Business Benefits Driving Sustainability Movement

Nov. 18, 2008
Always Green and Always Lean

For leading manufacturing companies, sustainability is more than just the latest green buzzword. While not necessarily connoting new business practices, the concept of sustainable production does provide a framework for prioritizing business investments as well as for communicating “green” corporate accomplishments to an increasingly environmentally conscious public.

“We’ve always been lean and green.” Coca-Cola’s Mark Lee discussed how his company’s drive for continuous improvement dovetails with the concepts and objectives of sustainable production.

“It’s a bit surprising that sustainability is being treated as something new,” said Coca-Cola’s Mark Lee, director of commercial product supply engineering. “It’s really just good business practice.”

 Indeed, for Lee and several other manufacturing professionals who participated in a panel discussion on sustainable production today at the Manufacturing Perspectives media event held in conjunction with Rockwell Automation’s Automation Fair event, sustainability in many ways does represent a rebadging of the manufacturing professional’s stock-in-trade: a continuous improvement process aimed at increasing efficiency, reducing waste, easing environmental impact and boosting workplace safety.

“Sustainability is part of the relentless pursuit of waste elimination,” Lee said. “It’s part of being a world-class manufacturing organization.”

And while much of the work may remain the same, society’s recent emphasis on all things green has manufacturing companies beginning to turn their attention outward. “Now we’re getting more outwardly focused,” Lee added, “helping our suppliers and partners become more sustainable.”

According to Joel Makower of Greener World Media, who addressed sustainability topics at Rockwell Automation’s Process Solutions User Group (PSUG) meeting on the previous day, manufacturing companies have long been reluctant to share what in many cases is dramatic progress on sustainability issues.

“Green marketing is only the tip of the iceberg relative to corporate activity,” Makower said. “Companies find that when they point out what they’ve done right, they often illuminate how far they have to go.”

But today, that’s changing. “It’s no longer good enough to have your safety record on the wall on the plant floor—now it’s on your Web site,” Lee added. “The work is the same, but the focus has shifted.”

At General Mills, they’re tackling the sustainability question by tallying each of the company’s many consumer products’ environmental footprint in terms of water consumption, waste, energy usage and greenhouse-gas contribution. “What’s shifted recently is that we now treat aspects of sustainability as ingredients in all our products, in every formula we make,” explained General Mills’ Jim Schulz, director of controls and information systems. The potential to improve any of these metrics is measured on pure economic merits—lower energy or waste disposal costs, for example. “The business benefit is the fuel that drives the engine,” Schulz said.

At Boeing, energy efficiency is a primary sustainability priority, according James Fonda, advanced technologist for networked systems technology. “Our Network-Enabled Manufacturing initiative is all about visibility. We want to be able to see where we can make a big difference,” Fonda said. “It’s not just sustainability, it’s also survivability.”

In most cases, what’s good for the environment turns out to be good for the bottom line too. “In the end, sustainability’s not about saving the earth,” Makower said. “It’s about building business value.”