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Sustainability: more and more, not less and less

Conversations about sustainability usually focus on using less, but as industry changes it could prove more beneficial to think in terms of doing more.

Times are changing, and the manufacturing sector needs to rise to the occasion. With long-term pressures on resources, concern about climate change, rising social inequity and increasing demands from not-for-profit groups and consumers, it is imperative that manufacturers change the way products are designed and produced. Opportunities exist for manufacturing to positively enhance our environment, create more wealth and add value for customers.

Within the current manufacturing landscape there is an urgency to address three key pillars of sustainability – not only to sustain economic performance, but to focus on environmental and social performance as well. The language of ‘less’ – less cost, less environmental impact, etc – is burdensome and not engaging; it is much more attractive to think in terms of ‘more’. As John Ehrenfeld, senior research scholar in sustainability at Yale University says, sustainability is about ‘flourishing’ not just surviving. In this way, we should view this transformation positively, as an opportunity, rather than a burden. Indeed, this is not a whimsical thought; those driving a sustainable agenda have been able to achieve higher quality, provide greater value and generate more income.

Manufacturing has a massive impact on the environment, but with the globalised nature of production and the move away from mass employment in the developed world there can be public detachment from the manufacturing agenda. Greater resource efficiency has potential for us to be more connected to the challenges and engaged in the solutions, but we are all tired of incremental improvements that squeeze existing approaches ever tighter.

The conversation should focus on step-change improvements that unlock substantial developments, including greater profitability. The circular economy, in which products are reused, remanufactured, repaired or just recycled, is one of the routes to greater effectiveness.

Some companies are moving away from simply supplying products to delivering services and thereby retaining control of valuable resources, with examples available across product ranges from printer cartridges, such as HP’s Instant Ink replacement service, to industrial gas turbines as supplied by Rolls-Royce with ‘power by the hour’. In turn companies are motivated to make their products last longer, provide greater value to the customer and retain precious resources.

Extending this concept of a different offering, there is potential in the supply chain to move from product to service to ultimately activity, for example moving from providing food to delivering nutrition to ultimately supporting health. Health in this context can be extended from the narrow scope of health of individuals to health of industrial systems and the society they exist within. The agenda therefore moves from restricting and using less ‘bad’ products to providing more products and services that deliver healthy outcomes.

One of the major transformations happening now is the way in which we collect, analyse and present data. Virtual models of products and production systems that enable seamless transition between the virtual and real worlds will drive further innovation. Using these tools to design and manage our use of resources within factories and across supply chains will create opportunities to add more value in the widest sense. Exciting developments are emerging where products and services are tailored and localised close to the point of use, allowing for efficient (re-)use of resources and faster delivery. These include local and mobile ‘factories’ that can create products on demand, whether on the high street, at other factories or on the side of an F1 race track.

With increasing pressure on resources it is more important than ever to ensure that maximum value is extracted from resources wherever possible. The challenge is not only in being lean within the manufacturing system, but also in creating value from waste resources. Increasingly companies are considering ‘valorisation’ as an option to create the most value from waste rather than the easiest source of disposal. This can range from selling turf and tomatoes alongside sugar production – as AB Sugar does – to bottling and selling waste water.

For the end of a product’s use phase, challenging the dominant industrial linear model with resource circularity thinking is essential. So rather than make-use-dispose the focus is on getting value back. This can be challenging to do efficiently both in terms of retrieving used products and in efficiently transforming them into new valuable products. These could be down­graded through recycling, remanufactured for reuse or even upcycled for more valuable use.

Sustainability progress will prove challenging, given increasing investment in automation and time pressures on business leaders and staff. The lean manufacturing philosophy has transformed the economic operation of companies from being less wasteful and providing greater value to customers. The environmental advances in companies are beginning to move from less damaging impact to net-positive beneficial impacts where the environment improves as a result. Pioneering companies are moving the agenda on from minimising harm to understanding ways to build greater economic, environmental and social capital.

With automation spreading ever further, it is a crucial societal challenge for all its citizens to be the beneficiaries of, and contributors to, greater wealth and health. The focus now is on raising awareness of the different pathways that leaders are taking to move the industry forward, with the hope that this transformation can be implemented with greater speed than progress to a lean standard of manufacturing.

So what could the future industrial system hold? Advancing the environmental and social agenda may be seen to compete with basic ideas of economic survival. But they should not be different. The urgency to advance sustainability performance can trigger opportunities to improve business performance overall. Innovation in product design and processing can provide greater value to customers, by creating products that perform better whilst being cleaner and safer to produce.

Governments can help by facilitating experimentation to pilot and prove innovative technologies and strategies and in turn remove risk from companies.

Company-led education of all staff will develop the capabilities of people to engage in the innovation process and accelerate advances. Today’s leading companies are not necessarily technological leaders but simplifiers who challenge inertia and are obsessive – in the most complimentary way.

The circular economy, one of the many strategies to address the sustainability imperative, promotes the reuse of products and materials to maximise value. Circularity thinking should be extended to knowledge and people to enhance the ability to lead change. Whilst respecting commercial boundaries there are ample opportunities to share advances through communities of leaders.

With such ambition we should be able to avoid the negative connotations of the environmental imperatives and achieve a more healthy outcome. Technology developments can enable positive environmental change but will ultimately increase unemployment. By contrast, it is people who will innovate to make more from less and find opportunities to add more value and enhance health in the widest sense. By supporting people and fostering their leadership capabilities we can communicate the sense of purpose that will engender a positive message of more. The transition to this healthier thinking is urgent.

Transforming the workplace

Case study

Specialist furniture supplier Rype Office, based in London, is dedicated to transforming tired office spaces by sustainable means. The company’s strategy is to create attractive workplaces with a step-change reduction in environmental impact and customer costs, by giving consumers the option to either purchase new furniture through a buy-back scheme, purchase upcycled, remanufactured stock, or have existing furnishings refreshed and returned to an as-new condition.

The company has developed remanufacturing techniques that bring high-quality used furniture back to as-new appearance and performance at a fraction of the cost of purchasing new equivalents, while creating additional employment in the process. Services are combined with the supply chain to educate customers about the cost, as well as the environmental and social benefits of their products, making this additional value tangible. Existing customers include RBS, Pilkington, Imperial College London and the NHS.

“Remanufacturing saves 80 per cent of the materials costs of furniture made from virgin sources, while using double the labour,” says Dr Greg Lavery, director of Rype Office. “This is transforming manufacturing.”

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