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The key principles of sustainable manufacturing

Why is sustainable manufacturing important?

Manufacturing, though essential for economic growth, is typically associated with high resource consumption, waste generation and carbon emissions. On average, a company’s supply chain emissions are over 11 times higher than its own operational emissions and global production sectors are responsible for one-fifth of carbon emissions.

Sustainable manufacturing is no longer just a buzzword; it's a necessity for safeguarding the planet, as well as ensuring long-term business success. Consumers, investors, and regulatory bodies are increasingly demanding environmentally responsible practices, prompting manufacturers to rethink their strategies.

Although decarbonising the manufacturing industry and pushing for more sustainable supply chains may hold the key to a much greener future, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to begin.

To get you started, we have broken down some of the key sustainable manufacturing principles.

Let’s take a look.

Product design for sustainability and circular economy

Sustainable manufacturing starts with product design and the adoption of a lifecycle approach.

Manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon footprint should:

  • Consider the entire life cycle of a product, from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing, distribution, use, and end-of-life disposal or recycling.

  • Emphasise sustainability from the early stages of product development, which can lead to more eco-friendly designs that are durable, repairable, and recyclable. For example, designing products for disassembly makes it easier to recover valuable materials at the end of their life cycle.

  • Carry out life cycle assessments to help identify opportunities for improvement and inform sustainable decision-making.

You may have heard of the circular economy – this emphasises the design of products and processes with the intention of creating a “closed-loop” around the product’s life cycle, where waste is minimised, and materials are continuously reused or recycled. By extending the life cycle of products and reducing the need for new raw materials, circular economy practices minimise carbon-intensive extraction and production processes.

Embrace clean and renewable energy sources

Sustainable manufacturing prioritises the reduction of harmful emissions, such as greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other pollution.

Manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon footprint should:

  • Shift away from fossil fuels and seek to power their operations with renewable energy, like solar, wind, or hydroelectric power.

  • Implement cleaner production processes, prioritising the adoption of low-carbon technologies, for example, electric vehicles in logistics and transportation reduce emissions.

  • Invest in research and development of low-carbon technologies.

  • Push for green chemistry and eco-friendly materials in production processes, fostering innovation and accelerating the decarbonisation journey.

Enhance efficiency wherever possible

Resource efficiency makes sense for sustainability, and for a manufacturers’ bottom line. Typical approaches like process mapping and analysis or Lean reviews can also have an environmental benefit.

Look at the use of raw materials, energy and water by plant, process or product to understand where key hotspots are.

You can install Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors to monitor energy consumption, emissions, and waste generation in real-time.

You can then focus your improvements on the greatest impact areas, like better insulation, equipment upgrades or efficiency projects, lighting, maintenance or leakage prevention or material re-use.

Engage stakeholders and supply chain partners

Stakeholder engagement is critical for successful decarbonisation efforts. This means that sustainable manufacturing extends beyond the factory walls to encompass the entire supply chain.

Manufacturers are encouraged to:

  • Work with suppliers who share their commitment to sustainability, ethical practices, and social responsibility. By collaborating with like-minded partners, manufacturers can enhance the overall sustainability of their products and operations.

  • Collaborate with other stakeholders, including employees, customers and investors, to gain valuable insights and support for emission reduction initiatives. Engaging the whole value chain helps promote sustainability and have a bigger positive impact.

  • Promote fair labour practices, by providing safe working conditions, and offering competitive wages, and prioritise community engagement and wellbeing.

Transparent reporting and decarbonisation target setting

To ensure meaningful progress towards decarbonisation, organisations should establish carbon reduction targets, usually Science-Based Targets (SBTs). These align with climate science and are designed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. By setting SBTs, manufacturers commit to specific emission reduction trajectories that contribute to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

Transparent reporting and disclosure of decarbonisation targets, along with other climate-related topics, is important for sustainable manufacturing practices. This is because it encourages manufacturers to communicate honestly about their emissions reduction progress, strategies, and challenges openly to stakeholders, which enhances accountability and builds trust with consumers, investors, and the broader community.

Integrate carbon accounting and set decarbonisation targets

In order to really understand where the biggest carbon savings could be made for specific manufacturing businesses, and in turn set ambitious but realistic decarbonisation targets, carbon accounting is needed.

Effective carbon accounting is vital for any business looking to reduce their emissions because it helps them understand their carbon footprint, identify emissions hotspots and integrate data-driven carbon action plans in line with wider business goals.

Manufacturers should consider proper data-driven carbon accounting because:

  • Informed decision-making: Carbon accounting provides manufacturers with a holistic view of their environmental impact. This information enables them to make informed decisions about resource allocation, process optimisation, and product development

  • Risk mitigation: Understanding carbon emissions helps manufacturers anticipate regulatory changes, market trends, and potential supply chain disruptions, mitigating risks associated with changing environmental regulations

  • Competitive advantage: Forward-thinking companies that embrace carbon accounting gain a competitive edge by aligning their offerings with the growing demand for sustainable products and practices

Manual carbon accounting for manufacturing businesses can be tricky though, particularly due to the complexity of supply chains. Top tip for manufacturers is to utilise technology and software wherever possible to help save time and resources.

Automating carbon accounting makes tasks like data collection, emissions tracking and analysis a whole lot more streamlined. Not to mention that identifying where businesses can cut carbon often leads to cost savings too, as the greatest sources of emissions are typically also sources of financial inefficiency.


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