All you need is less: How manufacturers can boost carbon efficiency

Posted on 12 Sep 2023 by The Manufacturer

With so much analysis reporting that numbers on carbon emissions aren't adding up and even technology and manufacturing giants accused of greenwashing to boot, it can be hard not to feel that fighting off the climate crisis might be unrealistic or even impossible.

Fleur Doidge is contributing writer to The Manufacturer and
Fleur Doidge is contributing writer to The Manufacturer and

However, Gordon Macrae, Special Projects Manager at Yorkshire-based wire joining and tensioning systems provider Gripple, said the overall picture is what’s important. Having accurate numbers to hand is not necessarily critical to an organisation’s success in carbon reduction. “What every business should be doing today, irrespective of having the correct data or not, is reduce, reuse, recycle,” said Gordon. He added that many manufacturers have cottoned on to the benefits of data collection and data strategy for reducing emissions in-house. Yes, it’s still hard to get accurate figures on partners and supply chains for Scope 3 or embodied carbon, which typically means all materials used that contribute to the operation and comprise the major contribution to emissions by any organisation.

However, Gordon added that as long as the overall direction of travel is focusing on reducing materials use wherever possible, then reusing everything you can and looking to recycle the remainder, as an organisation you’re helping reduce contributions to the increase of CO2 equivalent emissions in our atmosphere. The approach can work even when you cannot get full transparency of your overall supply chain.

“Reducing at Gripple has been based around using less energy and less materials, and we’ve designed product solutions that use 25% less material. If you use 25% less material broadly, you’re going to cut those emissions,” he explained. “The same applies to packaging.” Gripple also looks at where business opportunities can align. The company has already spawned a new business making returnable packaging, further increasing the share of materials reused. Already, it’s “really viable”, turning over around £20m a year.

Emissions reduction through innovation

Gripple has also built up a product group for anchoring systems for matting that allows vegetation to be planted on, for example, defensive levees against flooding and constructions to prevent soil erosion – another cause of emissions. “These are all the sorts of things you can do today, and it is beholden on manufacturers. But, I am quite critical of the government not putting enough money into the knowledge base to give us a better understanding of using alternative materials and recycling,” Gordon added. “Our products are often all about having to meet performance requirements, and that’s often one of the reasons why you have to use virgin material.”

He conceded that Gripple is fortunate because it’s vertically integrated, enabling the manufacturer to take components used when building machines and redeploy them in a different machine, or somewhere else. “A big challenge is that 80% of our products go into construction which is much more difficult to deal with. There’s some work to do there,” he added. Instead of focusing on the latest numbers, manufacturers can make progress by becoming more open, sharing peer-to-peer information about experiences, providers and collaborative efforts to develop more collective thinking and innovation, for instance among users of heavy metals based in Sheffield in Gripple’s case. “Manufacturers aren’t very good at sharing information and best practice. Yet this is a much bigger challenge than individual companies. It should be to everyone’s benefit if we can find better ways of doing things,” he continued.

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Picture courtesy of Erlend Ekseth – Unsplash

Organisations such as the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA) have been hammering home the point that stepping outside the office to speak to local people beyond the business can help find synergies. By sharing information and collaborating on practical solutions, even more resource use can be reduced and materials reused or recycled. The pros and cons of current transport infrastructure can restrain manufacturing efforts to cut emissions. Why not work together to lobby for or apply for funding for better cycling and pedestrian facilities? Or employees at different businesses might club together to reduce emissions from their work commute through car-pooling, for example. Can materials, water or energy used by a factory be redeployed for cooling assets at some other operation or even in residential areas?

Work with what and who you know

Tasha Lyth, Sustainability Manager at Gripple, recommended the approach of stepping outside the door and talking to people. If a business can figure out what’s going on locally, there can be a real chance to develop mutually beneficial solutions. “If instead you spend 12 months trying to establish your starting point with data, by then your information is probably no longer relevant for the current business position,” she pointed out. People you have in-house also often have knowledge that isn’t leveraged, including in relation to where resources are wasted. When cost savings can be coupled up, the result can be “environmental savings all day long” and you are almost certainly reducing your environmental impact.

Lyth added: “Ultimately, if you’ve got experienced people who know your business, then they will also know what material means to the business. If I sit down with our senior leadership team and ask where they think our carbon hotspots are, they might not have the numbers in front of them, but they will certainly be able to identify those areas,” she said. Tasha went on to highlight that the need to calculate emissions or perform weightings of carbon can feel like “some kind of dark art” when actually it’s just conversion factors that are manageable by a “fairly savvy” Excel user without significant training. Simply identify the right people and show them what’s needed, and you can be well on the way to figuring out your emissions.

“If you are wanting to set a net zero or carbon neutrality target, you need to have numbers to back it up. So if you want to embark on that public commitment, there is probably a reasonable amount of data work to do for a couple of months,” added Tasha. “However, if you just want to do the right thing, there’s absolutely no requirement to make that public commitment and reducing emissions can just be part of your business culture. It’s about making a start and being bold.” Gripple does its key data collection as part of its reporting period at the start of the year. By each March the company aims to have the full carbon emissions account and set for the previous year. That gives the organisation enough good information to figure out whether its reductions and savings are on track and to scope out the next steps to keep the momentum going. Tasha added: “We also have dashboards and information currently live within the business that’s used internally. We don’t share that information but we use it to drive behaviour and change.”

