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.
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.