Cutting Carbon

The Impact of Climate Change on Manufacturing

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Industrial Revolution was fuelled mainly by coal. Abundant coal made machines cheap to operate while devastating air and water with pollution, engulfing entire cities like London, England in smoke and soot.

While later fuel sources like natural gas are less toxic, particularly when combusted in new and efficient power plants, burning fuel still contributes to global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.

Our collective carbon footprint affects the entire planet. Manufacturers are reducing their carbon footprints, and this is far from trendy. It is good for the environment and a business’ bottom line. Companies of all kinds are embracing better environmental practices not only because it is the right thing to do for the planet but also because it favourably bolsters the public’s perception.

Manufacturing today across North America is light years away from where it was in the past. It is more efficient than ever, thanks to technology and Lean manufacturing, which reduces waste by focusing on continuous improvement, perfect first-time quality, and intelligent automation.

Many of us already practice the three R of reduce, reuse, and recycle in our daily lives, but how are manufacturers and other businesses – the biggest users of water, gas, oil, and other resources – cutting their resource use and reducing costs?

Here and abroad, businesses from grocery stores to tool and die makers are lessening their carbon footprints. In Europe, 171-year-old German multinational conglomerate Siemens AG has pledged to be entirely carbon neutral by 2030. Siemens is known worldwide for manufacturing medical, industrial, energy, and healthcare products, and it is doing much more than talk about energy savings. It is investing over 100 million Euros in its environmental plans.

To reach its goal in the coming decade, the company will incorporate low-emission vehicles into its fleet, optimize energy use in manufacturing facilities and offices through distributed energy systems, and bolster the use of clean, renewable energy sources like wind and natural gas.

American and Canadian companies are also taking up the challenge of lowering their environmental impact. Many people are familiar with companies like Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks eliminating the use of plastic straws by 2020, but other companies are taking plastic waste into bold new directions.

Several years ago, well-known jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss & Co. introduced the Waste<Less™ Denim Collection. We may not think of old jeans and other fabric as ‘waste,’ yet the amount of clothing we buy is skyrocketing, with North Americans sending an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of textiles to landfills, much of which could have been donated and reused.

The jean line is a clever way of incorporating plastic from bottles and food trays and contains at least twenty percent post-consumer recycled product. “With this collection, we’re doing our own small part by taking waste and making something new from it,” says the company in a statement. “We don’t just want to reduce our impact on the environment; we want to leave it better than we found it.”

From high-tech companies like Google to car companies, manufacturers are embracing sustainable business practices. Some are making a point of purchasing energy produced by renewable sources like solar and wind and reducing their use of plastics and packaging. Even small companies are letting employees work from home a day or two per week since it means fewer cars on the road.

At New York-based technology workplace sharing company WeWork, six thousand employees were informed last year that, to be greener, the business would no longer serve meat products at employee events, and no longer reimburse them for food prepared with poultry, pork, or red meat.

Having a smaller carbon footprint is good for business of all sizes, from sole proprietors working at home to factories with thousands of employees. It may be out of the range for smaller companies to undertake large-scale structural renovations to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification, for example; however, more modest cost-efficient changes are achievable. These include basic repairs to prevent heat loss around doors and windows, using less heating and air conditioning, switching to energy-saving LED lighting, and making more strategic deliveries to use less gas.

Many global manufacturers are reducing carbon emissions in areas like supply chains. The CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) researches and measures environmental data, with cities, states, regions, and companies are disclosing information. CDP data is used to take action on climate change, water security and deforestation.

According to a report published by CDP, big companies are seeing significant cost savings because of reduced carbon emissions – saving an estimated $14 billion US in 2017 alone – and massive reductions of carbon dioxide emissions measuring some 551 million tonnes. Investors are increasingly aware of the need for carbon emissions reduction. Well-known companies like Rolls-Royce, Honda, Apple, Microsoft, and Kellogg are participating, improving supply chains, tracking emissions, reducing waste sent to landfill, and even changing packaging.

Japanese food, chemical and biotech giant Ajinomoto Group became the first company on the planet to sell beverages in completely recycled heat-resistant polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. By making the switch from virgin plastic, the company reduced its fossil fuel consumption by approximately two thousand tonnes a year.

Climate change has been the subject of countless articles, books, podcasts, and documentaries. The news encompasses everything from the disastrous impact of plastics on our oceans to how we can reduce our consumption of meat, drive less often, and turn off the lights to save electricity,

A recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressed the urgency to cut our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 to protect us from climate change. More manufacturers are taking the lead since a global increase in temperature of just 1.5 degrees Celsius will adversely affect the Earth. One key way to keep things cool is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and adapt to change as soon as possible.

While switching to one hundred percent renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, and hydropower may still be years’ away for manufacturers, there is much that can be done right now to reduce carbon emissions, from investing in renewable energy and supporting environmental policies carbon to purchasing carbon offsets. All changes, even small ones like turning off lights, getting an energy audit, and buying local to save on transportation makes sense for all manufacturers.

Women in the Manufacturing Workforce

Over the last few decades, the American manufacturing industry has seen tremendous growth. As the economy improves and the drive to re-shore overseas facilities continues to bring manufacturing jobs back to U.S. soil, the one chief limiting factor on growth is a dwindling talent pool.

Past Issues

December 10, 2019, 8:25 PM EST