Dr Deborah Andrews: Helping Comfort Break Ltd. change lives for women around the world

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December 15, 2020

Dr. Deborah Andrews is an Associate Professor of Design in LSBU's School of Engineering. She has over 20 years expertise in sustainable design and manufacture, having worked across many industrial sectors including the data centre industry, refrigeration and shading products.

Deborah is actively involved in research in collaboration with enterprise, as well as consultancy work on behalf of LSBU and the Sustainable Innovation programme. She is also the academic lead on the CEDaCI project.

Dr. Andrews is currently supporting the social enterprise, Comfort Break, to create sustainable sanitary products.

Why this work is important:

Disposable period products generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste each year, and conventional sanitary towels are 90% plastic. This waste ends up in landfill, in sewers, and even on our waters.

At the same time, period poverty is affecting women and girls around the world. A lack of access to safe and hygienic products causes:

  • Girls to miss one or more days of school during their period - even in the UK. This can cause them to lose out on as much as 20% of their school year, and in some countries, forces them to drop out of education entirely.
  • The loss of education due to period poverty makes girls more vulnerable to being forced into child marriage. These girls are also more likely to experience early pregnancy, pregnancy complications, malnourishment, and domestic violence as a result.
  • Health is put at risk if dirty rags are used in replacement to specially designed period products. Risk of infection increases if the person has undergone female genital mutilation.
  • Some communities even banish girls and women for the duration of their period, removing their access to sanitation and placing them in danger.

Reusable products make sanitation more accessible to women around the world, whilst also reducing the environmental impact of periods - which are bad enough without the guilt of also killing a whale.

Deborah took time out of her busy schedule to tell us about her work supporting Comfort Break and the wider Sustainable Innovation project.

Tell us a little about yourself? 

I am an Associate Professor of Design; my background is product and industrial design, but I am passionate about sustainability and sustainable development and carry out research and teach this subject. I am also a Chartered Environmentalist.

What does a ‘typical’ day look likefor you?

I teach, carry out research and enterprise work related to sustainable design, manufacture and development so life is very varied and I don’t have a typical routine!

"The project was a great opportunity to broaden research into materials to address a very personal and particular need."

When did you start working on the ComfortBreak project?

Initial planning began in June 2020 and work started in September 2020.

What support are you providing?

I have expertise in sustainable design and manufacture and human centred design, so supported the research associate in both areas: we discussed materials selection and performance testing processes and user perception of the various materials. I also carried out a carbon footprint studies for each of the materials, and identified water footprint studies to educate the clients about the real impact of the various materials and dispel assumptions. I regularly meet the associate and clients to ensure that the project progress and delivery remain on track and meets user expectations.

What was your experience of working with the business like?

It was great experience working with an enthusiastic start-up company: there was as positive exchange of knowledge and they educated me about sanitary products on the market and I helped the company to progress their concept.

"Don’t base your concept on assumptions – work with academia to access resources, knowledge and expertise that you don’t have so you can maximise the chance of success!"

What results have you achieved?

We have tested the performance of a range of materials to assess durability and factors such as liquid absorption and tearing, ‘washability’ and compared these with embodied carbon because we want to identify a product that meets user requirements, is affordable and has a low environmental impact.

How has working on this project benefitted you/your school?

The project was a great opportunity to broaden research into materials to address a very personal and particular need. I learnt about the materials properties and environmental impact, and am transferring this knowledge to support student design projects. The project research provided employment for a recent design graduate and helped her to develop her CV and experience.

What was your favourite part of the project?

I enjoyed it all!

Is there anything you would do differently?

The only challenge was due to Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed delivery of materials for testing.

You bring so much experience and knowledge to the programme - are there any other areas of experience you're bringing to the table?

Being from a product design background I also bring experience of user behaviour and human centred design to projects, so I am able to offer a combination of technical and user-centred knowledge.

Why do you feel it is important for academic institutions and commercial organisations to work together?

Good projects benefit both parties – they support industry by providing access to knowledge and facilities beyond those within the company at the same time as ensuring that academics remain informed about real world development and business practice.

Finally, What is your top tip for a start-up or SME developing a new product?

Don’t base your concept on assumptions – work with academia to access resources, knowledge and expertise that you don’t have so you can maximise the chance of success!

Want to benefit from Dr. Andrews' expertise? Find out more about the Sustainable Innovation programme, which connects innovative start-ups with academics.

Connect with Deborah on LinkedIn, or see her research on ResearchGate.