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The sustainable business opportunity and why it matters more than ever

Sustainable Manufacturing Insights Series: how to align profit to a green business agenda.

Last updated: 07 Oct 2021 6 min read

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In the first event of the online series hosted by NatWest and WMG, specialists in sustainability and manufacturing shared their insight on what it means to develop a greener manufacturing industry, how businesses can take the first few steps, and innovative sustainability developments.

Key takeaways:

  • Sustainability and reducing your carbon footprint is critically important but many businesses still see it as a long-term ambition or not a top priority
  • Perceived cost barriers need to be reframed with the long-term savings and competitiveness benefits in mind 
  • The challenge of getting started can be overcome through effective knowledge sharing and industry collaboration     
  • Digital solutions and cloud analytics are two potential game changers 

Why sustainability needs to be top of the agenda for manufacturing businesses of all sizes

Whether you’re following climate change and sustainability from a science perspective or from a regulatory environment perspective, it is happening right now. Businesses can either choose to wait and react, or to take a proactive role and try to find a competitive advantage in doing so.

An audience poll during the event found that almost half (49%) saw sustainability as important but not their top priority, 27% saw it as a long-term ambition and 24% treated it as their number one priority. When asked about the main barriers to adopting more sustainable processes, the audience was most concerned about not knowing where to start and the perceived cost of implementation.

The main factors driving change include:

  • consumers increasingly expect businesses to care about sustainability, and that expectation is influencing their buying decisions
  • businesses need more sustainable and resilient supply chains, which is influencing what they buy and who they buy from
  • new sustainability-focused regulations are being introduced across manufacturing and other industries as the UK government aims to hit its target of reaching net zero by 2050
“The window of opportunity is right now. As the economy comes out of Covid, we face problems with supply chains around the world; we’re reconfiguring a lot of businesses right now, for lots of reasons. This is the perfect opportunity to embed sustainable change, so we grow with the new ways of working rather than continue with the old ones” – Professor David Greenwood, Director for Industrial Engagement, WMG

Demystifying the opportunity and cost factors

The growing pressure on businesses to be greener can make sustainability a daunting prospect for those who are yet to start. Some ignore the issue completely. Manufacturers, though, are by nature perfectly placed to lead positive change.

Demystification begins with translating sustainability jargon, such as ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon reduction’, into ideas manufacturers can relate to – and are often already on board with – such as reducing energy usage (and costs) and creating leaner production processes. 

Most of the steps that manufacturers need to take or are already taking will be vital for staying attractive to consumers and suppliers and staying competitive – which will ultimately be financially beneficial. Additionally, the cost benefits of sustainable actions like minimising travel can offset expensive long-term changes, such as green property improvements. It’s about taking a longer-term and more holistic view of the cost implications.

Manufacturers are already strong when it comes to improving processes and becoming more efficient – this is how they innovate and stay profitable. 

Getting started on your sustainability journey

The prospect of becoming sustainable can be daunting for those yet to make a start. Achieving sustainability won’t happen overnight, nor will it be the same process for every business – but there are some first steps that everyone can take.

  1. Business owners must first understand what sustainability means for them: go beyond a general understanding of the concept to identify the sustainable policy changes that will impact your business now and in the future. What value does your sustainability journey add for your stakeholders?
  2. Gaining and sharing knowledge: business owners must communicate their sustainability goals and challenges with employees, investors, other businesses and even customers.
  3. Identify the ‘low-hanging fruit’, including reducing energy use, choosing local suppliers and embracing flexible working to limit employee travel.
  4. Become part of the sustainability conversation: through collaboration and discussion, opportunities for positive change will follow. Positive action breeds positive action.
“This first step really creates a chain of opportunities because you become part of a national and international knowledge network. You start being part of the conversation with your local councils and with other businesses and their networks” – Dr Kathi Kaesehage, Lecturer in Climate Change and Business Strategy, University of Edinburgh Business School

Innovative sustainability developments to embrace 

As we look forward, sustainability will become even more important for manufacturing businesses, but also more achievable. Our specialists commented on the current and future developments in manufacturing sustainability, including:

1. Digital solutions: new technologies will make communication and transparency easier for manufacturers, boosting sustainability efforts across the supply chain.

“Changes in digital solutions will help make our supply chains, materials and products more visible. It opens doors for better communication, not just to our supply chains but also to our customers” – Dr Kathi Kaesehage, Lecturer in Climate Change and Business Strategy, University of Edinburgh Business School

2. Cloud analytics: new tools allow businesses to simulate manufacturing processes and find more opportunities for sustainable change. Cloud computing makes these technologies more accessible for smaller businesses.

“The possibility of simulation [means] you can design in sustainability by thinking about machines, factories and processes in simulation first, and factor in energy and carbon while doing so” – Brian Holliday, Managing Director, Digital Industries, Siemens

3. Cross-industry networks and knowledge: communication and collaboration will only become more important as the pressure on manufacturers to be sustainable grows.

“A lot of the solutions are out there, but typically in other manufacturing sectors. [For example] the chemical industry has got solutions to things that other industries are battling with; the food industry might be able to solve automotive issues. If everybody knew what everybody knows… I find that potential exciting” – Tony Harper, Industrial Strategy Challenge Director for the Faraday Battery Challenge, UK Research and Innovation

Watch highlights from the webinar:

If you would like to find out more about sustainable manufacturing solutions or how to make your business more sustainable, please speak to your Relationship Manager, contact WMG at wmgbusiness@warwick.ac.uk or submit an enquiry to the High Value Manufacturing Catapult at: hvm.catapult.org.uk/talk-to-us.

For SMEs,

there is also the opportunity to join like-minded businesses in the Sustainable Production Innovation Network – find out more here:

WMG SME Group | Sustainable Production Innovation Network (SPIN) (warwick.ac.uk)
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