No longer a buzzword, sustainability is a must to guarantee the fashion industry's future. Over the past decade, many fashion brands have been seeking more sustainable production methods, investing in alternative fibers, and becoming more transparent overall regarding how and where their products are made. But what about the footwear industry?
According to recent data from consulting group Quantis, footwear accounts for a fifth of the environmental impact created by the apparel industry. More than 700 million metric tons of CO2 are generated as a byproduct of footwear production and raw material extraction every year, which is equal to 1.4% of all global carbon emissions. As consumers continue to become more aware of the effect their consumption has, demand and interest in sustainable footwear are only going to increase.
While footwear production faces a unique set of challenges regarding sustainability, recent innovations are paving the way for eco-conscious footwear. With new materials, from recycled plastics to biodegradable materials and plant-based fabrics launching, there are more options than ever before to create footwear in a more sustainable way. Nevertheless, the production of footwear remains a complex process, especially in comparison to apparel. Shoes are usually made up of 20 or more different components, ranging from the outsole, midsole, insole, lining, and upper fabric to laces, threads, and other functional or aesthetic details. Until recent years, there weren't many sustainable alternatives to some of these components, so manufacturing a fully sustainable shoe remained incredibly challenging.
The logistics behind footwear production posed another challenge regarding producing more sustainable footwear. With more than 20 billion pairs of shoes made each year, like some of the world's leading footwear brands selling one pair of sneakers every 25 seconds, replacing specific components can be difficult. Sourcing, testing, and changing one or more components of a shoe while ensuring minimal impact and disruption within the supply chain is no easy feat. However, today manufacturers and brands are coming together and implementing technological advancements to offer more sustainable options for footwear production. This ranges from using recycled rubber and sugar cane for the outsoles, excess materials, or fabrics for uppers, or using more sustainable raw materials.
Many of these sustainable options help reduce the footwear industry's reliance on plastics and other fossil-based materials. While synthetic materials are commonly used to make shoes as they offer vital features such as extended durability and functionality, these significantly negatively impact the environment. For example, plastic or polyester do not biodegrade for hundreds of years and remain in landfills polluting the planet once they've been used. Many synthetic materials, such as plastics and polyester, also release harmful microplastics during their lifecycle, which remain in the environment. TENCEL™ branded fibers from fiber manufacturer Lenzing are one of the few responsible alternatives to many synthetic and microplastic materials.
The recent collaboration between Timberland and Designer Christopher Raeburn to create Timberland’s EARTHKEEPERS® BY RAEBURN is a key example of how TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers can be incorporated into footwear production as a more sustainable choice. Design is the crucial element for the shoe’s signature. For this collection Christopher Raeburn put natural comfort and natural materials in the heart of the design. The collection is made from materials that have a minimal impact on the environment, the shoes from the collection feature 75% bio-based GreenStride™ comfort soles and upper fabrics made with TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers produced with REFIBRA™ technology. Derived from a natural origin, these cellulosic fibers are fully biodegradable and have a low impact. Consisting of 70% renewable and sustainably sourced pulp and 30% recycled cotton, there is no loss of quality or performance when using TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ fibers. Retaining the round cross-section, smooth fiber surface, and the high tensile and tear strength of regular TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers, these fibers are made in a closed-loop production process that also guarantees full supply chain transparency.
In addition to being used in the upper fabrics of shoes, TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers can be used in many different parts, including the lining, shoelaces, webbings, and sock liner. TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers can also be used in non-woven parts of the insole, sole, sewing thread, and backing material or padding. Offering many versatile qualities, these fibers can be incorporated in several ways into footwear designs while reducing the overall environmental impact. A green choice for producing sustainable footwear, Lenzing works with a dedicated team of TENCEL™ experts who are ready to offer guidance and support for footwear companies looking to incorporate more sustainable footwear solutions during production.