When product designers create the things we buy, they should be asking: what’s the environmental impact of the product?
The step-by-step approach for answering this question is called “life cycle assessment” (LCA). In this four-step process, designers
- identify the item they’ll assess and which aspects of its impact to consider
- collect data on those impacts from each step of the product’s life cycle
- measure and summarize the impacts
- use this information to make improvements
Sometimes designers use software like this LCA calculator to help them collect and summarize the data.
A product’s life cycle is made of its creation from raw materials all the way to its eventual decomposition. In today’s linear flow of materials, products have a “cradle to grave” lifespan, which might include the following steps:
- Raw materials extraction
- Transport to warehouse
- Delivery to store
- Receipt by consumer
- Use by consumer
- Discard into the waste stream
- Transport to a landfill or other final resting place
- The materials break down or decompose
Each one of these steps has an environmental impact, whether it’s using natural resources or creating waste. Simple changes like manufacturing locally to eliminate CO2 emissions from transportation or swapping organic for regular cotton can make a huge difference.
Here’s a list of the most common approaches designers use to make improvements to the environmental impacts of the shoes:
- Include sustainability in the design concept
- Low-impact materials
- Reduce materials
- Optimize production
- Optimize use
- Optimize useful lifespan
- Optimize product’s end of life
When product design enables the post-consumer waste to loop back into use through recycling, repair or reuse, it’s called a “cradle to cradle” life cycle.
So let’s look at an LCA example for running shoes to understand how this works.
Life Cycle Assessment: Running Shoes
According to the Better Shoes Foundation, here are some key stats on the environmental impact of running shoes.
The impact of manufacturing shoes
- Running shoes have rather complex life cycles which can contain 65 different parts with 360 steps to process and assemble them.
- 68% of the CO2 emissions in the LCA of standard running shoes comes from manufacturing, followed by material extraction.
- 88% of the world’s footwear is produced in Asian countries, where coal energy is widely used. As manufacturing centers switch to renewable energy, the C02 impact will fall.
- Shoes also create lots of pollution due to irresponsible water use, habitat destruction, and chemical and air pollution from processes such as leather tanning, petroleum extraction to make plastic, and solvent based glues.
What happens at the end of a shoe’s lifespan
- 1.3 million tons of post-consumer shoe waste are produced each year (this doesn’t include the waste created during manufacturing)
- Less than 5% of the world’s end-of-life shoes are recycled.
- Footwear can contain up to 40 different materials, assembled through stitching or gluing, which makes them very hard to recycle at the product's end of life.
Some design solutions to improve these impacts
- Waterless Dyeing
- Glueless construction
- Repairable manufacturing systems
- Design shoes for recyclability
- Design shoes with quality materials (for repair, reuse or recycling)
- Post-consumer waste collection systems from manufacturers
- Create recycling systems for common shoe materials like leather
Most manufacturers aren’t including life cycle assessment from the start. It’s probably because they aren’t held responsible for the full lifespan of their products.
This is why it’s important to express your support for low-impact products and design requirements through social media, shopping, and campaigns.
Promote the clothing with a long lifespan by wearing a preloved Goodfair tee.