James Steidl - Fotolia
Becoming a sustainable manufacturing operation is no simple task, but that's not stopping growing numbers of companies from reaching the conclusion that becoming a sustainable shop floor isn't merely altruistic; it delivers tangible bottom-line impact.
From process efficiency gains and reduced material waste to improved regulatory compliance and beefed-up appeal to customers, sustainable manufacturing brings with it a laundry list of compelling benefits that businesses can no longer ignore.
"More companies are implementing sustainability-focused initiatives as a standard way of doing business than ever before," said Dave Meyer, a senior consultant at Environmental and Occupational Risk Management Inc., a Silicon Valley-based firm that advises companies on their environmental, health, safety and sustainability efforts. "While many don't declare specifically that they want to be sustainable, most of the companies EORM works with want to manage resources more efficiently and take a lean and green approach to manufacturing."
And while many companies are motivated by the potential cost savings of reducing waste throughout the product lifecycle or of using water and power more efficiently, another key consideration has helped to fuel the fire: Companies no longer have to mortgage their futures to become sustainable.
Getting started with sustainable manufacturing
Make no mistake, there's still a short-term price tag for becoming a sustainable business, but Meyer noted that the gap is narrowing. And the narrower that gap becomes, the more attractive sustainability becomes. "Companies are reaping returns on investments for energy, water conservation, product substitution and resources management, and other areas that optimize business resources and have a return on investment within one to two years," he said.
"Manufacturers always want to use less and save money," said Kimberly Knickle, a practice director at IDC Manufacturing Insights. "They're using sustainability to take one more step."
In many cases, Knickle said, the road to sustainability can start with low-hanging fruit on the shop floor, if only companies know where to look for them.
"Lots of equipment is already generating good performance data, and a lot of manufacturing operations aren't taking full advantage," she said. "It's a good place to start."
That said, that approach can only take a company so far, and Meyer, who's been developing sustainable business programs for 35 years, suggested a few key preparatory steps companies should take to get the sustainability ball rolling.
- Make sure your compliance house is in order first. Given the increasingly complex regulatory landscape, addressing this basic requirement is a must if a company is to realize the continual improvement opportunities that sustainability can bring.
- Build a culture of awareness. The simple truth is if your employees -- management in particular -- don't buy into sustainability and how it can benefit the company and its customers, any efforts to become sustainable will likely prove fruitless.
- Embed sustainable practices into the manufacturing process. What types of material inputs and waste outputs are associated with your product? How are you managing greenhouse gas emissions? How are you addressing health and safety? Do you know where your materials are coming from? What are your customers' sustainability requirements? And how are your suppliers affecting the environmental, health and safety footprint of your product?
Sustainability leaders paving the way
The answers to these questions can provide a blueprint for establishing more sustainable practices. There are also good business reasons to keep asking them, as British confectioner Cadbury learned several years ago. The company had deduced that its greenhouse gas emissions were greater than desired, so it performed a product lifecycle assessment and found that 60% of those emissions were coming from dairy cows burping up methane.
Rather than wasting a lot of time and effort rethinking its warehousing, logistics and transportation processes, as a company with a less sophisticated approach to sustainability might have done, Cadbury instead was able to work with its dairy suppliers on reducing the emissions.
Burlington, Vermont-based ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's has long focused on ensuring that its manufacturing facilities are not only efficient, but have the least possible environmental impact. Along those lines, the company collects unused ice cream -- the extra that's rinsed out of equipment or that spills during malfunctions -- and delivers it to farmers, who mix it with manure in to their methane digesters to generate additional power for their farms.
George Favaloro, managing director in PricewaterhouseCoopers' sustainable business solutions practice, said that if companies want to match the kind of impact Cadbury's and Ben & Jerry's efforts have had, it's critical that they look upon sustainability as a long-term goal rather than attempting a big bang approach.
"You can really harvest a lot of benefits if you think about it over time and systematically, rather than thinking this is going to be sustainability week and a bolt of lightning is going to strike, and your organization is going to start thinking differently," said Favaloro.
Taking a deliberate approach also enables companies to make better decisions about the technologies they want to deploy. And those technologies run the gamut, from the myriad meters and sensors designed for today's manufacturing environments to the increasingly powerful systems that crunch the data from those meters and sensors to provide sustainable business insight. More recently, robotics and clean technologies for optimizing the use of energy, water and wastewater have joined the fray.
"Greener and more energy and resource efficient technologies are driving many of the changes we're seeing in the manufacturing process," Meyer said. "We're seeing a marriage of lean manufacturing, green technology and environmentally and socially responsible business practices, with incredible results."
Also driving the push toward sustainable manufacturing is the growing social context, with today's connected and empowered consumers increasingly calling for more sustainable and socially responsible products. Given such a backdrop, it's not sufficient to simply adopt sustainable practices; companies must appear to be championing them.
"If you're not being a leader and you're being a follower, it's likely that your customers may perceive that you're not doing enough," said Meyer. "And customers are increasingly willing to source their products from a company that leads when it comes to sustainability."
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