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Q&A: Lenzing Talks Tencel and the Future for Sustainable Shoes

With sustainability hot on the minds of brands that care and those that realize they can’t afford not to, Lenzing has expanded its sustainable fiber offering into footwear.

Shoes have been a smaller focus in the sustainability conversation compared to the evolution of more eco-friendly apparel product and processes, but as more footwear brands adopt better practices, the sector will likely make leaps in sustainability in relatively short order—largely because the consumer will demand it.

For Lenzing, its leading Tencel fiber, a sustainably made wood-based cellulosic, is primed to improve performance for footwear and Allbirds has already caught on to the fact. The hip sneaker brand known for its wool kicks recently launched its Tree line, a collection of shoes fashioned from Eucalyptus tree fiber, made from Tencel Lyocell.

With trend-right, modern brands leading the charge, the uptick in shoes made with Tencel could see increasing growth in sustainability for footwear. Sourcing Journal caught up with Lenzing footwear manager Birgit Schnetzlinger to getting a better understanding of what this could mean for the greater sector.

SJ: Lenzing has long been focused on wood-based cellulose fibers for apparel. What led you to widen your applications for footwear?

Birgit Schnetzlinger: The trigger was a more reactive one, really. We got so many inquiries from the footwear industry, so we started two or three years ago with the first development. We saw a big demand for sustainable materials for footwear from many important players in the industry. It started with laces, actually, and making them out of our Tencel fiber, and then we continued by creating upper materials and inner linings, and even did some developments for the outer sole.

SJ: With those developments in mind, how are companies most likely to use Tencel for their footwear?

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BS: Right now, the focus is more on the upper material because this is the most obvious part of the shoe. But for the insole, the performance of Tencel comes through the most. Things like moisture management, which is the most important performance criteria for Tencel shoes, as the fiber absorbs and controls the moisture of the inner fabric so the area stays dry. There is also no moisture on the outside so bacteria cannot grow, which also contributes to odor.

SJ: How will Tencel in footwear impact the sector’s sustainability?

BS: There are 23 billon pairs of shoes produced every year. If you look at the materials used in the conventional shoe production, you can find a lot of harmful substances and they all end up in the landfill one day. If we only look at the textile share of the shoe production, which is 20 percent with the tendency to grow even further, the main materials used today are cotton or polyester. When it comes to cotton, the water usage to produce Tencel is 95 percent less than it takes to produce conventional cotton, and when it comes to polyester or nylon, they are not renewable or biodegradable—so Tencel as an alternative material or as a blending fiber can make an impact!

SJ: Allbirds just got on board with putting Tencel in its sneakers—are you expecting more major collaborations this year?

BS: Allbirds is a very innovative and responsibly acting brand, which succeeded to build up a good position in the industry. They have a strong ability to contribute to consumers’ consciousness and this is exactly the direction in which Lenzing goes: to get more consumer awareness.

There are already some other commercial products available, a Converse Chuck Taylor II using an upper material of Tencel canvas, and we’ve done some work with H&M. We do have customers from the high-end to the low-end segment, which we think is good because we think sustainability should not be a trade-off with price. Sustainable materials will only be successful in the future if we reach every segment. We are working with many renowned brands and there will also be some launches coming up soon.

SJ: What’s next for Tencel in footwear?

BS: What we see is a big trend in knitted shoes, whether it’s casual shoes or boots, the trend is all over. The knitted shoe type is also part of the automation trend as that’s the way many brands are using it, and part of the sustainability trend because with automation, you have less waste. With seamless knits and flat knits using different knitting technologies, this is somewhere we really see our fibers and shoe developments in the future.