The rate of change has never been greater — or faster — for the footwear industry, with new challenges popping up every day in nearly all corners of the business, from navigating cash crunches and supply chain issues to understanding the latest technological advances. In its “Ask An Expert” series, FN asks industry leaders — all solutions-based providers — to take on some of the most timely topics.

Sustainability has been a hot topic for the fashion industry for several years, but despite a number of widely publicized corporate commitments, there is still a long way to go. “Greenwashing” is common, with many companies touting an environmentally friendly product, yet privately falling short in key target areas. In order to achieve a truly sustainable business, brands will need to consider a number of factors and invest in eco-friendly production. Fortunately, growing consumer demand shows that this can still be a profitable business model.

Birgit Schnetzlinger, head of global business development for functional wear at textile company Lenzing, spoke to FN about the key focus areas that brands should be exploring, in order to become truly sustainable.

FN: What are the most exciting sustainable materials right now that are applicable to footwear?

“Synthetic materials have been used in the footwear industry for years, so the first approach for many brands is simply to switch from virgin to recycled polyester (rPES). Many brands have done well to raise awareness for the plastic problem and have big plans to stop using virgin polyester. However, this is just the beginning of a journey: rPES reduces plastic waste, but only gives polyester a second life before it is ultimately disposed. It most likely ends up in a landfill and still contributes to waste and microplastics. Forward-thinking, more circular solutions are the better solutions.

To help tackle society’s expanding waste problem, Lenzing launched the pioneering Refibra technology. I am really excited about this product, which allows us to take cotton waste from the industry and upcycle it into high quality Tencel Lyocell fibers, which are compostable and biodegradable, even in sea water. Another exciting, forward-thinking material solution is our Tencel Modal x Eco color technology, which does not require further dyeing. It consumes significantly less water, energy and carbon dioxide compared with conventional dyeing, making it an excellent choice.”

FN: What are the biggest misconceptions brands have about making sustainable footwear products?

“In my experience, almost any renowned footwear brand has good intentions to offer more sustainable products. Where I see some companies fail is when they simply want to swap one material for another, without changing the design, specification or calculation. Different materials open up new possibilities for design or comfort. Footwear designers play a major role in exploring and playing with new materials, in order to create products that are sustainable, comfortable and stylish.

Moreover, sustainable materials do not always have to be high cost. A sustainable approach is only sustainable when it is available for the mass and not for an elite segment of the population. Sustainable materials can be found in all price segments, from fast fashion to high end. Smaller and startup brands show that it is possible to easily introduce sustainability into footwear in a profitable way.”

FN: How has consumer interest in sustainability changed and how can brands best serve this?

“We are experiencing an ongoing shift in consumer demand and purchasing behavior. Consumers believe that it is the responsibility of brands to uphold transparency and improve best practices within their supplier network. Consumers often express their personal attitude — such as eco-consciousness — through the brands and products they choose to wear. They expect their beloved brand to be both environmentally and socially responsible.

Brands must communicate these efforts and can now do so digitally. COVID-19 is an accelerator for online selling — a sales channel that is already widely accepted among the younger, often more-critical generation. They want to know “who made my product” and demand transparency and traceability. Online channels and social media provide brands the platform to explain the credibility of their products, whilst educating consumers.”

FN: What advice do you have for brands that want to make sustainability a priority in 2020, but are now preoccupied with other business challenges?

“Surviving is definitely the first priority now. With many brands suffering economic difficulties due to the pandemic, some may delay their sustainability innovations. In order to continue to incorporate sustainable practices into daily operations, it’s about general reduction. Brands or manufacturers should first try to reduce their waste problem, review product design and eliminate overproduction. An increasing interest in local sourcing is also noticeable. They can leverage supply chain partners in the same region to reduce their carbon footprint and shorten speed-to-market.”

FN: What will be the most important sustainable focuses for brands in the next 1-3 years?

“Climate change and therefore decarbonization is definitely in focus. A growing number of brands and suppliers for the footwear and fashion industry are adopting science-based targets. Lenzing is the first wood-based fiber producer to obtain approved Science Based Targets and is working toward a long-term vision of being net zero.

Another important area is water scarcity and improving the water footprint. While reducing plastics has already reached great consumer awareness, saving water — the world’s most threatened essential resource — will be one of the hot topics in the future. The apparel and footwear industry is one of the biggest contributors to wastewater and water pollution and, according to the Worldbank, around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.

Last but not least, brands need to be doing good and showing it. Greenwashing has been around for years so there is definitely a greater demand for transparency.”

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