t destroyed or that migrant workers aren’t exploited – and this has to be reflected in the retail price. But for the consumer, this means absolute assurance that the supply chain has been vetted and verified and that the people who tapped and processed the rubber and handmade the boots have been fairly treated – and benefited from the sales of Spats Boots.
Imogen continues, “I am so proud of the Fair Rubber association that I decided to change our name to SPATS – LOVE RUBBER, to reflect our respect for the trees and the communities who live from tapping.”