Work with suppliers on data

To achieve a fully data-driven and compliance approach, Mike Hardisty, Head of Environmental Sustainability at Engineering UK, said it can become essential to tackle supply chain partners directly. Actually ask the supplier about its environmental achievements and initiatives, and consider whether they sound substantive or more like window-dressing. “Check if the supplier has an environmental management system that meets ISO 14001 or similar,” Mike said. Product claims can often be independently verified by a respected third-party. Construction products and materials, for example, can come with an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) of the environmental impact associated with each unit of product. “EPDs cover a pre-defined scope to avoid suppliers under-calling the impact by choosing to ignore certain areas. As an example, at EngineeringUK we only use paper that has been certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC),” said Hardisty. Manufacturers can also request that their supplier submits their corporate emissions data to the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) and sets a carbon reduction target through the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi).

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Picture courtesy of Marcin Jozwiak  – Unsplash

“Adopt an internationally recognised carbon reporting framework, such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol) or ISO14064-1. Engineering UK adopted the former,” he continued. “The basic [carbon emissions] calculations are quite straightforward although getting the right data often isn’t.” He warned that all 13 Scope 3 categories of emissions must be considered if nothing significant is to be missed. This suggests that many manufacturers may need to invest in special training for one or two people and a potential investment in third-party computer software – such as Emitwise for automotive, FMCG or packaging, OneClick LCA for construction projects or Watershed for consumer goods and supply chains. “Consider developing EPDs for your own products, both to see how they compare and to better understand how you can reduce the impact of your products. This will require specialist software or outsourcing to specialist carbon consultancies,” Hardisty added.

Luke Walsh, Managing Director at Liverpool industrial communications specialist Brainboxes, commented that the firm has been accredited with ISO 140001 for years and for sustainability via EcoVardis. “However, internally we see this as a small step, validating where we currently are and setting a pathway to demarcate future improvement.” He added that smaller manufacturers especially, can struggle to impose supply chain compliance and restraints, with suppliers not necessarily offering transparency when asked and as a result, like Gripple, the company is focusing on internal transparency first and aiming to influence the supply chain by example. “Brainboxes now monitors and exposes all energy consumption data to all staff within the organisation,” Luke said.

At Brainboxes, sharing is caring

Brainboxes is using its own industrial communication and monitoring expertise in-house alongside a view of cost and the carbon footprint. “We display this data in our foyer, next to the coffee machine. When taking a break, staff will often review the data and suggest improvements to management,” Luke revealed. For example, sequencing start-up of the machines each morning on the production line, turning the compressor off during stocktake when not required or turning the air-con up 1oC. Brainboxes also made the tools it uses to do this open source and are available on its website, so customers and suppliers alike can implement this for themselves for a low investment.

“However, let’s not forget this is just the beginning of the journey; no business has cracked this yet. It’s a multidecade process,” Luke noted. He added: “We’ve seen many challenges in understanding how sustainability affects our supply chain.” That includes when talking with plastic enclosure suppliers to understand how Brainboxes can source sustainable alternatives, or with its packaging supplier, clarifying what claims it can make on the box for the percentage of recycled materials involved. Luke stressed that this is tougher for SMEs, as large suppliers don’t necessarily feel obliged to deliver greater transparency. Yet it is possible to deliver rapid results, reduced costs and return on investment, even if your budget is relatively small. David Lowen, UK Lead Business Manager, ABB Electrification explained: “Improving industrial energy efficiency is the fastest and most effective way for a business to cut energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Sophisticated products are available 

Of course, ABB offers a range of products aimed at reducing electricity costs, such as ABB Ability Energy and Asset Manager, and building towards a fully sustainable future will ultimately entail a full understanding of energy consumption by the organisation. “An energy audit can pinpoint areas of opportunity, identifying how and where the business is using and wasting energy,” David said.

He recommended devoting some time to plot a long-term shift to, for example, clean and sustainable electricity. Even relatively small organisations might in future contribute on-site to renewable energy generation and micro-grids. Meanwhile, “galvanise the workforce”, so everyone’s decisions on energy use can be improved. ABB manufacturing facilities have reduced energy costs and carbon emissions using its own tech, creating a blueprint for others to follow. David explained that its Dalmine factory in northern Italy, for example, has used tech upgrades and digitalisation to reduce its own emissions by 25%. “Energy efficiency improvements in particular have extremely attractive returns on investment and payback periods that only increase as energy prices rise,” he said. “Greenwashing claims shouldn’t hold back manufacturers from conserving energy and meeting their sustainability targets.”


• Scope 3 (embodied carbon) emissions from partners and across supply chains are the toughest to calculate

• There’s no need to wait for accurate data – what matters is to head in the right direction

• Reduce materials use everywhere you can, working with what you know and can learn

• Reuse materials wherever reduction isn’t possible, and recycle what’s left

• Innovate internally and externally to create approaches to increase the overall amounts you reduce, reuse and recycle.

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