Sustainable Manufacturing for Sustainable Livelihoods

The innumerable socio-ecological issues faced by our planet and ever-diminishing resource repositories highlight the urgency for change. And while it is every single individual’s responsibility to work towards protecting the environment, corporates do make a substantial contribution to environmental degradation.

Sustainability – a clarion call for businesses

Climate emergency was named the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2019. This emphatically brings out the importance of sustainability in all aspects of living – be it manufacturing, business operations, infrastructure development, or our day to day lives. The innumerable socio-ecological issues faced by our planet and ever-diminishing resource repositories highlight the urgency for change. And while it is every single individual’s responsibility to work towards protecting the environment, corporates do make a substantial contribution to environmental degradation. Globally, 100 firms are responsible for over 70% of carbon emissions, while other issues such as landfilling and water over usage only add to the list. Conventional manufacturing practices thus need to be re-designed so that they resonate unambiguously with the primary interests of communities, economy, and environment. 

Fortunately, with Goal 12 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) urging responsible production and consumption patterns, sustainable practices have been gaining traction across the global industrial pantheon. The discourse around moderating enterprise footprints involves ‘Sustainable Manufacturing’ as a cornerstone of an inclusive economic regime. It stresses on reimagining production processes and supply chain operations to impeccably balance optimized use of natural resources, controlled emission trajectories, greater compliance and socio-economic inclusion, against prime shareholder interests.     

Corporates with their vast operations and value chains need to approach ‘green manufacturing’ by seamlessly aligning the non-negotiable bottom line mandates not just with its community commitments, but also through operations. Such unorthodox posturing on business management can allow businesses to achieve many firsts in terms of products and processes that guide usages and disposal. 

A productive sustainable manufacturing framework for improving lives and the environment

To make sincere efforts on the sustainability front, enterprises need to have the propensity to deviate from the norm with a higher purpose, which can spur meaningful collaborations with public and private agencies across the globe, on the universal sustainability agenda. And this philosophy needs to be reflected in a corporate’s conviction to spearhead results across several new environmental, social and governance priorities that can establish a sustainable and yet highly productive manufacturing framework. Some factors that can play a crucial role in warranting this include:

Water Stewardship

Water scarcity is one of the world’s most compelling issues with around 25% of its population facing an availability crisis. And what’s grim about this situation is that there is less than 1% of freshwater available for human consumption and demand is expected to increase to 40% by 2030. Even though a corporation’s operations may not be water-intensive, resolute action on water management should be at the top of every corporate’s sustainability mission. 

80% of wastewater continues to be discharged untreated, adding to the problems of water pollution as well as freshwater intake. Here is where corporates need to continuously strive to fine-tune consumption patterns by investing in state-of-the-art technologies, monitoring systems and resource management practices in addition to wastewater treatment and reuse. Operations should be mapped to pinpoint specific action areas that can be improved upon to curb wastage and use. Intuitive dashboards for surveilling water consumption trends, automated dosing system in cooling towers with optimized blow-downs, using recycled water in the scrubbing process, high-efficiency Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants, and condensed recovery systems are some of the ways in which corporates can reduce usage. Further, investment in effluent and sewage treatment plants (ETPs and STPs), rainwater harvesting and multi-effect evaporators can significantly help corporates to reduce freshwater consumption, making it available to those in need. 

Life-Cycle Assessments 

The responsibility of a corporate does not end at producing a product. Its environment footprint extends across its value chain and hence products should not be conceived in isolation. To improve resource efficiency and decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, businesses need to evaluate their products using a lifecycle approach. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of products is conducted based on factors including raw material usage, manufacturing, transportation, deployment, and disposal. It is a constant process that involves the replacement of materials, production and distribution practices with higher environmental impact, making products safer, greener, and durable. 

Promoting a circular economy through a robust Zero Waste to Landfill (ZWL) strategy

Zero waste to landfills is a multi-faceted strategy that not only promotes efficiencies in resource utilization and manufacturing but also cost reduction and most importantly environment protection. It involves reduced waste generation at source, segregation, classification and categorization of waste to avoid large-scale contamination. In addition, it accords priority to reuse and recycles waste over the landfill thereby ensuring legal compliance of the rules laid down by the authorities. 

Diverting waste away from landfills is a fundamental strategy every corporate should include in their overall environmental strategy as methane is not only the second most powerful greenhouse gas but also responsible for a quarter of global warming. And with China, the US, Europe, and India being among the top 10 methane emitters, the need for zero waste to landfills is crucial as waste from landfills is among the top contributors to methane emissions. Furthermore, by repurposing, reusing, and recycling by-products and waste, ensures more circular use of limited resources. 

Prioritizing Carbon Emissions Reduction

Manufacturing is an energy-intensive process with far-reaching implications for the climate. And hence, aside from switching to renewables, it is essential to take every small initiative to mitigate climate change, even offsets that include aiding partners or suppliers switch to green technology. To drive this throughout the business value chain, it becomes crucial to be aligned with globally accepted standards such as an ISO 14001 certified Environmental Management System and reinforce this through smaller actions including continuous load monitoring, HVAC optimization and an agile cooling plan based on the changing weather conditions and tactical requirements, regulation of auxiliaries in the captive power plants, use of device components made of lite alternatives, utilization of condensate with feed water, a lean production process using innovation and best practices as well as capital investment on energy conservation systems among others. 

Sustainable manufacturing however, is incomplete without actively involving employees who steer production assets. They need to be made aware of the need, urgency and benefits of why ‘Sustainable Manufacturing’ is a priority not just for the business, but for everyone. 

Every business should perceive green business practices as a tool to build back better from where the world is today. Sustainable manufacturing is vital for a greener and pollution free future. Corporates need to look at it not merely as a compliance measure but an integral part of their culture that defines their raison d'être and drive to build a conducive future for generations to come.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house