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Tencel.com
TENCEL™ insights
07 / 04 / 2021
TENCEL™ Insights: Take footwear to the next level with low environmental impact materials
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TENCEL™ insights
07 / 04 / 2021
TENCEL™ Insights: Take footwear to the next level with low environmental impact materials

From recycled plastics to plant-based or even biodegradable materials, sustainable footwear is beginning to emerge. But the footwear segment continues to face a range of unique challenges in transitioning away from unsustainable materials and production processes.

To explain how these challenges are affecting the footwear segment, and how brands can overcome them, Birgit Schnetzlinger, Head of global business development for functional wear at Lenzing, joins us for another instalment of our “TENCEL™ Insights” Series.


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Q: What are some of the challenges for footwear brands to become more sustainable?

Birgit: Relative to clothing, shoes are a very complex product. Often, shoes contain upwards of 20 components, ranging from the outsole, midsole, insole, lining and upper fabric to laces, threads and many other functional or aesthetic details. Until recently, there simply weren’t eco-friendly alternatives to some of these ingredients, meaning constructing an entirely sustainable shoe was not only a challenge, but simply a dream.

Logistics is another key concern when considering the transition to sustainable materials. More than 20 billion pairs of shoes are made each year , with some of the largest sneaker brands selling one pair of shoes every 25 seconds. Changing single components whilst ensuring minimal supply chain disruption can be a challenge in our fast-moving world.

These unique headaches provide insight into why the footwear industry has moved more slowly toward sustainability than other segments of the fashion landscape. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Both brands and manufacturers are using emerging technologies to create sustainable solutions for footwear products. Some include using chemically recycled plastics, biobased materials, such as sugar cane for outsoles, upcycled fabrics that would otherwise go to waste, and transitioning to sustainable raw materials, such as our amazing REFIBRA™ technology. Generally, the higher the percentage of low impact materials, the better for our industry and to the world. The footwear industry continues to face challenges in its eco-friendly journey, however these innovations promise to push the industry closer to our ultimate sustainability goal.

Q: There is an obvious desire for brands to reduce plastic in products. Why is this so important?

Birgit: The general reduction of plastics and fossil-based materials in shoes is a strategic focus for many footwear brands, both large and small.

Synthetic materials can be used to elevate durability and functionality within different consumer goods. However, their biggest drawback is that our society has become overly reliant on certain synthetic materials like plastic, which does not biodegrade and can remain in our environment for decades or even several hundred years. Alongside the rise of fast fashion, polyester has also become popular for the apparel and footwear industry, as it is relatively cheap compared to natural materials. As a result, about two thirds of the world fiber usage is polyester.

Not only are most of these materials relegated to the landfill at the end of their life, they can also emit harmful microplastics during use. Microplastics can be released during laundry cycles and enter wastewater, or in the case of shoes, into the atmosphere as abrasion of the shoe sole during regular use.

Our TENCEL™ branded fibers offer an environmentally responsible alternative to synthetic and microplastics-containing materials. In addition, our powder can be incorporated in EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) outsoles, so to reduce the amount of non-renewable materials for outsoles.

Q: How else does the TENCEL™ brand assist companies in incorporating sustainability into footwear products?

Birgit: The TENCEL™ brand aims to create a holistic solution for footwear, with offerings beyond textiles. Our goal is to enable brands to include our biodegradable and compostable fibers and powder in as many components of footwear as possible.

TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers can be used in many parts of the shoe, including the upper fabrics, lining, shoelaces, webbings and as a sockliner. Our fibers can also be used in non-woven parts of the insole, strobel sole or even as sewing thread and as backing material or padding. We have partnered with many international footwear brands, such as Camper and Allbirds, to strengthen the sustainability credentials of their shoe collections. Of course, we pride ourselves on innovation and are continuing to improve our fiber offerings for the footwear industry. We have a range of exciting new partnerships in the works which we will announce soon, and strive to continue partnering with footwear brands on new sustainable footwear products.

Our TENCEL™ branded fibers are derived from a natural origin and are fully biodegradable. Their intrinsic qualities also make them very versatile meaning there are many ways creative designers can integrate these low-impact fibers in many parts of the shoe whilst reducing the overall environmental impact.

Besides reducing plastic, the reduction of carbon footprint should also be an important corporate goal for responsibly acting brands. I am excited that we recently extended our product portfolio with the pioneering carbon zero TENCEL™ branded fiber to further support the supply chain to reach their ambitious sustainability goals.

For many brands, we understand that shifting away from traditionally used synthetic materials toward using more sustainable alternatives such as TENCEL™ branded fibers for the first time can pose challenges for design and production teams. However, looking to our previous brand partnerships, we can assure that the transition will be worthwhile in the long term as brands elevate their environmental responsibility. Depending upon the need of our partners, we alter our approach to ensure the best results such as education or experimentation with our range of fiber types. At Lenzing, we have a team of TENCEL™ experts who can provide guidance and comprehensive expertise along the brand’s value chain throughout their production journey.

Nowadays the sustainability and circularity discussion is of such a great focus that the comfort and functional benefits of TENCEL™ branded fibers can be overlooked. Used in knitted uppers, they are incredibly flexible in fit, and super comfortable as they contribute to better breathability and lower bacteria growth without irritating the skin.

Each of these great functional benefits simply add to our certified sustainable criteria, making TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers a natural choice for a next-generation sustainable shoe.

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