What is Sustainable Manufacturing?

Sustainability model

A few years ago, the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM) held an annual policy meeting where one of the main discussion points was “sustainable manufacturing.”

But, what is sustainable manufacturing? And, how can manufacturers increase the sustainability of their own processes?

Defining Sustainable Manufacturing

The definition of sustainable manufacturing can change a little depending on who you ask.

For example, the United Nations website focuses on sustainable manufacturing as a form of manufacturing development that meets “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition of sustainable manufacturing focuses on the need to conserve for the sake of the future, avoiding wasteful practices that over-consume resources and leave the world in a diminished state that cannot support the needs of our children and the generations beyond.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, on the other hand, defines sustainable manufacturing as “the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers and are economically sound.”

This definition is a bit more in-depth than the UN one, calling for not only the conservation of resources, but for the preservation of the environment and promoting the safety of workers and the community at large. For the U.S. DOC, health and safety for people is also a part of sustainable manufacturing initiatives.

The NACFAM has a statement about sustainable manufacturing in that it’s about “financial profitability, social equity and environmental integrity.”

This addresses one of the great truths about sustainable manufacturing: not only must a sustainable model be “pro-world,” it has to be “real world” as well, with sustainability initiatives being financially feasible to maintain.

After all, if a business isn’t profitable, it will eventually have to close its doors. This puts people out of work, reducing the quality of life for the community as a whole when jobs dry up and there’s less circulation of commerce.

That being said, sustainable practices and profitable practices aren’t always mutually exclusive. There are things that businesses such as Marlin Steel have done to increase environmental friendliness, human quality of life, and profitability at the same time.

Increasing Profits and Employee Quality of Life

When Marlin’s current CEO first acquired the company back in 1998, the company had significant room for improvement in terms of sustainability.

At that time, workers did most tasks manually, and the labor was grueling. Not only that, but employees didn’t have health care and the work they did was minimum wage. Aside from the owner, nobody at the factory owned a car, they simply didn’t have the money for it.

Worse yet, many employees had permanent injuries from the job. Missing fingers and even eyes were not unknown among the 1998 Marlin workforce.

Changes had to be made. The introduction of new automation equipment eliminated a lot of the most dangerous labor, reducing the rate of injury among workers. Over time, other benefits were added to help improve employee quality of life, such as healthcare, retirement plans, and performance bonuses.

The improved quality of life for Marlin’s workers has also helped improve Marlin’s productivity. Each employee has the skills and motivation to continuously seek ways to improve Marlin’s production processes, helping to make Marlin a leaner, greener custom metal form manufacturer.

As an industry, manufacturing has the potential to help vastly improve the quality of life for Americans.

For example, Marlin hires local vendors whenever possible to support an urban neighborhood where the average household income is $36,000 a year. In manufacturing, the average salary is roughly $74,000 a year. Even better, manufacturing has a greater pound-for-pound impact on social equity because of the skills it employs and where it typically locates compares to other types of employment.

These aren’t dead-end jobs flipping burgers for minimum wage, they’re valuable careers that can be used to support a family and improve the quality of life for Americans. By creating strong, middle-class jobs, the manufacturing industry can literally build communities.

Making Manufacturing Safer for the Environment

Aside from improving quality of life for employees, Marlin has also found ways to improve both environmental and financial sustainability. Measures such as recycling scrap metal help Marlin save money on production, while also reducing the waste the Marlin plant produces.

Even Marlin’s automation helps improve the company’s eco-friendliness by reducing the number of parts rejections through improved consistency. This reduces scrap production even further while also reducing the amount of materials Marlin uses to fulfill a basket order, saving time and money.

The reduction in waste production benefits more than the environment, it can benefit the community as there is less pollution created that poses a health risk to citizens. Less landfills, more parks and recreation spots.

Ultimately, sustainability isn’t just about being greener for the environment’s sake alone. It isn’t enough to only focus on practices such as using only 100% recycled metals or cutting power use. Each of these sustainability initiatives has to be considered alongside the needs of the community and the business itself, or they won’t prove to be sustainable.

Great sustainability initiatives not only benefit the environment, but the people who work and do business with the company engaging in the “green” practice as well. Thankfully, Marlin Steel has found a pretty good balance between helping the environment and helping people, as the now-full parking lot (which once laid virtually empty) packed with employee-owned vehicles can attest.

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