As we focused on the need for critical thinking, and how to optimize it, over the past two weeks, the topic shifts to the following humanist commitment of environmentalism. The industry has come a long way since the early days of my career. Often new plants were built on greenfield sites to avoid significant environmental damage found at brownfield locations. Back then, manufacturing sites allowed hazardous waste to leach into the soil on their properties, or they would dump waste coolant into the waterway behind the plant. A classic example is that the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio caught on fire at least a dozen times. I am not so naïve that I do not think similar actions are not still happening at some plant locations, particularly in third-world countries, but it is markedly improved in the last forty years. While things are better, there is continuing room for improvement.
“We're running the most dangerous experiment in history right now, which is to see how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere... can handle before there is an environmental catastrophe.” - Elon Musk
The manufacturing sector is responsible for repairing past harm and preventing further damage to avoid what Musk describes as an “environmental catastrophe.” The manufacturing industry can significantly help to improve the environment for those working in their plants, in their neighborhood, and for the world. During a trip to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a park ranger shared that the eruption blew out the side of the mountain. Ash first fell there immediately and then on the opposite side two days later after circumnavigating the globe. We must understand that environmental harm that happens anywhere in the world eventually impacts us. For this reason, we must look at how to significantly lessen any adverse industry environmental harm that occurs anywhere on earth.
McKinsey & Company research presents the significant harm occurring globally due to climate change. Failing to reduce emissions dramatically will negatively impact hundreds of millions of global citizens, put world natural and physical capital at risk, and cost trillions of dollars of lost economic benefit—a 2021 report by Watershed shares that we emit 50 gigatons of CO2 each year. Scientists share a need to collectively have a net-zero carbon impact by 2050 at the latest. Watershed recommends a three-step process of:
1. Measure the complete footprint to include 1) business travel, 2) commuting, 3) customers, 4) electricity, 5) natural gas, 6) purchase, and 7) capital investments.
2. Begin to implement initiatives to reduce emissions in all areas of impact, including the supply chain requirement for carbon reduction in the Request For Proposal, power all buildings with zero-carbon electricity, create a low-carbon workplace, and build decarbonization into products.
3. Get to net-zero through carbon offsets, carbon removal, and the development of science-based targets.
Along the way, Watershed recommends reporting the progress to employees and what has been learned at other companies to accelerate the positive progress toward achieving this necessary net-zero goal. Older individuals will remember that the science and technology involved in the space race spun off many side projects and benefits; a modern “climate race” or “planet race” will do the same, leading to new technologies and conveniences that today we cannot even imagine.
Vincent Van Gogh provided good advice of “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Ørsted A/S is a green energy company that, in ten years, went from using the most fossil fuels by an energy company in Europe to number one on the Corporate Knights 2020 Global 100 index of most sustainable corporations. They have a goal to be a carbon-neutral company by 2025 and have reduced carbon emissions by 86% over the past decade. These remarkable results have been accomplished as a series of small things, as they continue to phase out coal energy plants and become a global leader in offshore wind power. CEO Henrik Poulsen of Ørsted A/S is leading this green energy company to develop a high-performance bar for others to reach. The company has a 300 to 400 points higher return on capital than the average in Europe. The company has a higher purpose than profitability, yet it has become more profitable.
There is an opportunity to improve existing environmental concerns. This list was selected to represent many enhanced by embracing the humanist manufacturing framework. The five chosen issues were impacted in part by manufacturing:
1. Deforestation – The level of deforestation decreased overall from 2010 to 2020. However, the Amazon rainforest deforestation grew by forty-seven percent, exacerbating concern with the impact of that rainforest on oxygen production and carbon cycles. Other nations with high deforestation rates include Honduras, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Companies working to reduce this harmful practice are L’Oréal for sourcing palm oil and 100% recyclable packaging. McDonald’s is committed to ending deforestation by procuring beef, coffee, fiber supply chains, palm oil, and poultry from more sustainable sources.
2. Air pollution – Human activity negatively impacts air pollution through fossil fuel burning for electrical generation, heating and cooling, and motor vehicles. Using clean energy technology to reduce pollutants, switching to non-toxic materials, and more effectively utilizing enterprise planning techniques can lead to lower levels of air pollution.
3. Global warming – A positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant impact on automobile travel as higher numbers of employees worked from home. The hole in the ozone layer closed over Antarctica. The carbon dioxide from air pollution is a cause of increased ambient temperatures that leads to the increased number of large wildfires, significant flooding, and erratic weather patterns.
4. Water pollution – Although seventy-one percent of the earth is covered with water bodies, only three percent of it is freshwater essential to human and planet health. Manufacturing operations can cut water use by reviewing their water strategy from input to discharge, respecting it as a valuable resource, developing ways to reuse and recycle current water usage, and implementing production technology that reduces or eliminates the need for water cooling systems.
5. Natural resource depletion – As the world population grows, the already stressed materials used in manufacturing will become more problematic. There is a limited supply of rare earth minerals, and the alternative of potential mining on meteorites or planets is a less desirable option than to better utilize those here on our planet. We should employ manufacturing practices that extract materials more environmentally sound, produce products more efficiently, find alternatives to processes that consume large amounts of natural resources, use the solid waste from other processes as raw materials for different processes, and develop products with high durability, minimal resource usage, and recyclability.
These are just a few examples of global environmental issues and potential solutions. The exciting news is that many innovations emerge daily to lessen ecological harm.
It is beautiful that lessening environmental damage nets better financial success for an organization when doing the right thing. Manufacturing.net shares an example where one company focused on eliminating 14 hazardous waste streams. The work netted a reduction in waste disposal from $750k to $40k a year. Unilever in December of 2019 had a 47% per ton reduction in water usage in their factories versus their 2008 baseline. The result surpassed their targeted 2020 volume by 40% per ton and achieved two years ahead of schedule, leading to environmental benefits and cost reductions. You may find significant savings at your own company that will simultaneously allow your company to be a more responsible member of the greater community in which you operate.
To avoid a potential “environmental catastrophe” itself would seem reasonable enough justification to make changes to reduce harm in manufacturing practices. For those where that is not sufficient rationale to take positive steps to improve the environment, it also has the potential to be financially beneficial.
The TED Talk Let the environment guide our development by Johan Rockström shares a compelling case for changing our past harmful environmental impact. Despite being presented in 2010, all that he covers remains relevant. Thankfully many manufacturing companies are beginning to take the first step, where some have taken many of them, as seen in the examples in this blog post.
I continue to be grateful for the pacesetters in shifting to environmentally friendly manufacturing operations. Leaders like CEO Henrik Poulsen of Ørsted A/S not only made the shift early but have now shown those that follow him that it pays in multiple ways to be truly green.
Next week's blog will integrate humanist principles into leaders’ roles, shifting to understanding the importance of the humanist commitment to empathy.
To learn more about our work or read more blog posts, visit emmanuelstrategicsustainability.com.
Cover Image Credit: Pixabay