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Sustainable Manufacturing Trends

5 Sustainable Manufacturing Trends To Look For as a Consumer

Sustainable manufacturing is defined as “the creation of manufactured products through economically-sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources.” From decreased waste production to reduced carbon footprints, there are myriad ways that sustainable manufacturing may benefit the environment. 

As worries about climate change grow, so too does consumer interest in sustainable manufacturing. 75% of British adults are concerned about the effects of climate change.  Further, adults who reported climate change anxiety are more likely to make lifestyle changes to help address it, despite the often higher cost of doing so. For many people, these changes involve purchasing eco-friendly products and supporting businesses that prioritize sustainable practices — including the processes they use to make their products.

While businesses take the lead, there are simple and effective ways you can promote these practices as a consumer. Further, you can still make environmentally-friendly purchases, even if you’re on a tight budget. If you want to support sustainable businesses that are making an effort to reduce the impacts of their manufacturing processes, be on the lookout for the following trends:

1. Manufacturing “At Home” in Smaller Batches

Look for businesses that manufacture their goods “at home,” or in the same country or locality where they plan to sell them. By producing at home, companies can significantly reduce the amount of time and resources needed to transport their products. With global trade being a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, any steps that businesses take to reduce the distances their products travel are beneficial. 

Additionally, manufacturing at home often requires businesses to produce goods in smaller amounts. Not only does this practice help reduce waste from unsold products, but it also decreases the amount of resources businesses need to create their products in the first place. 

Manufacturing in smaller batches also helps you as a consumer. Whether you order a custom phone case or personalised luggage, this also allows businesses to spend more time and energy on production. This allows for more personalization, as well as an elevated level of craftsmanship and quality for each product.

2. Using Recycled Materials and Recyclable Packaging

Pay attention to the materials that businesses use to create and package their products. Some companies are in the process of incorporating trash, recyclables, and other types of waste into their products; others have created entire product lines made from used or leftover materials. From toothbrushes to sleeping bags to sports equipment, you can now find countless items that are at least partially made up of waste materials.

Other organizations have focused on changing the materials used to package and ship their products. With a heavy reliance on single-use materials and unclear disposal practices, product packaging is thought to negatively impact the environment in multiple ways. This makes it a growing area of concern, propelling the search for more sustainable packaging alternatives —including the use of recycled and waste materials.

There are multiple environmental benefits of using recycled materials in these ways. This lessens the demand for resources to make new products and packaging to transport them. It also decreases the amount of waste created during the manufacturing process. Finally, when they’re made of recyclable materials, this minimizes the negative effects of disposing of the products and packaging when they’re no longer needed.

3. Investing in Biodegradable Plastics

Similarly, make note of any organizations that use biodegradable materials and plastics in their products, packaging, and processes. Biodegradable plastics are made of a blend of natural or raw materials, such as plants and microorganisms. They are also treated with certain chemicals to help them break down more quickly and thoroughly.

Plastic pollution is one of the most significant environmental issues of the modern age, harming the natural world at each stage of its lifecycle. The commercial sector is one of the biggest driving forces behind the massive consumption of single-use plastics. Recent research discovered that only 20 companies produce over 50% of the world’s plastic waste. Businesses can decrease their plastic footprint, and therefore their environmental impact, by using more biodegradable plastics. 

Though climate experts warn that biodegradable plastics are an incomplete solution, they may be a better alternative when plastic is necessary. They may become a more viable option in the future as researchers continue to improve biodegradable plastics, including what they’re made of and the processes used to create them. It’s crucial to support the organizations exploring these solutions if you want businesses to make the changes you, as a consumer, want to see.

4. Reducing Waste in Creative Ways

Some companies are taking additional steps to reduce the amount of waste they produce when manufacturing products. This may be as simple as repurposing materials or upcycling scraps or leftover resources, but some organizations are exploring less conventional methods. Some ideas include using technology to identify further waste reduction opportunities, decreasing errors or defects that make products unusable, and training employees about waste reduction. 

