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Environmental impact during a product’s life – part 1

In the first part of this new series, we investigate the aspects of design and development.

by Nicola Pichel-Juan

Image © JGalione |

For organisations seeking to create more sustainable products, it is crucial to not only focus on the materials and components used and how the product is made, but to also take into account the entire likely lifecycle of that product – from design all the way through to the end of its life. In a series of articles over the coming months, SATRA will discuss sustainability considerations at each stage in the typical life of a pair of shoes – ‘design and development’, ‘material sourcing and selection’, ‘production', 'distribution and sale’, ‘use’ and, finally, ‘end-of-life’. Opportunities to minimise the environmental impact of a product and, ultimately, the organisation at each stage in the lifecycle will also be suggested.

The relationship between a product’s design and its lifecycle

The first stage in the lifecycle is design and development. This is arguably the single most important stage, as decisions made here will to a large extent determine the product’s environmental impact throughout the rest of its life.

Two of the most important considerations during the design and development phase are selecting the materials to be used and choosing from where they will be sourced. The impact of materials will be covered in more detail in the next article in this series. However, at a very basic level, it is crucial to understand the desired environmental credentials of a material while ensuring that it is still able to meet the performance requirements for its intended application.

Product durability

How durable and long-lasting a product is likely to be should also be considered. If two products have an equivalent environmental impact at the point when they leave the factory, but one can be expected to last for twice as long, its impact per period of time (or per wear) will be significantly lower. Individual materials and components should be tested to determine their durability. SATRA also recommends testing the finished footwear and to ideally place it on a wear trial to identify any potential failure points, so that these can be improved upon before the product goes forward to bulk production.

Making durable products and keeping them wearable for as long as possible is important. Nevertheless, all footwear will eventually come to the end of its useful life and no longer be viable for resale or repair. Disposing of footwear responsibly and sustainably is one of the biggest challenges facing the footwear industry. Most shoes are made from multiple different materials and components, which are not easy to disassemble and it is estimated that currently more than 85 per cent of the 24 billion pairs of footwear produced globally each year ultimately end up in landfill.

Design and ‘end of life’

Having a viable alternative to landfill for a product starts with design and development, and is likely to be a long-term project. Potential options include i) developing footwear that can be recycled into new materials, components, or even new shoes (which will be more viable for mono-material products such as moulded plastic footwear), ii) selecting materials that are compostable or biodegradable, and iii) developing footwear that can easily be disassembled into its constituent parts. The different end of life scenarios and related challenges will be discussed in more detail in a future article in this series.

Extra baggage?

The weight of a product is also something to be considered. The greater the mass of an item, the higher its environmental impact is likely to be (although different materials will have different impact levels). It may not always be possible to reduce a product’s weight – either because of design aspects or for performance reasons. For example, industrial footwear is likely to require some sort of protective toe cap or midsole, which all adds weight. However, anything that can be done to reduce the weight of a product and the amount of material consumed in its manufacture is likely to minimise its environmental impact.

Another significant area to consider is the impact of the sampling and development process itself. A standard development process will usually involve shipping a large number of samples to destinations around the world, which may happen several times over the course of a single development season. The environmental impact is incurred in two main ways – firstly, the actual physical samples and secondly, the impact of shipping them. Such transportation is likely to be by air, which has an impact in terms of CO2e (the ‘e’ stands for ‘equivalent’) that is more than 50 times higher than shipping by sea.

Using technology to avoid multiple reworks

One way to reduce the number of samples being shipped is to get them right the first time. From an aesthetic point of view, there is considerable technology available today that can provide high quality three-dimensional (3D) visualisations of what a product will look like, and a digital approval or sign-off prior to starting the sample production can minimise the chances of the physical sample being rejected on receipt.

Samples failing fit assessments during commercialisation and bulk tooling can also contribute to multiple rounds of these items being shipped, as sometimes a number of sample iterations are required before the desired fit is achieved. Technology can also help here. For instance, SATRA has developed artificial foot forms that are available in a range of standard sizes, or that can be custom-made to any dimensions. These forms are flexible enough to place into the footwear, while retaining their shape once in the footwear. They are an ideal aid to support in-factory fit assessments, and give increased confidence that what is being shipped will fit as expected.

SATRA’s artificial foot forms are an ideal aid to support in-factory fit assessments and give increased confidence that what is being shipped will fit as expected

Finally, it is also recommended to look at how the samples are packed for shipment. For example, if each pair of samples is being shipped in an individual shoebox, is it possible to pack them into cartons with dividers to reduce the amount of packaging used and allow more pairs to fit into a single carton? The main impact of the sampling process, however, will be from any air freight used, which can only be reduced either by shipping fewer samples or by making them closer to their destination so that air freight is not needed.

How can we help?

Please email for further information on developing sustainable products and measuring environmental impacts, as well as for assistance with our artificial foot forms and in-factory fit assessment services.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 12 of the October 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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