Planet, purpose, profit: Manufacturers can’t afford to ignore net zero

Posted on 18 Mar 2024 by The Manufacturer

The inaugural AMRC Summit on Net Zero Manufacturing, held late last year, delivered stark warnings, impactful presentations and thought-provoking panel discussions as attendees grappled with the pressing challenge of our time. Jonny Williamson reports.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change. We have spent decades acting as if global warming was a distant concern in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. To paraphrase Mike Berners Lee, if we haven’t yet crossed the climate Rubicon, we find ourselves on the bank with one foot raised.

“If aliens were looking down at our planet and saw the data we can see, they’d ask what the hell are they doing,” said Mike, author of There is No Planet B and How Bad Are Bananas? In his forthright address at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) Summit: Net Zero Manufacturing, Mike pointed out a stark reality. Despite 28 COP conferences, global greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption haven’t seen a significant reduction; quite the opposite, in fact.

There is a growing sense of urgency but we need to reshape the climate change narrative, he urged. Echoing Juergen Maier’s sentiments during dinner the previous evening, Mike highlighted the surge in anti-net zero populism and the noticeable watering down of climate policies. Despite claims that we are moving too quickly and calls to slow down, Mike and Juergen were both emphatic that, in reality, our progress is far from quick enough. They were equally unequivocal that manufacturing has a critical role to play in achieving net zero.

As was Steve Foxley, CEO of the University of Sheffield AMRC, who emphasised: “It is time for industry to take a leadership role. There is a gap, and it is time for manufacturing to step into that.” The manufacturing industry has “all the key ingredients” to secure a prosperous, sustainable and long-term future, he continued. With a workforce of 2.6 million people in the UK, the sector provides a substantial opportunity to drive positive change if we can engage and empower our workers.

“What UK manufacturing achieved during COVID-19 showcased the transformative power of open collaboration, local sourcing, knowledge transfer and focused, cross-functional, agile teams,” Steve noted.

“The delivery of ten years’ worth of ventilators in little more than ten weeks was a truly remarkable achievement. There is so much untapped potential within UK manufacturing that could and should be harnessed to drive the low carbon transition.”

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Embrace your accountability

There’s no escaping the responsibility of addressing climate change and acknowledging the impact of our decisions, actions and operations. However, it’s crucial to recognise that you can’t bear the entire burden. Focusing on what you can control, such as managing and reducing your carbon footprint, optimising your processes and minimising your overall environmental impact, can make a significant difference. The biggest lever any of us can pull is demand reduction, advised Mike.

That means using less energy, materials and carbon and being much more efficient with what we do use. “For manufacturing, there are challenges right across the sector, including the generation of our renewable energy sources, storage, transmission processes and their application. Most of our transport sources also need to be re-worked.

“Every corner of manufacturing needs to be not just more efficient, but must employ different energy sources to the ones it’s using today.” It won’t be easy, he continued, and it starts with embedding net zero and sustainable thinking in every corner of your business, defining your company culture and guiding every action you take. Fortunately, there is a vocal desire from the UK manufacturing community to do just that, said Katherine Bennett, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, of which the AMRC is a part.

That sentiment is reflected in Make UK’s research showing that 68% of manufacturers have already made business investments and a further 32% are planning to do so. Furthermore, three in four manufacturers cite energy efficiency as their main pathway to decarbonise their processes. Alongside the environmental imperative, two in three manufacturers, 68%, also see net zero as a commercial opportunity for their business. According to Make UK’s latest Executive Survey, 26% of manufacturers are actively looking to net zero opportunities to boost growth in 2024, with 13% seeing value chain opportunities associated with green targets.

This highlights the need to keep the UK’s transition to net zero firmly on the agenda, and to continue making the case for net zero initiatives that can help the UK’s economic path to prosperity and growth, said Brigitte Amoruso, Make UK’s Senior Climate Change Specialist.

Soaring to new heights

The UK has made significant strides in reducing carbon emissions over the past three decades, largely credited to the shift away from coal and the increased adoption of renewables, particularly offshore wind. However, Steve Foxley stressed that the real work lies ahead.

The UK must achieve the same level of carbon savings but three times faster and without banking the same savings achieved through decarbonising the energy sector. Overcoming this complex challenge demands tough decisions and bold strategies, along with substantial public and private investments in new technologies and infrastructure. Importantly, it’s also not a matter of waiting for opportunities to be handed to you, it requires proactive and decisive actions. An apt example of such proactive innovation is the pioneering Airlander airship designed and built by Bedford-based Hybrid Air Vehicles.

