Manufacturers Embrace Sustainability, Consumers Less Bothered

BMW South Carolina plant

Vinyl LP aficionados had a scare when Ikea announced it was discontinuing its popular Expedit wooden shelving units earlier this year. Turns out the shelves are ideal for storing old record collections.

The popular Expedit unit will be replaced with the Kallax, a unit with the same interior dimensions but a narrower outer front.

There’s a good reason behind this decision: Sustainability.

Ikea uses about one percent of the world’s wood supply, that’s 17.8 million cubic yards worth each year. By changing the design of its shelving Ikea can save on material costs and create a more sustainable manufacturing model for itself. 

The company aims to have 50 percent of all its wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council within the next five years, and was reminded in February that the council means business when it temporarily suspended Ikea’s current certification for sourcing wood from a protect forest in Russia.

Sustainable manufacturing—creating products in a cost-efficient way that also minimizes negative environmental impacts and conserves energy and natural resources—is gaining ground, and it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlines five areas of economic benefit for those manufacturers that embrace sustainability:

  • Lower resource and production costs
  • Lower regulatory compliance costs
  • Sales and brand reputation
  • Financing and capital
  • Employee hiring and retention

Sustainability efforts cover the gamut, from operations to sourcing to product design. The Boston Consulting Group finds that sustainability efforts are strongest in industries where it’s a competitive advantage. Energy and utilities, automakers and chemical manufacturers typically have stronger programs than service industries and financial services.

For example, Unilever sources sustainably grown raw materials, such as palm oil that’s traceable back to the Indonesian plantations where it’s grown. Home exterior giant Ply Gem recycles 95 percent of its vinyl siding scrap, and its aluminum gutter and siding products contain upwards of 67 percent recycled metal.

BMW’s factory in South Carolina gets about 50 percent of its total energy requirements from methane gas generated in a nearby landfill. That cuts the plant’s carbon emissions by 92,000 tons per year, and saves an average of $5 million in energy costs at the same time.

In Dalton, Ga., local utilities have partnered with carpet manufacturers to create an ecosystem to convert waste into energy. The Dalton-Whitfield Regional Solid Waste Management Authority captures gas from a landfill and transports it to a local chemical manufacturer, which uses it as boiler fuel to reduce the use of natural gas. That company produces a latex product for the carpet industry that’s greener because it uses less fossil fuel during production.

Sustainability is a strategy for manufacturers of all sizes, and in some instances it’s the core business driver.

Chris Fisher, owner of Fisher Recycling in Charleston, S.C., creates custom countertops embedded with recycled glass. He collects glass bottles—along with many other discarded items—from restaurants, offices and institutions and grinds the glass to make the GlassEco countertops. Fisher designed and built his own machine to process the glass.

“We’ve built a machine where one product goes in and seven different products come out of one glass bottle,” Fisher says.

Yet while most manufacturers embrace sustainability in one way or another, some believe the term itself has become ineffective and passé, especially among consumers.

“The challenge has been talking about sustainability to an audience that is completely disconnected from what the concept actually means,” says Diane Verde Nieto, founder of Positive Luxury, a London-based membership program that awards brands and companies that are taking steps toward social and environmental responsibility.

“Sustainability is often perceived to be at odds with what consumers want: well-designed, stylish products.” Verde Nieto concludes.

A recent survey by Cotton Incorporated backs this up. The survey finds that while the majority of consumers will pay more for “higher quality” clothes, only 26 percent of shoppers will spend more on clothes labeled as “sustainable” or “environmentally-friendly.”

For manufacturers of consumer products the answer might be to align sustainability more closely with quality and style, or to ditch the term altogether.

Is sustainability important to you? Can manufacturers realize true value from sustainable practices?

Photo: Ariana Lindquist/Bloomberg via Getty Images

About Gary Wollenhaupt

Gary Wollenhaupt is a freelance writer covering innovation in manufacturing, marketing, and sustainable green building technology.
This entry was posted in Connections and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s