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Sustainable Manufacturing

What is sustainable manufacturing?

Sustainable manufacturing is the process of designing and producing products using materials and processes to minimize environmental impact. This approach considers environmental and economic factors throughout the product’s life cycle, from design and production to disposal and reuse.

Sustainable manufacturing, also known as green manufacturing, represents a shift from traditional manufacturing methods with often high CO2e emissions towards a more environmentally responsible and efficient approach. It benefits the environment and can create new growth opportunities as consumers are increasingly concerned about climate change.

What are the key aspects of sustainable manufacturing?

Sustainable manufacturing phases include design and manufacturing, in-use (operation), and end-of-life management.

  1. Product Engineering/Design Phase:
    1. Ecodesign/eco-friendly design:  Develop products with environmental considerations (reduced carbon footprint), such as minimizing material usage and waste, increasing manufacturing efficiency (see below), and designing for recyclability. Also, engineer products efficiently to reduce/eliminate steps in the production process.
    2. Material selection:  Identify and use “eco-friendly” material alternatives, such as recycled materials, lighter materials (which can reduce carbon emissions during the in-use phase), or materials with comparatively lower environmental footprints.
    3. Life cycle assessment:  Evaluate the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life cycle: including raw material extraction, manufacturing, usage (in-use phase), and end-of-life disposal.
  2. Manufacturing Phase:
    1. Energy efficiency:  Use energy-efficient manufacturing processes (e.g., using manufacturing processes and materials with shorter cycle times to reduce energy consumption)
    2. Energy mix:  Use factories/production facilities with a higher mix of renewable energy sources than factories/regions that rely on fossil fuel (coal) for power.
    3. Waste management:  Select manufacturing processes with comparatively low scrap rates/waste (e.g., additive manufacturing vs. machining). Also use recycled materials and reuse/recycle waste materials.
    4. Pollution reduction:  Using manufacturing processes that reduce emissions and pollutants, including water and air pollution.
  3. In-Use (Operational) Phase:
    1. In-use (operational) energy efficiency:  Design products for minimal energy consumption and CO2e emissions during operations (e.g., lighter, more aerodynamic cars are more energy efficient).
    2. Durability and maintenance:  Manufacturing products for maximum durability and serviceability to extend product life.
  4. End-of-Life Management:
    1. Recyclability and reusability:  Develop products with components that can be easily disassembled for recycling or reusing at the end of their life cycle to preserve natural resources.
    2. Biodegradability:  Select materials that can be safely broken down by natural processes.

How can you reduce carbon emissions in manufacturing?

  1. Design for sustainability/Ecodesign:  Develop/engineer products for:
    1. In-use efficiency (e.g., lighter trucks and automobiles are more fuel-efficient than heavier ones)
    2. Maintenance and repair to extend product life and streamline the process of repairing, reusing (all or part of the product), and recycling
    3. Read more about material selection, manufacturing process, etc. in the following sections.
  2. Select sustainable materials:  Identify and incorporate materials with a lower CO2e impact than alternatives in the bill of materials (BOM).
  3. Use efficient manufacturing processes:  Select manufacturing processes with comparatively low scrap rates/waste (e.g., plastic molding vs. machining).
  4. Capitalize on renewable energy:  Utilizing renewable energy sources like solar or wind power for manufacturing operations.
  5. Optimize your supply chain:  Evaluate the benefits and trade-offs of manufacturing closer to your customers to reduce transportation emissions.
  6. Product lifecycle optimization:  Designing products that are more efficient in their use phase, thus reducing the overall carbon footprint during their lifecycle.


Why is sustainability important in the product design phase?

The product design phase determines more than 80% of a product’s environmental impact, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. This statistic emphasizes the importance of using a design for sustainability approach to reduce environmental impact when it matters most.

What are the benefits of sustainable manufacturing?

There’s an array of data that underlines the advantages of manufacturing sustainable products, including:

  • Customer demand and market growthSurveys continue to show that consumers are more likely to purchase from a company with a strong sustainability policy, and are likely to pay a premium for sustainable products. In a survey of S&P 500 firms conducted by CDP, firms estimated that the aggregate financial benefits of the opportunities are almost 15 times higher than the potential impact of the risks associated with sustainability.
  • Regulatory requirements:  There are global, regional, and country-specific initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The United Nation’s Paris Agreement calls for governments and industry to work together to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century. And the European Green Deal commits the EU to reduce its net GHG emissions by 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. There are a series of other regulations designed to achieve similar carbon reduction goals.
  • Industry-specific requirements:  So-called “green” initiatives require companies to develop products that meet sustainability criteria. For example, many US communities require new buildings to have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Manufacturers of heating/cooling (HVAC) systems and other building products need to provide sustainable products that will enable LEED certification.
  • Carbon taxes / tariffs:  The European Union’s carbon tax (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism [CBAM]) may be the most well-known, but it’s not the only one. Twenty-six non-EU countries either have or are considering their own carbon taxes.
  • Investor/stakeholder demands:  Stockholders and corporate boards are requiring companies to institute environmental, societal, and governance (ESG) goals. Today, more than 90% of S&P 500 companies publish ESG reports.

Companies with sustainable manufacturing practices have a significant opportunity to gain a competitive advantage by adapting to the circular economy.

What are the drawbacks of sustainable manufacturing?

There’s a perception that product manufacturing sustainability initiatives will increase costs and erode profits. However, many would argue it’s likely to be more expensive to ignore customer and regulatory pressures in the long run than to adopt sustainable business practices.

Although the initial investment to increase sustainability could be expensive, it will be offset in the long run by new market/customer opportunities, avoidance of “carbon taxes,” and a lower carbon footprint. Additionally, consumers are willing to pay a 12% premium, on average, according to a 2023 Bain study.


Related term:  embodied carbon

How are companies using sustainable manufacturing

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