Repainting the room green: How to become a ‘greener’ manufacturer

Posted on 12 May 2012

In an opinion piece, George Archer argues that it makes good business sense for manufacturers to implement sustainable working practices into their codes of conduct.

I recently attended an event hosted by the engineering firm Arup. One of the speakers was Pooran Desai, co-founder of BioRegional and international director of One Planet Communities. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr Desai over the phone after the event.

Pooran Desai, co-founder of BioRegional and international director of One Planet Communities
Pooran Desai, co-founder of BioRegional and international director of One Planet Communities

More than one way

According to Mr Desai, the opportunities for becoming more sustainable are growing as companies begin to offer fully-guaranteed sustainably-sourced materials and 100% ‘rego’-certified electricity (electricity generated from wind turbines and other zero-carbon energy generation sources).

While it’s not always cheaper to use companies that supply 100% rego-certified electricity, such as Ecotricity or Good Energy, it’s often better to rely on these companies rather than trying to generate all your zero-carbon energy on site. In fact, if not impossible, this can be extremely expensive.

“It’s certainly not always cheaper to use renewables, but they will come down in price as time goes on,” Desai comments.

Even though buying energy from companies like the ones mentioned above is often the best way to become sustainable, producing your own energy is certainly commendable. Harveys, a brewery in Lewes, has teamed up with energy services company Onvesco to install 544 solar panels on its roof. It’s estimated that the panels will generate 92 kilowatts at their peak, which totals around 98,000 kilowatt hours a year.

BioRegional, however, has a much broader understanding of how to help companies that have large manufacturing operations to go green.

“I believe there are two aspects to looking at the question of bigger factories. As a company, you can first of all approach things systematically; for example energy saving, material saving, using sustainable materials, installing insulation, installing on-site renewable energy generation and changing working practices,” says Desai.

“But, also look as we develop new manufacturing facilities – how are they going to help people lead more sustainable lives? Are the products they actually produce going to increase the sustainability of their lives?”

I believe this is an extremely important consideration for manufacturers to make. While you can buy all your electricity from Ecotricity, pump all your waste heat into a greenhouse that grows tomatoes and ensure that all your rubber comes from a sustainably-managed rubber tree forest, are the cars you’re selling going to help the customer that buys them lead a sustainable lifestyle? Unless they are hybrid or electric-powered cars, the answer is probably no.

Bioregional takes care to approach saving energy and sustainability from as many angles as possible

Sustainable procurement

Another point that Desai raised at the Arup event was sustainable supply chains. The BioRegional approach is one that looks at the whole chain – ‘up and downstream’.

Desai points out that as we enter a more resource-constrained world, “[Manufacturers] are opening [themselves] up for risk. This came through very strongly at Davos in January. Whether its rare-earth metals for the computer industry or timber for companies like B&Q – they are important considerations in terms of risk right now.”

He adds: “There are other materials like palm oil, for example, which is started to be certified as to whether it’s coming from sustainably managed sources or not. These are going to come to the fore.”

So while implementing changes like the ones mentioned above is relatively instantaneous and just requires a different company policy, changing workers’ habits and the habits of your customers (being somewhat of a Holy Grail) is a lot harder. Ensuring lights and machinery are switched off when not in use can have a major effect on energy consumption, according to Desai.

In the same vein, the overall idea that came across from most speakers at the Arup event was that to increase profits, decrease carbon emissions and become an altogether better business, manufacturers had to not only change the behaviour of their employees and themselves, but work as hard as possible to make sure the behavioural changes ‘stuck’.

Public perceptions of sustainability

Tom Delay, CEO Carbon Trust and Gary Neville
Tom Delay, CEO Carbon Trust and Gary Neville at the exhibition

A recent exhibition hosted by The Carbon Trust illustrated how much the world is changing in terms of perceptions of climate change and the need to act in a sustainable way, whether you are a firm worth many billions of dollars or just an individual.

The exhibition came just after the release of research commissioned by the Carbon Trust and carried out by TNS that showed young adults in Eastern countries such as China and South Korea are leading the call for brands to reduce their impact on the environment.

83% of young people questioned in China say they would be more loyal to a brand if they could see it was reducing its carbon footprint, compared to 73% in Korea, 55% in the UK and 57% in the USA. 60% of Chinese young adults who participated in the research say they would stop buying a product if its manufacturer refused to commit to measuring and reducing its carbon footprint, followed by 57% in Brazil, 53% in Korea and 35% and 36% in the US and UK respectively.

Let’s repaint

As Pooran Desai argues, it’s not just about changing working practices but also the general public’s attitudes towards sustainability – just look at the way B&Q engages with its customers. If consumers stopped buying petrol-hungry cars, the company that sells them would be forced to take notice and begin manufacturing a range of electric and hybrid vehicles.

Equally, if manufacturers want to stay ahead of the game, I believe this is the perfect opportunity for them to become greener.