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Sustainability in Manufacturing and Retail: Good For Business, Great for the World

Marla Keene is a tech writer with AX Control, Inc, an industrial automation supplier located in North Carolina.


Considering growing global environmental concerns, many of the world’s largest companies are looking to environmentally-conscious technology to reduce their carbon footprint. While this move is necessary given natural resource consumption driven by business demand and development, these changes are not driven by altruism. Instead, companies embrace changes to lower business costs, improve sales, and reduce waste.

Photo by Arthur Ogleznev from Pexels.

Photo by Arthur Ogleznev from Pexels.

Less Plastic for All

Signed by more than 500 businesses and organizations, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment unites companies, governments, researchers, and individuals in a common goal to create a circular plastic economy where zero plastic enters the environment as waste. Supporters of the bill have three goals by 2025:

  • remove unnecessary plastic items from product lines
  • innovate plastics so they are reusable, recyclable, or compostable
  • create a circular plastic economy where no plastic enters the environment as waste

This commitment has been signed by companies like Apple, Burberry, HP Inc, L’oreal, Target, and Schneider Electric to name just a few. This initiative shifts the solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem from one of crisis clean-up after the fact to root-cause change through technology and design.

Various technologies are employed to work toward this goal, including finding ways to naturally compost plastics using insects and enzymes. Programs allowing customers to reuse or refill plastic containers also cut the number of plastics in the supply chain and have the added benefit of fostering customer loyalty, decreasing manufacturing costs, and decreasing shipping costs.

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Retail Giants Go Green

“Going green” can mean different things to different companies. Some, like Patagonia, donate a part of their profits to environmental issues. Others, like Target, have revamped their supply chains to reduce their overall landfill waste by 75%.

Other sustainability strategies may not be so obvious. Microsoft, for example, has significantly reduced its environmental impact by offering open-source software via the cloud. This has reduced the need for data centers and their associated cooling, ventilation, and air conditioning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to the greening of global supply chains by exposing the weaknesses within existing logistics systems. Now companies are looking to develop procurement options offering agility, resiliency, and transparency. These goals overlap with sustainable and circular economic practices as they prevent waste and pollution by allowing customers to easily return items at the end-of-life stage, create shorter supply chain loops for materials and products, and improve agility by using existing capabilities and supplies to rapidly respond to changing opportunities.

Birds-eye view photo of freight containers.

Birds-eye view photo of freight containers.

Manufacturers Use Tech to Help the Earth

Retail businesses rely on their manufacturing partners to provide them with their inventory, and it’s within this economic sector where the most interesting changes ensuring a greener future are happening. Manufacturing firms will reshape the modern industrial age in very literal ways through the technological use of additive manufacturing and a host of other new process-improving technologies.

Manufacturers can reduce the need for tooling by moving to additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing. Manufacturers can lower part costs, reduce lead times, and--most importantly--limit their raw material use, all while mitigating waste. Additive manufacturing can create an endless cycle where end-of-life parts are broken down and fed back in as raw products to be built again as something new.

Manufacturers are also banking on new technologies like AR/VR to reduce paper instructions, reduce waste, and manage prototyping in the virtual world, thus saving on raw materials during prototyping while opening up opportunities for new design.

Others are integrating clean power options like solar and wind, even in industries where such use might be unexpected. Nucor’s micro mill steel plant in Sedalia, Missouri is the first in the USA to use wind energy as part of its power production process.

More Work To Do

Meanwhile, the impact of corporate social responsibility to corporate financial health remains limited as many businesses continue with 20th-century practices. According to a 2019 report by The Guardian, less than a fifth of the world’s largest companies will meet targets set by the Paris climate agreement by 2050, while half may meet them in measures leading to smaller global warming increases. For now, firms may be interested in green initiatives more as a way to save on their bottom line. But as awareness and interest in climate change grow, CEOs and financial executives may begin to feel pressure from investors, regulators, customers, and society at large to embrace clean initiatives more.

© 2020 Marla Keene

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