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Manufacturing Industries Show Sustainability Is Not Just for Risk Management

Manufacturing Industries Show Sustainability Is Not Just for Risk Management

By Dr. Jean Rogers, PhD, PE
Founder & CEO, SASB

At least since 1798, when Thomas Malthus identified exponential population growth as a harbinger of humanity’s doom, the concept of sustainability has often been associated with apocalyptic rhetoric. In recent years, however, business leaders and investors alike have begun to embrace sustainability for its upside potential.

There’s a growing awareness that large-scale challenges—such as climate change, resource constraints, urbanization, and global demographic shifts—require equally large-scale solutions. That’s why the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) aims to harness the power of the capital markets to address these issues head-on. Our standards will help facilitate the flow of capital to those companies that are not only best positioned to manage sustainability risks, but those prepared to capitalize on sustainability opportunities.

At the end of March, SASB issued standards for five industries in the Resource Transformation sector, including Aerospace & Defense, Chemicals, Containers & Packaging, Electrical/Electronic Equipment, and Industrial Machinery & Goods. Although our research shows that these industries are exposed to their share of potential risks—most notably in the areas of energy, waste, and supply chain management—they also face plenty of upside opportunity for innovation and growth.

Opportunity Knocks

Resource Transformation is a sector that is responsible for manufacturing consumer and industrial goods at a massive scale—everything from the planes we ride in to the packages we ship things in. Population growth and the expansion of the global middle class has led to greater demand for these products, which means more manufacturing, more energy consumption, more resource use, and more waste. As a result, the sector is uniquely positioned to help tackle some of the greatest challenges the world faces today, from carbon emissions to overstressed water sources to natural resource depletion.

Generally speaking, the Resource Transformation sector is made up of mature, concentrated (or consolidating) industries with high entry barriers and low competition. As a result, much of their innovation has been reactive, in response to emerging regulation, and focused on process efficiencies to achieve scale and preserve margins in the face of commoditization. However, SASB research indicates significant opportunities for proactive, product-focused innovation as customer preferences shift and demand grows along with the global middle class.

For example:

Answering the Call

Some companies have already begun to explore these opportunities, focusing their efforts on product efficiency and lifecycle management—factors that SASB’s rigorous standards-setting process identified as likely to have material impacts across the sector. These innovations focus on efficiency and responsibility in the design, use-phase, and disposal of products.

Use-phase impacts are particularly relevant in the Aerospace & Defense, Industrial Machinery & Goods, and Chemicals industries. For example, in Aerospace & Defense, a combination of climate change, resource constraints, and population growth is driving demand for more fuel-efficient aircraft. As a result, Boeing has joined forces with NASA to develop a heavy-lift blended-wing aircraft that is lighter and simpler to manufacture, and achieves greater range, fuel economy, reliability, and lifecycle savings, as well as lower manufacturing costs. The company estimates that the design could lead to substantial increases in energy efficiency for cargo aircraft, with fuel cost savings of 18 to 60 percent compared to existing models. 

Additionally, companies are starting to recognize the value of “closing the loop” between product creation and disposal. For example:

  • Over the next 20 years, an estimated 12,000 aircraft are destined for the junkyard. In response, Aerospace & Defense industry players formed the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) to increase the recyclability of aircraft, by using advanced composite fibers, aluminum, and other metals. In 2010, AFRA set a target recycling rate of 90 percent by 2016.
  • In the US, the amount of recoverable plastic, steel, glass, aluminum, and paper waste sent to landfills annually is estimated to be valued at $11.4 billion, representing a significant loss of potential feedstock for new containers and packaging. The American Forest and Paper Association, which includes several large Containers & Packaging companies, launched its “Better Practices, Better Planet 2020” initiative to accelerate recycling rates of paper packaging by more than 70 percent by the year 2020.
  • In the Electrical & Electronic Equipment industry, Siemens’ health care segment has developed a product take-back program that frees customers from the hassle of disposing of their equipment and allows Siemens an opportunity to extract valuable material or refurbish products for resale. Siemens’ refurbishment process enables the reuse of an average of 90 percent of materials, while the refurbished systems are of the same quality as new systems, yet purchase costs for customers are an average of up to 20 percent lower.

More Work to Be Done

It makes some sense that an increasing number of such efforts are not just about compliance and risk mitigation, but rather about market leadership and improved competitive positioning. After all, these are mostly cyclical industries with relatively elastic demand, and internecine price wars are off the table. But the innovations mentioned here only scratch the surface. Going forward, SASB’s research shows that innovative products and disruptive technologies have the opportunity to open up new markets by helping address key societal issues.

This is why 77 percent of US senior executives believe that sustainability is “vital to future growth,” and not just a compliance or cost-cutting measure. Indeed, 88 percent of these executives say that sustainability expenditures are an investment, not a cost. But how can providers of capital know which of these companies are walking the walk, and not just talking the talk?

SASB standards are designed to close this information gap, allowing companies to measure, manage, and effectively communicate their performance on the sustainability issues most likely to have material impacts on their industry. Concentrating on material factors has the added benefit of making our standards cost-effective: they average five topics and 13 metrics per industry, 80 percent of which are quantitative. Furthermore, as recent research from Harvard Business School shows, our approach can help companies better focus their sustainability efforts, leading to significantly improved accounting and market returns.

Companies that are serious about integrating sustainability into their core strategy need to understand how to mitigate the associated risks, but also how to create and capitalize on the inherent opportunities. Visit our website to download the standards, read the evidence behind them, and begin incorporating SASB standards into your existing disclosure and performance management processes.

Now is not a time to shrink from the challenges that face us. Rather, it’s a time for action. Roll up your sleeves and join us.

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