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A sustainable approach to footwear manufacture

A review of the current approach to determining environmental and sustainable credentials.

by David Smith

Image © Likstudio | Dreamstime.com

In the early part of this 21st century, mankind finds itself taking stock of the planet’s resources and thinking seriously about what can be done to ensure those resources continue to be available for the future. There is a worldwide recognition of the need to minimise the global consumption of natural resources, or utilise them in a sustainable manner.

This concern over environmental issues is now a greater driving force in the consumer market than ever before, and increasingly influences the consumer’s choice of product. In a number of countries, the higher price for organic food (and the increasing shelf space devoted to it in supermarkets over the last few years) shows that some consumers are prepared to pay more in order to have peace of mind about their purchases.

General awareness of environmental issues is greater than ever, thanks to the activity of environmental pressure groups, and as a result of increasingly easy access to the internet. Companies and corporations, perhaps reacting in the first instance to consumer pressure, are now thinking seriously about sustainability as one of the key issues to address in business.

A product can be considered to be ‘sustainable’ if the materials and processes used in the manufacture do not adversely affect the potential for the same product to be manufactured in the future (see the article ‘Working towards sustainable shoes’).

The consumer’s view

How consumers feel about certain brands and retailers is important, as it ultimately affects their purchasing decisions and subsequent loyalty to a brand. Some brands – particularly those producing goods for the outdoor pursuits market – are inextricably linked in the minds of consumers with a healthy, aspirational lifestyle and assumed sound environmental credentials.

We are now seeing the rise of ‘green consumers’, whose purchasing behaviour is influenced by such factors as their perception of the environmental qualifications of the brands selling a particular product, its claimed level of recyclability, or the absence of certain substances (for example, PVC) used in its construction.

With this in mind, many footwear brands seek ways to develop sound environmental credentials for their products. Efforts are made to ensure that footwear joins the growing list of consumer goods manufactured from materials that are sustainably produced, responsibly sourced and have minimal impact on the environment.

This ethos is encapsulated or enshrined in the concept of ‘product stewardship’, where companies take ultimate responsibility for their product’s environmental impact. This may even include making provision to recycle its footwear, such as paying for the necessary facilities to achieve this.

In recent years, some major sports footwear brands have taken steps to thoroughly examine their environmental credentials – particularly the sustainability of the materials they use, and ranking various materials by their environmental impact. These in-house tools were intended primarily to guide designers towards the use of more environmentally-friendly materials in the design of their footwear. They are now also being discussed and shared with other manufacturers in an attempt to draw up a set of universal guidelines (in the form of an index) to help manufacturers rank their products’ environmental impact.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is one such group of manufacturers, who have developed tools for the benchmarking for outdoor apparel and have begun the task of extending this into outdoor equipment and footwear. These benchmarking tools are intended to enable brands to measure the environmental impacts of the product across the supply chain and throughout its lifecycle, so that they can target improvement activity to negate the largest impacts. When these techniques have been demonstrated as robust by field trials, the possibility exists for the development of a customer-facing labelling scheme.

Schemes like these are primarily intended to allow brands and footwear producers to measure the environmental impact of products, with the ultimate aim of then seeking to improve or lessen that impact. Retailers who sell several brands and who wish to select those brands with the best environmental credentials will also be able to use such a scheme to shop around for products with the lowest environmental impact. There is also likely to be a benefit for manufacturers who wish to evaluate or rank the performance of their factories and facilities. This will likely benefit designers, who can now be given useful guidelines to steer them in their choice of more environmentally-friendly materials, designs and processes when developing a new product.

Image © Vanbeets | Dreamstime.com

Air freight is considered by many to be one of the most environmentally-unsound methods of transport

Sustainability indices take into account several criteria against which a product can be ranked. These criteria can be used as a guide for manufacturers wishing to create products with better environmental credentials. They can serve as a checklist for manufacturers wishing to make more environmentally-friendly products. A few are listed here, as examples of some actions that can be taken by all companies.

Moving products by air

Attention should be given to both logging and reducing airfreight – of not only finished products but also components, concept samples and sales samples. Airfreight is considered by many to be one of the most environmentally-unsound methods of transport, and is certainly one of the most expensive. Therefore, many companies already keep a careful eye on the volume of goods that are airfreighted each year.

Airfreight is sometimes seen as a quick-fix solution to short deadlines and production problems that arise due to a planning shortfall. Better planning and more forward-thinking production strategies can both help to reduce the need for airfreight, as well as making for a more efficient, streamlined business.

