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The application of UN Sustainable Development Goals

Investigating how this global strategy relates to the footwear supply chain.

by Nicola Pichel-Juan

The May 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin introduced the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their relevance throughout the global footwear supply chain. In this article, we focus in more detail on why SDGs are important and how they are increasingly being used by organisations as part of their sustainability strategy. We will also take a closer look at the goals most relevant to footwear manufacturing, and finish with a high-level overview of some of the initiatives that can be undertaken to work towards the goals.

The UN SDGs provide a framework for tackling key challenges such as climate change and poverty. For example, the UN estimates that up to 124 million people were pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020 during the pandemic, the global ‘material footprint’ increased by 70 per cent between 2000 and 2017, and we are still not on track to restrict global warming to 1.5°C. However, there is some good news, as funding to support efforts to stop climate change is continuing to increase and commitments signed at the recent COP 26 summit – including targets for net zero greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation (although not as extensive as they ultimately need to be) – will hopefully start to facilitate an acceleration towards achieving the aims of the SDGs.

What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

The 17 interlinked Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 and aim to drive action in the years leading up to 2030 in the following areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet:

  • people
  • planet
  • prosperity
  • peace
  • partnership.

Where the SDGs have been particularly successful in their adoption over the last few years is through providing clear goals and targets that can be applied and interpreted at different levels, such as governmental and individual organisation, giving everyone a common language and framework to use. Many companies are now using the SDGs to provide a structure or backdrop to their sustainability work and reporting, with key targets and achievements being linked back to a specific SDG. It is increasingly common to see the colourful SDG logos appearing across brand and retailer websites.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals ('SDGs') adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit

Specific SDGs

While most of the SDGs are applicable to some extent at some point in the footwear supply chain, the goals central to most organisations’ sustainability or environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies would include the following:
8) decent work and economic growth
9) industry, innovation and infrastructure
12) responsible consumption and production
13) climate action.

It is worthwhile focusing firstly on SDG number nine – ‘Industry, innovation and infrastructure’ – in which areas to consider include sustainable materials and sustainable design. Many organisations are setting goals to have a certain percentage of sustainable products in their ranges. On closer inspection, a sustainable product is sometimes defined as ‘a product having at least one material with a sustainable credential, such as a recycled material, a bio-material, or a vegan material’.

While any step towards reducing the environmental impact of a product is to be welcomed, it is important to be certain that all sustainability claims being made are thoroughly investigated and validated, to avoid any accusations of what is known as ‘greenwashing’ (marketing something as more sustainable or environmentally friendly than it actually is). For instance, some materials marketed as ‘sustainable vegan alternatives to leather’ contain large amounts of petroleum-based plastic, which have their own environmental challenges.

The concept of sustainable design is starting to be adopted, with organisations focusing not only on how a product is manufactured and what it is made from, but also on how it is used and the way in which it is disposed. This is in line with the principles of a circular economy, with products being designed that can be ground up and recycled or broken down into constituent parts, with each part being used, reprocessed, recycled, or disposed of in an appropriate and environmentally-friendly manner.

What is a circular economy?

A ‘circular economy’ aims to keep every product, component and material at its highest utility and value at all times.

This contrasts with a ‘linear economy’, that follows a flow of make a use a dispose, with an item typically being sent to landfill or incinerated at the end of its life.

Key concepts for a circular economy include resale, rental, repair and remaking, with the latter process involving creating a new product from existing products or components.

A 'circular economy' contrasted with a 'linear economy'

There are also many opportunities within the footwear supply chain to make a positive impact against SDG number 12 – ‘Responsible consumption and production’. These include waste reduction, end-of-life solutions, traceability and durability. Recent SATRA Bulletin articles have covered relevant topics on which SATRA is currently working, such as the transition to water-based adhesives and the biodegradability and compostability of footwear. It should also be remembered that areas traditionally considered within footwear manufacturing to save costs have a corresponding positive environmental impact. SATRA’s SATRASumm efficiency system has typically been shown to give an 8 per cent financial saving on leather budgets. this equates to the same percentage reduction in material consumption, which can offer an important contribution to eliminating waste and making a product more sustainable.

As sustainability increasingly becomes embedded in all aspects of how a business operates, it is likely that the UN SDGs will continue to be used to provide a clear framework and to facilitate the setting of goals and targeting of improvement activities.

How can we help?

Please contact for further information on how SATRA can support your work towards achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 20 of the January 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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