How Manufacturers are Addressing the Concept of Sustainability Today

Research shows sustainability is top of mind for many business leaders around the world. AIA partner Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope explores approaches manufacturers are taking 30 years after its inception.

Today’s climate poses rapidly changing requirements for businesses from health and safety protocols to environmental considerations. Over 33 years since the United Nations’ (U.N.) Brundtland Report introduced sustainability, it has increasingly become a strategic driver in the business community.

A recent Accenture Strategy, “CEO Study on Sustainability,” proves this point and highlights what’s top of mind when it comes to sustainability, specifically for those in the C-suite around the world. The study of 1,000 top executives across 21 industries and 99 countries shows that CEOs understand the value of sustainability as a business driver. According to the study:

    • 99% of CEOs from companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue believe sustainability will be important to the future success of their business while 67% considered it to be “very important”
    • 76% of CEOs say citizen trust will be critical to their businesses, and almost half say it is fueling their enhanced sustainability efforts
    • 71% of CEOs believe that with increased commitment and action, their business can play a critical role in contributing to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, also known as Global Goals

The survey also includes critical viewpoints and reveals concerns about how factors beyond their control are impeding progress toward their sustainability goals. Nonetheless, the study reinforces that sustainability remains a central focus for most CEOs and will play a vital part in their corporate strategy for years to come, a sentiment Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope shares. This has led us to explore what major manufacturers, like us, are doing to address sustainability today.

How do manufacturers approach sustainability today?

In business, there’s little or no consensus when defining sustainability. And, without consensus on a clear definition, many businesses craft definitions to suit their individual needs. In general, there are three approaches manufacturing companies have traditionally taken over the years.

Opportunistic. Leverages public eco-awareness and defines sustainability based on the business and market strategy.

Spirit focused. Uses a definition that captures the spirit of sustainability, applying the term “sustainable” to actions that are environmental improvements, such as recycling.

Original intent. Base the concept on the original working definition established by the Brundtland Report: “Meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations.”

Which is the best approach?

In 1987, the U.N. originally intended to find balance in its definition of sustainability between diametrically opposite world views held by developed and undeveloped nations. On one hand, the business-as-usual camp believed in unrestricted growth while the zero-growth camp feared environmental devastation following a population explosion. Ultimately, the Brundtland definition accepted the premise of growth, but with one caveat: Do so without diminishing future generations’ ability to meet their needs as well.

Relating this to manufacturing, experts assert there are seven requirements that need to be met:

    1. The product must be made from renewable material that can continuously be cycled in a closed loop, such as recyclable or compostable matter.
    2. The product must be non-toxic in use and disposal and must not disrupt the ecosystem.
    3. In those cases where external energy is required to power the product, the product must be powered by means of a renewable energy source.
    4. The product must be manufactured by means of a renewable energy source.
    5. The product must be transported by means of a renewable energy source.
    6. The product must be manufactured by a process that does not release toxins or disrupt the ecosystem.
    7. Consumption cannot outpace responsible (sustainable) production.

Unless all seven requirements are met, a manufacturer will fall short in some manner in meeting the original intent of sustainability.

How are companies realizing the original intent?

With our established technology and infrastructure, the seven requirements almost feel impossible to achieve. And, add in the economics needed to achieve this, it is clear why CEOs believe sustainability is being impeded by factors beyond their control. Regardless, any accomplishment resulting from a sustainability program does not mean the business can declare it or itself “sustainable”; rather, each success is one more step on their journey toward sustainability — each achievement is gaining ground on the absolute goal.

Whether a company pursues a sustainability program based on the spirit of sustainability or one aligned with the original Brundtland definition, the planet and all inhabitants still benefit. What is important is that manufacturers understand the total impacts of their materials and processes and develop strategies to continuously reduce harm. This can be accomplished while maintaining, and often improving, profitability. But, it cannot be accomplished unless sustainability becomes central to the company’s core values. Through vision, education, and a focused effort, manufacturers can learn how to bring value through their products and services without the need to sacrifice the natural environment that sustains us all.