Here’s Where Sustainable Footwear Is Heading — And Why Consumers Want Even More

Building a sustainable shoe often begins with an eco-friendly material.

That’s something Birgit Schnetzlinger, business manager for footwear at Lenzing, knows all about. The Austria-based firm manufactures sustainable textiles for use across industries, but footwear is a particularly strong market for the company.

Schnetzlinger spoke with FN about the challenges and opportunities footwear brands will face as they increasingly go green.

Why has the footwear industry’s approach to sustainability changed so much in the past five years?

Birgit Schnetzlinger: “Information about the planet’s environmental issues is readily available online; shocking pictures of oceans filled with plastic waste are going viral and the public is paying more attention. As a result, there is an ongoing shift in consumer behavior and demand — they want to know where the product is coming from and they’re asking for transparency. In response, the industry is finding ways to provide innovative and sustainable alternatives for their consumers, such as through production automation and the development of new materials.”

What are some of the biggest sustainability challenges facing footwear right now?  

BS: “Traditional shoemaking is complex, as there are more than 40 components to one shoe. True sustainability is not only about switching from one material to another, but also about applying the sustainable concept to the whole construction of the shoe, from materials to the machinery, technologies and processes that work best together. It is also still difficult for sustainable brands to capture attention in the industry, as there are many entrenched players.”

What should brands be paying more attention to in terms of becoming more sustainable?

BS: “Brands are more willing than ever to adapt to sustainable concepts and to commit to sustainability goals, such as Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC). To help propel this further, brands need to establish a trusted supply chain and cooperate closely with suppliers. It is important for them to identify the best partners to develop a greener supply chain that is transparent.” 

Allbirds Trea Sneaks with tree growing out of shoe
Allbirds’ Tree Shoe collection uses Lenzing’s Tencel-branded lyocell fibers, which are sustainably produced by wood pulp sourced from 100% renewable forests.
CREDIT: Jason Henry

How does working with a sustainability partner like Lenzing impact the product development process?

BS: “As a company, Lenzing has more than 80 years of experience in producing high-quality fibers and is a pioneer for setting global standards for wood-based fibers. Working with a sustainable material provider, such as us, is the first step in creating a greener supply chain and driving sustainability of products from their roots. Materially speaking, Lenzing fibers are very versatile and can be used in many parts of the shoe and blended with almost any other fiber, opening up more possibilities for design.” 

What developments in sustainable materials are you most excited about?

BS: “I am happy about the increasing awareness and what’s going on at the consumer level. Recycling is just the beginning, as it is easy to get the public’s involvement. I am really excited about our Refibra technology, which allows us to take cotton waste from the industry and turn it into high quality fibers that are compostable and biodegradable, even in sea water. In the future, I want to see nonrenewable materials replaced with biodegradable materials. They come from and can be returned to nature. And natural materials are not only good for our planet, they also bring a high level of comfort.”

Watch the video below to see how Lenzing partner Allbirds is succeeding:

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