Monitoring restricted substances

It is important to monitor and eliminate the use of restricted substances in all stages of the product supply chain. This aspect of sustainability is one that is governed by legislation so, regardless of a company’s stance on environmental issues, it is something that must be carefully managed. SATRA can assist companies with testing for the presence of restricted chemicals, and can advise on practical alternatives and the legislation to which companies need to adhere. This would include ensuring that all suppliers and contractors which supply the manufacturer stick to guidelines on the use of certain chemicals, and carry out routine check testing to confirm that those suppliers are actually following the guidelines. Also included in this would be measuring solvent usage (either the total volume used in a factory or facility, or the amount used in a certain footwear style) and introducing measures to reduce it.

Questions about packaging

A sound aim is to select and use environmentally-friendly packaging, in addition to minimising the use of coatings and treatments on the packaging that will reduce the recyclability of packaging – for example, wax coatings on cardboard.

Easy clean?

Footwear can be designed to be easily but effectively cleaned just with water, rather than with special cleaning agents or potentially harmful chemicals. Especially in the outdoor/hiking market, consumers expect to be able to wear their boots and shoes in some very aggressive environments and to get them muddy, but then be able to clean them sufficiently to be able to restore a presentable image without losing functionality.

Durability built in

Footwear that is designed to have a long lifespan stays out of landfill longer than a less durable product. Many people appear to be living in an increasingly throwaway or disposable society. To counter this, and to produce long-lasting, well-made products, ensures that fewer pieces of product per year end up being disposed of. SATRA can advise members on durability guidelines and means of improving the construction of footwear to maximise its lifespan.

Long-lasting and well-made products can help counter the ‘throwaway society’

Reducing costs

Monitoring, recording, and ultimately seeking to reduce the energy consumption of factories and facilities throughout the footwear supply chain would include ensuring that machines are optimised to perform their tasks appropriately, so achieving maximum effectiveness with minimal energy usage. An example is the heat setting machine, which SATRA can help to fine tune by the use of such equipment as sensors and domed plastimeters.

SATRA also has a range of other production tools which can help companies optimise their in-factory processes, including SATRASumm, which enables leather cutters to optimise leather usage and minimise waste and SATRA VisionStitch – a system designed to optimise workstation set up and effective sewing machine usage.

All reductions in energy usage equates to a cost saving – especially with seemingly ever-increasing global energy prices. Reducing overall energy consumption is, therefore, beneficial on many levels. SATRA has also recently launched SATRA TimeLine – a system that enables greater manufacturing efficiency through the correct utilisation of staff and workspace.

When no longer required

It may be beneficial to introduce (or refine) a practical end-of-life programme for a product. Consumers are now becoming accustomed to being able to return their used electrical goods to the retailer or to a dedicated recycling facility, rather than putting them into the usual waste disposal system. Similar systems are starting to evolve to handle other kinds of product. Some brands and retailers are introducing ‘take-back’ schemes for the return of used products for either re-use or recycling.

Designing shoes with ultimate recycling or re-use in mind is also becoming more feasible, and lessens the potential environmental impact of a product. However, this is not a simple matter, as footwear is generally a complex multi-material, multi-component product. The fewer materials used in its construction, the more likely it is to be recyclable by the consumer or end-user. When it is not possible to make a recyclable item of footwear, it could at least be designed so as to have less impact on mainstream waste disposal systems. This would include the use of biodegradable materials, compostable packaging and materials designed to break down rapidly in the anaerobic conditions of landfill.

In conclusion

Many brands and retailers now recognise that specific groups of consumers will make choices based on their perception of products which have limited environmental impact. The challenge facing the industry is how to measure these impacts and convert them into a meaningful message, which ultimately offers the consumer real choice, but in the short term is both credible and effective at reducing the impact of footwear throughout its entire lifecycle.

Once a product’s environmental qualifications and credentials can be measured and quantified by suitable metrics, it can be compared to other products. This will give greater, more informed choice to consumers and retailers alike. Perhaps more importantly, it will provide the drive and incentive for other manufacturers to create better, more sustainable products that compare favourably with the leading environmental products.

How can we help?

Please email eco@satra.co.uk for further details of how SATRA can help you to develop more sustainable products, for information on any of the systems discussed in this article, or for guidance on restricted chemicals.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 6 of the February 2013 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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