In recent years, the term “going green” has become increasingly important for manufacturers. Green manufacturing generally refers to activities within your company that minimize damage to the environment, conserve energy and are safe for consumers, employees and the community.
In most countries, companies are under growing pressure to come up with feasible energy practices. The continuing surge in energy costs and stringent governmental regulations are forcing corporate executives to put a high priority on cutting emissions, curbing energy usage, manufacturing environmentally-friendly products, recycling and finding ways to reduce electronic garbage.
Without a doubt, meeting the demands of green manufacturing is one of the biggest challenges your company will face in the coming years.
Significantly, restrictions on hazardous substances imposed around the globe have raised the bar for higher standards in the United States. These restrictions include the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals initiative, as well as strict regulations in place in Japan, Canada and elsewhere.
Many companies are proactively going “above and beyond” the current regulatory requirements.
For example, Volvo Trucks announced that by the end of 2008, its plants in Ghent, Belgium, and Tüv and Umeå, Sweden, will reduce their carbon dioxide (CO²) emissions “to as close to zero as technically possible.” This will be accomplished by investing in wind power, using biofuel and taking other steps.
Some manufacturers are partnering with other companies to help reduce their environmental footprints. For example, Sony Electronics banded together with Waste Management to establish a national recycling initiative that allows consumers to drop off or ship their unwanted products.
“We believe it is Sony’s responsibility to provide customers with end-of-life solutions for all the products we manufacture,” stated Stan Glasgow, Sony president and CEO. “Through the Take Back Recycling Program, our customers will know that their Sony products will be recycled in an environmentally responsible manner.”
Sony has initiated several other environmental changes, such as using more vegetable-based plastics in its products; shifting more long-distance transportation to rail and sea, which emit less CO² than trucks; and introducing reusable international shipping containers for parts.
Other companies have pioneered innovative processes to solve waste problems. General Mills found it difficult to dispose of the oat hulls that are a byproduct of Cheerios and other foods that it produces. Today, they are used for making insoluble fiber (a healthy food additive) and as an energy source since “oat hulls from making cereal have been found to be a viable biomass fuel that burns cleaner than coal,” according to General Mills’ Corporate Social Responsibility publication.
Like Volvo, Sony and General Mills, many companies view green manufacturing as an advantage, rather than a deterrent. Here are five considerations for manufacturers striving for long-term sustainability by implementing green policies and processes:
- Embrace an environmentally conscious approach with changes in the product design process. This encompasses development of product structure as well as building and testing a system for production. Conduct research and testing on products before regulations impose new mandatory standards. Design products and packaging that can be recycled and downsize the amount of waste.
- Coordinate efforts with all departments in the company. Product design is only one factor. Look for improvements that can be made in your buildings, workforce, supply chain and vehicle fleets. Investigate the best technology solutions. With integrated practices, one side of the business won’t operate in a vacuum.
- Ask your marketing department to play a role. Some of the companies using improved technology in production activities, such as Toyota and Honda, have become well-known as green manufacturers. Strive to raise awareness among your customers, as well as the public in general, of the importance of new approaches and the benefits available from your efforts. It projects an image of social responsibility to customers, shareholders, regulators and the community.
- Work to help develop policy. For instance, a group of manufacturers, including General Electric and DuPont, formed an organization that is pushing the government to put a cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
- Expand your C-suite. Many companies are adding a Chief Energy Officer or VP of Sustainability to manage their energy strategies and measure their return on investment. These executives enhance the C-suite by improving corporate reputation, lowering costs and boosting profits.
Bottom line: You have a choice between adopting a wait-and-see approach to government regulation or stepping up self-regulation in anticipation. When all is said and done, most manufacturers would prefer the latter option. Ultimately, green manufacturing can provide a competitive advantage since consumers, shareholders and employees are becoming more environmentally conscious and demanding eco-friendly products. If your company hasn’t done so already, now is the time to formulate a strategic manufacturing vision.
(For more information, click here to read our previous article, “Eight Steps to a Lean Manufacturing Approach.” Not surprisingly, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that lean methods result in significant improvements to the environment.)