Until the early 1970s, relatively few people gave much consideration to the impact of industrial activity on our natural environment. As awareness of human impacts on the environment grew, manufacturers shifted toward a more earth-friendly approach, due in part to government regulation, but also because it simply made sense to do so.
3M Corporation was a pioneer in this respect, launching their “Pollution Prevention Pays” (3P) initiative in 1975. The company focused much of its efforts on eliminating pollution at its source. They accomplished this using a mix of strategies, – reformulating products, modifying processes, and redesigning equipment. They also initiated one of the first ever recycling and reuse programs as part of 3P. Over the decades, the program led to significant reductions in 3M’s environmental impact, saved the company billions of dollars, and demonstrated that environmental responsibility can be economically beneficial.
Over the past five decades, regulations have become increasingly stringent and consumer awareness of environmental impact has grown considerably. Sustainability in manufacturing has never been more critical.
Three pillars – Net Zero, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards, and overarching sustainability goals – are driving transformative changes in virtually every industry. Let’s dive deep into each of these pillars and their implications for manufacturers.
1. Net Zero
“Net zero” refers to the goal of balancing output of greenhouse gas emissions with offsetting removal of those gases from the atmosphere.
Manufacturers are adopting several strategies in their quest to achieve net zero:
- They’re increasing their use of clean, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro-electric power.
- They’re implementing advanced technologies to reduce energy consumption, like energy-efficient machinery, AI-driven process optimization, and waste-heat recovery systems.
- They’re participating in carbon offset projects and adopting carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
While each of these approaches offers ways to get closer to the goal, most organizations are using a combination of strategies as they strive to achieve net zero emissions.
2. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Standards
ESG aims to measure overall corporate responsibility, including an organization’s commitment to environmental sustainability. As such, ESG attempts to quantify a company’s achievements in ways that can easily be compared to industry peers. The goal is to provide investors, consumers, and other stakeholders the information they need to make decisions with environmental, societal, and governance standards in mind.
Here’s a short summary of what each element of the “ESG” acronym entails:
- Environment: To achieve a good ESG score, manufacturers should aim to reduce waste, increase recycling efforts, optimize their use of resources, and lessen any negative impact on the natural world. Many manufacturers are adopting the so-called “circular economy” model by designing products that can be reused, refurbished, or recycled at the end of their lifecycle.
- Social: This aspect of ESG aims at ensuring fair labor practices, worker safety, and engagement with local communities. Manufacturers are also considering the broader societal impact of their products, from conception to disposal.
- Governance: Transparent reporting, robust ethical frameworks, and stakeholder engagement have become imperatives for manufacturers. Under ESG, regulatory compliance stands as a baseline for good corporate governance, but is augmented by voluntary disclosures and third-party audits.
While net zero is about a single quantifiable objective (greenhouse gas emissions) and ESG is about a comprehensive framework that goes far beyond environmental considerations, most companies are opting for a more individualized approach, carefully choosing the strategies that best fit their individual organizations and industries.
Broadly speaking, sustainability refers to an organization’s ability to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It’s about good stewardship of the planet, preserving our existing resources and finding new ways to limit environmental impact.
Companies have multiple ways to achieve this. In addition to the strategies mentioned above, many organizations are adopting new approaches to packaging and product design, prompted by lifecycle assessments (LCAs) that evaluate the full environmental impact of products from raw material extraction to disposal. Others are partnering with suppliers that adhere to sustainable and ethical practices, thus extending sustainability throughout the supply chain.
Consumers, investors, employees, corporate buyers and are demanding transparency, responsibility, and innovation. Manufacturers are stepping up to the challenge. Just as 3M found that “pollution prevention pays,” many of today’s organizations are finding that sustainable practices go hand-in-hand with efficiency, cost savings, new market opportunities, and enhanced brand value.
The future of manufacturing is clear: It’s one where sustainability is not just an add-on but is integrated into the very fabric of operations. Embracing this change is not just about meeting societal expectations; it’s about ensuring the long-term viability and competitiveness of the manufacturing sector in a rapidly evolving global landscape.
Director of Marketing
I’m drawn to better and smarter ways of working and communicating. Many times that involves technology. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, work can and should be improved – continuously. I’m drawn to the mission of Flexware Innovation for these reasons. We’re committed to unleashing the potential of technology, freeing up leaders to focus on what’s next.