The circular economy is a waste reduction tactic that’s growing in popularity with both businesses and consumers. Businesses create products that are more durable and reusable; consumers purchase and use these goods, then repair, repurpose, or rehome them instead of throwing them away. This is most prominently seen in fashion, with many eco- and budget-minded shoppers turning to thrift stores, clothing swaps, and online reselling platforms to stay stylish. Other industries that make use of this model include furniture, home goods, automotive, and construction.

Some companies are collaborating with consumers to reduce waste. They may inform the public about how to extend the longevity of their products, such as making repairs. Some will even accept used products that customers no longer want or need, which allows them to repurpose and resell those items. Ultimately, these efforts show that a company isn’t just “talking the talk,” but that they are truly invested in reducing waste as an organization.

5. Offsetting Manufacturing Processes 

In some cases, businesses may not be able to make significant changes to their manufacturing processes. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t committed to sustainability or reducing their environmental impact. It just means that businesses have to look for other ways to do so — and one of the main methods is carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets allow organizations to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere by compensating for emissions made in another area of their business. So, for instance, if a business’ manufacturing process emits a certain amount of carbon dioxide, the business can offset those emissions by reducing or removing them somewhere else. Offsets can take many forms, such as investing in renewable energy sources, paying to plant trees, or cutting down emissions in another way, like transportation.

Not all offsets are created equal, and not all businesses use them as intended. Some may take advantage of this system. Rather than changing their behavior, they may continue to emit greenhouse gases because they can simply pay for it later. Of course, many organizations are more responsible, using offsets to reduce their overall emissions and incorporating them into their larger sustainability plans. Though it’s hard to learn how a given business handles offsets, it’s crucial to do your research so you can support companies that truly practice sustainable manufacturing.

How To Tell if a Company Practices Sustainable Manufacturing

Not all businesses have sustainable manufacturing processes. Some will even go so far as to practice “greenwashing,” wherein they misrepresent their company’s impacts on and efforts to help the environment. 

Unfortunately, greenwashing is more common than you may realize. Businesses that engage in greenwashing want to capitalize on the public’s interest in sustainability without making any meaningful changes to their processes.

As a consumer, it can be difficult to avoid greenwashing and support the organizations that are doing their best to make a positive difference. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to assess just how eco-friendly a product or company is:

  • Research: Always research the businesses you support. Many will try to project an eco-friendly image, even though they haven’t done anything to back their claims up. In your research, look for concrete ways that the business is doing its part to help the environment. At a minimum, visit the “About” page to learn more about a company, its sustainability efforts, and how to conduct further research.
  • Vague language: In addition, be wary of any businesses or products that use vague language to describe their sustainability efforts. This can include claims that are broad, difficult to understand, or undefined. It also encompasses empty  buzzwords, such as “green,” “environmentally-friendly,” “eco-conscious,” “natural,” and “ethical.” This vagueness is meant to mislead customers and encourage them to buy what they believe to be a “green” product, though there’s nothing green about it. 
  • Green images: Similarly, exercise caution when you encounter green imagery or idyllic branding on a product. Companies may use suggestive visuals — such as earthy tones or pictures of animals or outdoor scenery — to imply that the product is beneficial for the environment. Look for specific information and definitive statements about that product’s impacts on the packaging itself or the company’s website. 
  • Hidden trade-offs: Consider what a business isn’t saying about its product, or even for potential hypocrisies. Companies often only highlight the positive aspects of their products but fail to acknowledge the negative impacts. For example, a beauty company may proudly claim that their shampoo was created sustainably or with natural ingredients, but put the shampoo in a plastic bottle. That bottle may be made up of harmful chemicals, and it will likely become a plastic pollutant. Assess the entire lifespan of the product and try to determine all of the ways it may impact the environment.
  • Parent company: Don’t forget to look up the parent company of a given organization. Even if that business or brand is practicing sustainable manufacturing, the company that owns them might not be. To fully understand the environmental impacts of the brand or product at hand, you have to factor in the parent company, its processes, and its subsequent impacts too.

In general, prioritize purchases from companies that are transparent about their manufacturing process. Organizations that practice sustainable manufacturing know how their business affects the world and are trying to lessen that impact. They’ll have specific information about the steps they’re taking to accomplish their goals. If a business is genuinely invested in creating products more sustainably, they will happily share that information with their prospective customers to earn their trust.

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