Sustainability in the Footwear sector: good for the environment, good for business

The fight against climate change and for sustainable practices is rapidly becoming a priority for society and all categories of stakeholders, including the European footwear industry. Governments, citizens and civil society organisations across the globe have initiated a change toward energy-efficient, decarbonised, and more circular economies. In the EU, rules and regulations are moving toward harmonization of concepts and methods that facilitate transparent information to consumers and compliance by all players. Sector-wide standards based on tangible numbers and clear labelling schemes are one example. Consumers are growing ever more concerned about the environmental impact of the products they purchase, and the market size of sustainable footwear products consequently keeps expanding, although the number of “green labels” and misused names creates some confusion. Plainly speaking, we all urgently need to speak the same language and use the same tools to identify which products are environmentally friendly, and the Product Environmental Footprint of a product can help achieve this common understanding.

Harmonisation of sustainability standards:  Product Environmental Footprint (PEF)

A Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) is a measure of the environmental performance of a good or service throughout its life-cycle that takes into account supply-chain activities (from the extraction of raw materials, through production and use, to final waste management). It is a method to model the environmental impacts of a product throughout its life-cycle.

The PEF was implemented through the adoption of the European Commission Recommendation on the use of common methods to measure and communicate the life cycle environmental performance of products and organisations and the Communication Building the Single Market for Green Products.[1]

The aim is to make it easier for consumers to recognise how environmentally friendly a product is and promote green products by making the environmental performance of products measurable and communicable according to a uniform procedure. At the moment, a company wishing to market its product as environmentally friendly in several EU Member States markets faces a confusing range of choices of methods and initiatives and this leads to additional testing costs for companies and confusion for consumers due to the many “green labels”. Simply put, the PEF allows for standardization and comparability of the environmental performance of products.

Market opportunities for sustainable companies

Recent consumer research from McKinsey & Co provides further evidence of the importance of sustainability as a market opportunity for companies and that COVID-19 has exacerbated the trend. Two-thirds of surveyed consumers state that since COVID-19 hit, it has become even more important to limit impacts on climate change.

It is also important to note that consumers are changing their behaviour accordingly: 57% of surveyed consumers have made significant changes to their lifestyles to lessen their environmental impact, and more than 60% report going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging.[1]

A greener footwear production, whether through waste reduction, more sustainable packaging practices, lower emissions or more transparency and traceability, is good and necessary for the planet but it represents as well a competitive advantage and a market opportunity for European footwear companies.

Eco-design principles to guide manufacturers in creating more sustainable footwear products

The partners of the EU-funded LIFE GreenShoes4All project are working on implementing a footwear PEF methodology to use in the development of green shoe footwear design products. For this purpose, they have defined an eco-design methodology and developed a public Eco-design Guide to help companies integrate environmental aspects in the design of new footwear concepts. It presents 10 different Eco-design strategies and associated practical applications that guide design strategies, material and components selection, production techniques, distribution and sale, and recycling.

Eco-design is a winning strategy for footwear SMEs. It brings economic benefits, by optimising the use of materials and energy, improves the image of the company or brand, results in more customer loyalty, and facilitates products compliance with increasingly stringent environmental legal requirements.

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