Suzy Skehan discusses why sustainability is key to manufacturing’s future

For many sectors across the UK, the path to net zero can seem clear and attainable. Due to minimal direct emissions from their operations, in addition to our electricity system becoming increasingly decarbonized, the majority of businesses will likely see a reduction in their total emissions without the need for significant up-front investment. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case for the UK’s manufacturing sector. Many of the companies we certify and advise here at Planet Mark are operating with significant direct as well as upstream and downstream emissions exposure and the sector as a whole accounts for 12 percent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

However, despite its climate change impact, manufacturing will continue to be vital to the UK economy as it employs over 2.5 million people and accounts for roughly 45 percent of total exports. It is therefore no surprise that reducing the sector’s emissions (integral for achieving the UK’s 2050 net zero target) while maintaining productivity is core to the government’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy. The Strategy, which sets out an ambition for the industry to reduce carbon emissions by at least 67 percent by 2035 and by at least 90 percent by 2050, represents a decarbonization line in the sand and will guide policy thinking and government investment in the years ahead.

Emissions reductions
Although these targets are certainly admirable, exactly how they will be achieved without a reduction in growth or output can seem, at least initially, to be a bit of a head scratcher. Helpfully the recent Net Zero Review, released only a few weeks ago [at time of writing] is brimming with excellent ideas and suggestions for government on how it can turn these targets into reality. Published by former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore, the review advises on how the UK can tackle climate change alongside reaping the economic benefits of leading the global low carbon transition.

The review provides ample consideration to ‘turbocharging growth’ and decarbonization across the UK’s core sectors, including manufacturing. It recognizes that emissions reductions within the sector will be delivered through greater energy and resource efficiency, fuel switching to low carbon fuels and through the adoption of yet to be commercialized decarbonization technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCUS).

Available solutions
While it is encouraging to know what the solutions are on paper, achieving their widespread adoption without disrupting overall output and commercial opportunity poses a potentially significant challenge, particularly for manufacturers operating at smaller and more dispersed sites. These manufacturers are already facing high energy costs on top of the cost of decarbonization and a lack of tailored policy and funding solutions to help them prepare for the years ahead. This contrasts with their larger counterparts clustered within already established manufacturing and industrial areas, who will be more easily connected to the future CCUS, hydrogen and electrified grid systems that will be vital for bringing net emissions down to zero.

While the review sets out useful recommendations to government, such as accelerating and unlocking the decarbonizing potential of energy efficiency investment as well as incentivizing on-site generation by Q2 2024, it likely offers little comfort to manufacturers today that are concerned about how they can secure their place in the rapidly accelerating net zero transition of tomorrow. Fortunately, there are already available solutions whose short-term adoption can deliver long-term emission reductions and a route to net zero, in addition to very necessary energy and operational cost savings.

Metric of success
Many of these such solutions have been embraced by one of our members, Lancashire based Evans Vanodine International. The developer and manufacturer of cleaning and hygiene products has completed a range of projects that address its environmental impact, and which aim to achieve a more productive, safer and streamlined working environment. These range from simply converting lighting to LED in its office spaces, to optimizing and changing the mixing times of the products it makes to save as much energy as possible during the manufacturing process. Looking beyond just immediate emissions reductions, it has also changed how it cleans its manufacturing vessels to minimize the water required and has been optimizing formulations and improving products to use lower impact ingredients where possible. The company is also looking to invest in ambitious upcoming projects such as using heat capture technologies, in combination with its production boiler, to save heat being lost. It is also investigating opportunities for on-site generation through a solar array.

Evans Vanodine International isn’t alone in this exciting journey. According to recent research by Make UK and Siemens, nearly half (46 percent) of manufacturing companies aren’t waiting around for government policy and are already implementing decarbonization plans, citing rising energy costs, the rising cost of raw materials and more generally the need to do the right thing as factors in accelerating their efforts. Manufacturing companies are better positioned than most to adopt new measures and procedures to realize emissions savings as many thrive on making their processes more and more economical.

Sustainability should therefore be seen by everyone in the sector over the coming years as a metric of success, rather than simply a government target or impenetrable policy proposal, as it signifies the optimized use of materials, reduction in waste and greater overall efficiency. Ultimately, a more sustainable manufacturing company will be more competitive, especially when putting its products into the global market. Therefore, although the route to net zero is harder for manufacturing when compared to other sectors, the commercial success that can potentially be secured as we march on to a net zero future should be a highly motivating factor for the entire sector.

Suzy Skehan
Suzy Skehan is Sustainable Business Manager at Planet Mark. Planet Mark is an internationally recognized sustainability certification which recognizes continuous progress, encourages action, and builds an empowered community of like-minded individuals. It is awarded to businesses, properties, new developments and projects that are committed to reducing their carbon emissions.