Environmental impact during a product’s life – part 5
In this part of the series, we investigate how use of the product affects the world in which we live.
Image © Nina Drozdova | iStockphoto.com)
At SATRA, we are often asked how a product can be made more sustainable. This is a reasonable question, as there is currently considerable focus in the footwear industry on transitioning to recycled or bio-based materials, as well as on developing end-of-life solutions to try to avoid worn shoes being sent to landfill or incineration.
While these are all entirely valid approaches, making more durable products that last longer in wear is a crucial sustainability consideration. A product with an extended lifespan will have a lower impact per wear or use, which means that fewer resources are being consumed to make footwear that needs to be disposed of on reaching the end of its life.
This article will discuss considerations when making products that are durable and can be both effectively maintained and repaired. It will also examine how the durability of a product is increasingly being investigated from a regulatory perspective.
In order to create durable footwear, there are two main areas to understand – ‘physical durability’ (how well the footwear lasts in wear, including comfort and repairability), and ‘restorability’ – how well its appearance can be maintained with shoe care products.
dimamorgan12 | iStockphoto.com
How sustainable are shoe care products?
For any company wanting to source or recommend particular shoe care products, each product and its supply chain need to investigated to understand its environmental impact. However, there are a few key things which need to be considered. Water-based products will have a lower impact than solvent-based versions, although they will take longer to dry, and some polishes are difficult to replicate in a water-based form as the solvent helps to provide a glossy finish. Pump dispensers are better than aerosol dispensers, which can release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. For shoe care products to be vegan-friendly, it is important to ensure that they do not contain substances such as mink oil (used to condition leather and add a degree of water resistance) and beeswax (which can nourish and maintain leather).
Meeting the standard
As a starting point, it is recommended that all materials and components are tested to appropriate performance standards, to ensure that they are suitable for their intended application. The article ‘Properties of shoemaking materials’, published in the July/August 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin (and its associated webinar) emphasise the importance of correct upper materials selection. This is particularly important when investigating new, innovative products – it must be established that they satisfy the physical requirements required of shoemaking materials. Ideally, the finished footwear should also be tested to ensure that its construction and assembly is robust enough to stand up to the conditions that it is likely to encounter in wear.
A thorough testing protocol can be used to identify where failures may occur, so that they can be resolved before bulk production commences. It is important to give sufficient consideration to eliminating failures that are going to be difficult to repair – if not impossible. For example, if a slide fastener (‘zip’) on a high leg boot fails prematurely, it is unlikely that this component can be replaced. Analysing returns data and customer complaints is another very useful source of information for identifying any failures or weak points. It is also likely that in today’s digital world, consumers will very quickly be highlighting any issues they encounter on social media.
It is also crucial to ensure that the aesthetic appearance of the footwear can be maintained during its life. If this is not possible, it may be discarded, even if it still performs functionally. Again, testing can help – for instance, to confirm that materials do not fade or change colour or appearance in certain conditions. Appropriate cleaning and maintenance must be feasible if the life of a product is going to be optimised. Brand owners are increasingly providing their customers with care instructions on how best to look after their shoes and what type of cleaning products are suitable to use, all of which is a great way to increase consumer engagement. In many cases, companies are offering shoe care products featuring their own branding. This provides an opportunity for an additional revenue stream, as the products can be recommended to consumers at the point of sale, whether in-store or online.
A related area experiencing significant growth is the use of cleaning and refurbishment schemes. This type of arrangement has long been available for leather welted footwear, with customers able to pay to have their shoes re-soled, footbeds replaced and uppers thoroughly cleaned and restored.
In many cases, this means that a pair of shoes can last for decades. Equivalent schemes are now available for many other types of footwear. A number of these programmes are being marketed specifically towards trainers and sports shoes, and offer various options from a simple cleaning service through to replacement of laces, footbeds and, in some cases, outsoles.
Some brand owners and retailers are opting to partner with dedicated cleaning and refurbishment schemes. This provides perfect opportunities for consumer engagement, as before/after photographs and videos showing the restoration process are perfect for sharing on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
While it is obviously desirable to have longer-lasting products, is there a way to predict with any accuracy how long an item will last in wear? It is almost impossible to answer that question in terms of a quantifiable measure such as ‘number of days’, as there will be so much variation in the conditions in which a product is worn, for how long it is worn on each individual occasion and how heavy the wear is to which it is subjected.
However, it is possible to investigate under controlled testing conditions the comparative performance of different products and to extrapolate from that information an anticipated lifetime number of steps. A durability testing protocol could include the following:
- A visual assessment to enable a comparison of what the footwear looks like before and after testing, both externally and internally.
- As footwear that becomes significantly less comfortable may be discarded by the wearer, an underfoot comfort assessment can be conducted, consisting of a ground insulation test and a shock absorption test (including pressure-mapping). This evaluation can be carried out both before and after testing on the SATRA STM 528 Pedatron to understand how underfoot comfort may be affected by extended wear.
- The unique SATRA TM362:2014 – ‘Abrasion resistance of soles – biomechanical method’ test can be conducted on the previously-mentioned SATRA STM 528 Pedatron to provide a consistent and repeatable alternative to wear trials over an extended period of time. It can identify premature failures of components and materials, provide an understanding of how all the materials and components combined into a finished item perform, and give a visual indication of what happens to a product over an extended period of wear.
- Sole bond – how well the outsole is adhered to the upper.
In addition, the application of recommended shoe creams can be carried out at set intervals in a comparative test to assess the difference in appearance of a product that has been maintained compared with one that has not. SATRA TM376:2009 ‘Advanced moisture management test’ (AMMT) can also be used in conjunction with the SATRA TM362 Pedatron test to get even closer to replicating real life wear conditions through the introduction of heat and moisture.
Drafting the rules
Durability will almost certainly come under increasing scrutiny as an important factor in the sustainability of a product and a transition to a circular economy. The EU Ecolabel for footwear includes ‘parameters contributing to durability’ such as flex resistance and tear strength and, while this label has not been widely adopted so far, the draft EU Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) are generating considerable interest in the wider industry. This also includes its own ‘duration of service requirements’, outlining testing intended to identify and prevent the most common causes of failure that occur in wear. The EU’s strategy for circular textiles and its ‘Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition’ initiative also propose that information will need to be provided on how products can be repaired, along with a ‘repairability score’.
Although there are clear environmental benefits from making more durable products, in addition to opportunities to generate increased brand loyalty and consumer engagement, there are also challenges to overcome. Longer-lasting products may be more expensive as an initial purchase (although they are likely to be more cost-effective in the long term) and, with many countries facing a cost-of-living crisis, large numbers of consumers simply may not be able to afford to pay a premium for a more durable, sustainable product. In fact, a recent study found that 61 per cent of consumers surveyed in the UK and US will prioritise price over sustainability when purchasing fashion items.
Developing more durable products that do not need to be replaced as frequently may also be a considerable change of business model for many companies which are looking to increase their year-on-year sales volumes. However, it is unlikely that the goals of the Paris Agreement can be achieved with current levels of resource consumption, and this fact may initiate a movement away from fast fashion to longer-lasting and more durable products.
What is the Paris Agreement?
The Paris Agreement is a legally-binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 parties at COP2 in Paris on 12th December 2015 and came into force in November 2016. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably to an increase of less than 1.5°C.
How can we help?
Since its foundation in 1919, SATRA has been working with the footwear industry to provide testing and expertise to support the development and production of durable, long-lasting and comfortable products. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how our testing services can be used to develop more sustainable products.
This article was originally published on page 10 of the February 2023 issue of SATRA Bulletin.