Why companies need to reduce the environmental footprint of their products

March 14, 2023

22% of U.S. emissions stem from industrial processes.

The manufacturing sector has a substantial impact on the environment. It contributes to greenhouse emissions, impacts natural resources, and produces significant amounts of waste. By sector, approximately 22% of U.S. emissions stem from industrial processes, including the chemical processing of raw materials.  

When it comes to waste, approximately 21.4% of all landfill mass stems from packaging, and that number is growing. In recent years, an increased reliance on online shopping and more deliveries from companies such as Amazon, Wayfair and Overstock, have added significant waste to landfill. However, companies are starting to pay closer attention to the impact of their products by considering everything from production to sales and delivery, as well as end of life.  

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Consider the sustainability of your raw materials

While formal lifecycle assessments are often complex and very data-heavy,  qualitatively approaching each aspect of production can drive meaningful change for your businesses and the environment. For a consumer goods business, certain materials can have high-embodied carbon values depending on how that raw material is harvested and processed.  

Steel, for example, requires iron ore mining, which is an energy-intensive process that uses air-polluting fossil fuels. The process also produces heavy metals and acid waste that can leak into local water sources and must be stored indefinitely in tailings dams.  

Wood and timber come with a different set of embodied carbon, primarily from deforestation, which eventually releases the carbon dioxide stored in trees back into the atmosphere. Deforestation is the second leading cause of global warming and makes up approximately 10-15% of all human-caused, carbon dioxide emissions. Additionally, trees and forests act as a carbon sink, meaning the more trees we cut down, the less trees we have available to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The more carbon in the atmosphere, the stronger the impacts from global warming.

Forests are also vital for biodiversity, and economies worldwide depend on them. As a result, sourcing timber from sustainably managed forests ensures the preservation of forests and ecosystems. Third-party designations from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and Rainforest Alliance are usually a safe bet.  

Biofibers, like bamboo or cork, are natural, rapidly renewable materials and present a less-impactful option to timber. However, they require a high level of management, including engaging suppliers around sustainable practices. Clear-cutting a forest to plant bamboo, for example, is not sustainable.  

Invest in responsible product packaging  

Product packaging often has a significant downstream carbon footprint, namely, warehousing and transport, as well as what happens to the packaging once it’s in a consumer’s hands. In 2018, waste from packaging and containers in the U.S. accounted for approximately 37% of all generated waste, or an estimated 82.2 million tons, of which 30.5 million tons went into landfills. When a product is shipped to consumers, packaging from that is also substantial, and frankly, it's problematic because we’re running out of options to store it in the U.S., and countries like China no longer want to accept it as an import.  

Businesses can help reduce these staggering numbers by making packaging out of biodegradable or recyclable materials with clear instructions on keeping the packaging out of landfills. New York, and many other states, have started to ban single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam use is becoming increasingly restricted as well. Businesses can get ahead of regulations by shifting packaging to sustainable and environmentally friendly materials, which is positive from both a brand and regulatory standpoint.    

Manufacturing, transportation, and distribution

Sustainable manufacturing initiatives can save companies money upstream, but focus on downstream impacts from waste, transport and distribution is critical as well. According to a Mckinsey report, up to half of transportation and distribution costs go ignored or unmanaged. For pharmaceutical companies, 95% of logistics costs come from operations or transportation. Lean techniques and processes can save 20-50% in warehousing and 40% on transportation.  

Under the Biden administration, companies will likely see additional federal regulation and enforcement. Supply chain regulations will most likely hit those doing business with the federal government or receiving aid from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, or PPP (Paycheck Protection Program).

Reducing your impact is no longer just good business sense

It’s more important than ever that companies look at sustainability from every angle. From operations and management to production and materials sourcing, reducing your environmental footprint is no longer just good business, it may soon become a requirement for many U.S. companies.  

As the climate continues to change, ease of access to raw materials will also change, which poses a disruption risk to supply chains. However, if you carefully select sustainably sourced raw materials from the start and integrate sustainability into your core business strategy, you not only help the environment, but you set your company up for success in the long run. It’s time for all businesses – both big and small – to make the shift towards more sustainable business practices across their entire enterprise.  

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
Constanze Duke
Constanze Duke is a director of sustainability at Sustain.Life and leads the company’s technical practice. She began working in sustainability in 2007 and has worked through sustainability’s dramatic evolution into a multi-faceted discipline.
The takeaway

• 21.4% of all landfill mass stems from packaging.

• Deforestation is the second leading cause of global warming and makes up approximately 10-15% of all human-caused, carbon dioxide emissions.

• Lean techniques and processes can save 20-50% in warehousing and 40% on transportation.