The once small Danish children’s toy company that exploded into an international household name is in the midst of deconstructing itself, brick by brick. A manufacturer of interlocking brick sets from which kids can build anything from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts castle to a Star Wars X-Wing to functioning robots, Lego has built itself into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise and one of the world’s most recognized brands.
But more recently, it’s not the company’s toys but rather how Lego is producing them that’s been grabbing headlines. In 2017, the manufacturer announced that it was operating entirely on renewable energy after reaching that target three years earlier than planned.(1) It achieved the milestone after the completion of a 258-megawatt offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea. Then, earlier this year, Lego CEO Niels B. Christiansen unveiled the company’s most ambitious manufacturing plans ever.(2) Instead of making its building bricks out of fossil fuel-based plastic as it has for decades, the company set a goal to make all its blocks from renewable materials, such as sugar cane, by 2030. The first samples of these plant-based but still plastic bricks were slated to debut in December 2018.
However, Lego isn’t the only manufacturer making significant inroads when it comes to sustainable manufacturing — far from it. And manufacturers aren’t looking to implement more earth-friendly manufacturing practices simply because they’re environmentally conscious. Many companies are keen on decreasing the impact of their manufacturing carbon footprint simply because, increasingly, it makes good business sense.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainable manufacturing as the process of producing manufactured goods through the use of eco-friendly practices and materials that aim to reduce harmful impacts to the environment while conserving energy and protecting natural resources.(3) Manufacturing accounts for one-fifth of the annual energy consumption of the U.S., approximately 21 quintillion joules or the equivalent of 3.6 billion barrels of crude oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.(4) And based on the Annex to the G7 Leaders’ June 2015 Declaration, U.S. and global consumption of materials increased significantly in the 20th century during which global raw material use rose at about twice the rate of population growth.(5)
But by looking at a product’s entire life cycle — from materials extraction to end-of-life management — new opportunities can be identified to reduce environmental impacts, conserve resources and reduce costs. Moreover, a growing number of manufacturers are reaping the substantial financial and environmental benefits from sustainable business practices.
The Business Case for Sustainable Manufacturing
Manufacturers are increasingly viewing “sustainability” not just as an effort to be good environmental stewards but as an important objective in their strategy and operations to increase growth and competitiveness. This has gone way beyond the cachet of appearing “green” and now includes businesses small and large from many different industries.
Why are manufacturers pursuing sustainability?
The EPA also mentions that sustainable manufacturing enhances employee, community and product safety, a key factor for those manufacturers that operate in the life sciences sector or other regulated industries. And as environmental bodies move toward materials and energy use criteria that better protect and preserve the environment, regulatory bodies will follow suit and begin to require higher standards for manufacturers.
In a Manufacturing.net article, Angela Woody emphasizes that a truly sustainable manufacturing concept extends beyond waste prevention, worker health and safety, and embraces the core of a business operation’s raison d’etre.(6)
“Its ultimate goal is to improve production and profitability,” Woody said. “Luckily, some exciting advances in materials science, software compatibility and data collection can make any manufacturer more sustainable and more competitive.”
Energy Efficiency in Manufacturing
According to the online publication Manufacturing Tomorrow, manufacturers have seized on the energy-efficient trend because it’s a no-brainer — using less energy translates into lower emissions and lower operating costs.(7) For example, a study of paper and pulp factories in the Midwestern U.S. found that they could save $240 million annually by upgrading their equipment to meet Energy Star standards.
Moreover, because outmoded manufacturing practices led to $80 billion worth of wasted electricity and manufacturing uses 24 percent of all energy consumption in the U.S., it’s obvious that finding ways to reduce consumption could result in substantial savings.
Renewable Energy and Sustainable Materials
Like Lego in Denmark, many companies around the world are looking to make their energy use greener by turning to renewables such as solar and wind to power their manufacturing. For example, Lego neighbor IKEA in Sweden plans to use 100 percent renewables by 2020. And it’s not just large companies jumping at the opportunity to save by seeking cleaner energy alternatives ̶ 63 percent of Fortune 100 companies and many small- to medium-sized businesses are also using them.
The materials manufacturers select for making their products is also getting a second look in recent years. The EPA has laid out the following guiding principles of sustainable materials management:
A Time article on the 10 smartest sustainable products of 2018 lists among some of the innovative and creative materials beach sandals made from sugar cane; clothing constructed from agricultural leftovers, including pineapple leaves and tree trunks; and a folding metal drinking straw that can be stored on a keychain.(8)
Sustainable Consumer Safety and Health
A fundamental priority in the life sciences and other heavily regulated manufacturing industries is that products be safe and effective for public use. A major tenet within sustainable manufacturing, this priority necessitates that manufacturers implement a dynamic and effective quality management system (QMS) to provide accountability. An automated QMS provides manufacturers with a robust and integrated platform that documents processes, procedures and responsibilities for achieving their quality policies and objectives. For companies, this means increased efficiency, improved compliance and the ability to get your product to market faster. An electronic QMS eliminates the unnecessary material waste of a paper-based system, which is slower, less efficient and more apt to result in costly errors and delays.
“Automation systems help manufacturing companies to successfully achieve the goals of sustainable manufacturing that include achieving high level of resource efficiencies, reducing energy consumption, and minimizing land, water, and atmospheric emissions and pollutants,” said Rajabahadur Arcot, automation consultant.(9)
Each year, Toronto-based Corporate Knights compiles an index of the 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World.(10) The 2018 installment is comprised of a diversity of companies in a plethora of industries that have made and kept commitments to sustainable manufacturing practices from some 6,000 companies across the globe. Key factors in the report’s analysis are energy use, carbon, waste and clean air production as well as innovation expenditures, taxes paid, diversity of leadership, suppliers, safety ratings, and the link between sustainability targets and senior executive pay. Among the top 20 are four pharmaceutical giants, including UCB, Merck, Allergan and Sanofi SA. The top 10 include:
Manufacturers can continue to achieve heightened levels of quality and compliance through automated quality systems within their production facilities while at the same time planning for and implementing sustainability processes and measures in their manufacturing. Sustainable manufacturing is no longer simply a buzzword that sounds nice on a company’s annual report verbiage but rather a profitable target for manufacturers in any industry to move toward.
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