How a Fourth-Generation Bootmaker Aims to Upend the Hiking Boot Market

Noah Swartz dropped out of Harvard to found Erem

Noah Swartz of Erem footwear

Courtesy of Erem / Nate Simmons

At least two things in the world will get Noah Swartz talking. (And talking.) First is the desert. Second is everything the outdoor industry can do better in sustainability. Swartz is a fourth-generation shoemaker and Harvard Business School dropout who launched a hiking boot—nay, desert gear—company late in 2021 with a serious bent on saving the planet.

By nature, creating material products is not great for our floating home in Outerspace. It takes many resources, and those items usually end up in landfills. But Swartz, whose family started what is now Timberland, is hellbent on upending how the industry constructs and disposes of outdoor gear.

Erem footwear launched late in 2021 with one line of boots—the Xerocole—which comes in a men's and women's mid-top version for hiking and backpacking and a very high-top version for extreme desert adventure. Swartz says the Xerocole is the first high-performing hiking boot explicitly designed for the desert. At the risk of nerding-out too much with the particulars, Swartz and his team of nine have created a highly breathable, rugged, and comfortable boot that I've been testing for over a month now and have enjoyed immensely. They weigh about 1.5 pounds per boot (depending on size) and have deep 6-millimeter lugs built for grip on the desert's often slick trails and landscapes.

But beyond the actual product, what makes the Erem story—and potential—fascinating is how it came to be and its potential to upend and push the outdoor industry closer to a higher sustainability standard.

Swartz's great-grandfather "Papa" Nathan Swartz purchased a half-interest in Abington Shoe Company in 1952 after immigrating to the U.S. It's a classic immigration American dream story that this country loves—Nathan Swartz worked his way up from being an apprentice to buying out the company and handing it off to his sons. It would eventually change its name to The Timberland Company in 1973, after the company's first waterproof boot model, the Timberland. 

Fast forward a couple of generations, and Jeffrey Swartz—Noah's father—takes over in the late '90s. After 15 years of leading the family business as CEO, Jeffrey Swartz sold the company to VF Corporation for $2 billion and intended to leave the shoe industry forever.

"My parents had no desire or interest for me being in the shoe business or outdoor industry," Noah Swartz told me on a Zoom call. But then, Swartz, who grew up in the Boston area, discovered the desert.

"I fell for the desert," Swartz said, clearly smitten and before stumbling over a bunch of words. 

"This is where my ability to articulate starts to fail. What I feel in the desert is a sense of perspective I feel no place else on Earth," he continued, noting the "Zen-clarity" he only has in the desert. "It makes you feel your place in the universe very particularly because it's not a gentle place. It's really grounding. You have to be in the moment."

Noah Swartz outside Joshua Tree, California

With that blossoming adoration for the desert, a few things happened to Swartz. He went to Joshua Tree National Park for the first time, hopped out of the car, and immediately stepped on a cholla cactus ball, which was implanted in his ankle. He still has the scar today. "That, to me, is the desert," Swartz said. "It demands you have to be in the moment. That's my introduction to the desert."

Then, while on winter break from Harvard Business School, where Swartz was working towards an MBA, he and his wife had a day in Southwestern Utah where the temperature went from below freezing into the 50s. The hiking and sweating lead to multiple blisters on his feet. All the while, as a fourth-generation bootmaker would do, he's noticing, examining, and evaluating the footwear he and others are wearing. 

"Why are there no products or brands focused on the landscapes and challenges like this," Swartz recalled pondering. So he decided to create one. And he first went to his father. Jeffrey Swartz's first response? His son was crazy to want to start another shoe company. His second response? It could work.

But first, the father and son duo agreed if they were going to re-enter the shoe market, they'd do it differently. That difference would be top-shelf desert performance married with radical sustainability. 

"The desert just ratchets up the stakes a little more. It tends to strip away the BS," Swartz explained. "And that's how we're trying to live this business with a different type of urgency from a values standpoint."

Swartz put his MBA on hold.

"I'm probably the only Harvard Business School student to drop out in order to start a desert boot company, and I've very proud of that," he said. "I've got one semester to go; we'll see if I do it."

Erem Xerocole hiking boots

Step one was creating a genuinely sustainable and high-performing product. Swartz tapped into the Timberland network, hiring Pete Lankford, Timberland's design director, as his first employee. Lankford and Swartz set out to create a product that would take its cues from nature and resemble the carbon cycle. That meant using a concept never used in hiking boot production before: biocircular. 

Listening to Swartz talk about biocircular design is akin to an earth science or biology lecture. He's like the Bill Nye of outdoor gear. But what biocircular practices in hiking boots—or any outdoor gear—boils down to is ditching industry-standard materials like nylon, polyester, and plastics and replacing them with products that naturally break down in nature like cork, leather, and TENCEL fiber. The upshot: You could throw a pair of the Xerocoles in your garden, and they'd eventually break down to nothing.

Swartz sees this as "sustainability 2.0." Sustainability 1.0, Swartz says, is what you already see in a lot of outdoor gear: removing harmful chemicals like PFCs from weatherproofing and creating products with recycled materials like recycled polyester. The problem, Swartz explains, is that it only does so much for the planet.

"Their (other footwear brands) view is to remove as much crap as they can until it's in your hands, then you're on the hook for this product," Swartz said. "That's been the view of sustainability. Our view is that that's radically incomplete and kind of ridiculous." 

Noah Swartz of Erem footwear planting a prickly pear cactus

Enter the second piece of Swartz's sustainability 2.0 theory. Products should have a valuable and beneficial second life. And it's the responsibility of the business selling the product to give consumers the opportunity—and incentive—to ensure products have just that. 

Swartz maintains that "the business shouldn't be on the hook until the cash register rings. It should be on the hook until [the product] eventually returns to its next useful life." 

Erem incentivizes customers to return their worn boots to Erem by awarding credit towards their next pair of boots. The company can, in turn, take materials from the worn pairs of boots and use them while building new pairs of boots. Without incentives for that product return and the ability to break down products back to their natural state, Swartz equates any outdoor gear product to a single-use plastic water bottle.

"Everyone understands that what happens to a single-use plastic water bottle at the end of its lifespan is not good," Swartz said. "But that is essentially what outdoor gear is today. We should not be selling customers plastic water bottles but saying, 'hey, guess what, we removed stuff from the chemicals.' It's a linear system that's extractive, poisonous to the Earth, and really bad. We want to move from that system towards following this natural system. No matter what the customer wants to do with our boots, we want to make sure it has a safe and responsible next life." 

This practice, of course, comes with headaches. For example, Erem uses a linen outsole thread for stitching that hasn't been used in over half a century. Swartz says the thread accounts for just 0.3 percent of the boot's volume. But finding a manufacturer that could successfully source and use it delayed the original product to market date by three months. "We're very proud of that choice," Swartz maintains.

The Xerocole isn't the least expensive boot at $190 a pop. But, it's also not the most costly. "This is a premium product," Swartz pointed out. And, at the end of the day, this is still a business. And Swartz, his father, who serves as one of two board members, and the nine other Erem employees are in this to build a successful business. Swartz believes the bigger the company, the more impact on improving the planet.

"We don't expect to build a business on sustainability," he said. "We expect to build a business on performance that allows you to not compromise your values in the process."

Article Sources
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  1. Timberland. "History & Philosophy." Accessed May 20, 2022.

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