According to CEO Tom Grundy, the Airlander isn’t merely a net zero aircraft, it surpasses existing aircraft, offering a range of improved and new services across transport, logistics, communications, surveillance and ‘experiential travel’ like tours to the North Pole. The latest model, Airlander 10, reportedly boasts a five-day airborne capability, the ability to land on land, sea or water and a 600 yard take off distance. With a ten tonne maximum payload and a 4,000 mile range, the Airlander produces only 25% of a plane’s carbon emissions, a figure set to drop to zero with the introduction of a fully electric version in the near future.

Presently, Hybrid Air Vehicles is working to establish its Airlander production facility in Doncaster. The £310m investment is expected to create more than 1,200 jobs and provide a significant boost to the South Yorkshire economy. Highlighting that a finger-wagging approach has proven to be ineffective, Brigitte said we need to become more adept at demonstrating and communicating the growth opportunities and benefits of decarbonisation and net zero.

This holds particularly true for small and medium-sized enterprises, as Martin McKervey, Chairman of Rotherham-based manufacturer AESSEAL, pointed out. The vast majority (96%), of private sector businesses in the UK employ ten or fewer people and need more support.

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Rising to the challenge

Manufacturers of all sizes face growing pressure to report on their environmental impact and sustainability commitments. While larger organisations often boast dedicated departments for mapping out their sustainability journey, the same level of resource isn’t always available to smaller companies. Steve West, Director of Flint-based SME bakery, The Pudding Compartment, highlighted that elevated business costs pose a significant barrier to progress. For many SMEs, the immediate concern revolves around meeting monthly wage bills, overshadowing the broader goal of achieving net zero status by 2050.

The Pudding Compartment has harnessed the power of Industry 4.0 technologies to enhance productivity and reduce emissions, benefitting from the support provided by AMRC Cymru and Airbus as part of the Ffatri (factory) 4.0 project, funded by the Welsh government. This collaboration has been transformative for the small bakery, granting access to cutting-edge tools and innovations typically beyond the reach of most SMEs, Steve noted.

A comprehensive carbon footprint analysis of The Pudding Compartment’s supply chain revealed the greatest contributors to the company’s emissions. From here, a scenario modelling and target-setting tool pinpointed strategic areas for improvement. With digital tools becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, Steve underscored the importance of using language that resonates with SMEs. “It’s about education and knowledge. Most people in my role are so busy ensuring they’re paying the bills that they don’t make the time.” Steve stressed that framing conversations in terms of immediate gains, like saving 20% of your electricity bill, is more effective than focusing on long-term net zero targets set for 2050.

Turn insights into action

Not all digital tools and technologies were perfect for The Pudding Compartment’s operations, however, the ones implemented yielded almost immediate returns on investment. A prime example is the deployment of sensors in fridges and freezers, marking a departure from traditional manual data collection methods. This shift not only improved data accuracy but also revealed operational inefficiencies, such as appliances running colder than necessary – an insight carrying both financial and environmental implications.

Steve shared a compelling example illustrating how this data-driven approach could have prevented significant financial losses. In the past, a freezer malfunction over the weekend resulted in a £20,000 loss of stock. Today, with real-time alerts in place, such issues can be swiftly addressed, preventing downtime and financial setbacks. Steve outlined a two-step approach for businesses embarking on a similar path:

“Get knowledge – make use of available tools to gather crucial data about your operations. Then, make practical changes – apply the insights gained to implement tangible improvements in day-to-day processes.” These steps, he emphasised, show a pragmatic and attainable roadmap for SMEs to not only achieve their sustainability goals but also enhance operational efficiency and resilience in the face of unforeseen challenges.

He concluded: “My perspective of being an SME is that you won’t be in business long if you don’t continue to improve. All leadership, at whatever level, has to be willing to change and give your team the permission to get it wrong. You have to have that sort of culture.”


  • Make time to step back and put together a plan
  • Prioritise actions that reduce energy demand
  • Fully understand what you want to achieve before setting targets
  • Use clear communication and engage your entire workforce
  • Use data to inform decisions and drive sustainable practices
  • Make sustainability a non negotiable aspect of operations

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