When Is Sustainable Manufacturing Sustainable?

Sustainable manufacturing practices in the medical device industry are based to a great extent on the concept of resource productivity. These practices seek to manufacture products using fewer resources (i.e., energy, water, and materials). The materials that are used should have low embedded energy and water through the use of sustainable manufacturing practices throughout the supply chain. Renewable energy and materials with recycled content are favored by these practices.

Robert B. Pojasek

January 28, 2010

10 Min Read
When Is Sustainable Manufacturing Sustainable?

Manufacturing practices themselves are being modified to lower the volume of wastes to all environmental media (i.e., air, water, and land). Although many companies have some kind of waste reduction in place, the judicious use of resource productivity is of increasing importance.

The term sustainable manufacturing means different things to different people. Many of these differences come from the discipline and bias of the manufacturing professional. People often get needlessly sidetracked by definitional disputes. Suffice it to say, achieving sustainable manufacturing in any business is considered to be a journey, not a destination or static state.

Sustainable manufacturing is a key component of operating a sustainable business while creating value for the environment, the stakeholders, and the communities where the company conducts its business. There is a lot of interest in sustainable manufacturing within the device manufacturing industry sector. After the humble beginnings in the late 1980's, we are currently experiencing a major shift in philosophy, acceptance and emphasis on sustainable manufacturing.

Becoming sustainable often starts when a company adopts a formal program to drive resource productivity. Many companies use ISO 9001:2008 as the foundation for this program. They integrate elements of ISO 14001, risk management (ISO 31000), social responsibility (draft ISO 26000) and a business excellence framework (Baldrige Performance Excellence Program). This integrated management system helps make sustainable manufacturing practices part of the way the business is operated day-in and day-out. Products made to these specifications can be certified to sustainable product standards currently being issued by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and other similar standard setting bodies.

Next, the manufacturing process needs to be operated in an ecoefficient manner. Companies pay attention to the direct and indirect use of all resources (i.e., energy, water, and materials) and the loss of these resources from each activity in the manufacturing process. The indirect use and loss of resources comes from supporting processes and facility infrastructure processes (e.g., air compressors, air and water pollution control equipment, boilers, chillers and heating ventilation, and air conditioning). Process mapping and resource accounting are used to ensure the use of what ISO 9000: 20000 calls a process focus and a systems approach to management.1

An interest in sustainable manufacturing does not automatically translate into a commitment to make the necessary changes in a product process. Many businesses worry about the cost and benefit of moving down this path. Many manufacturing executives view this as a choice between being more environmentally responsible and allowing employees to keep their jobs. This view of sustainable manufacturing is slowly being converted to a realization of the business opportunities that gain positive feedback from environmentally conscious customers and the increase in sales resulting from this acceptance.

Reducing energy and water use are the most common and simplest places to start when it comes to turning a process into a sustainable manufacturing process. Eliminating all wastes from all business practices is an important mid-term goal. In the longer term, the manufacturing business can develop sustainable manufacturing technology and products that take the business to a higher level of sustainability. Environmental and social responsibility in manufacturing not only includes contributing to sustainability in an individual company, but also being able to manufacture those supplies that will facilitate the ability of other sectors in becoming sustainable. This involves the notion of life cycle management that is based on the fact that everything is connected to everything else.

Having a successful journey to sustainable manufacturing requires a company to align the manufacturing program with the company's vision, mission, and core values.2 Only by fully integrating the sustainable manufacturing effort with the core business will it have the management support necessary for enabling the business to complete the journey. The employees and stakeholders need to be involved in the planning as well as the implementation of this program. Employees are a key source of knowledge for the sustainability transformation. It is important to have mutually beneficial relationships with the suppliers, customers, and key stakeholders.

The most common ingredients of success are the integrated use of performance frameworks, management systems, and process improvement. Sustainable manufacturing uses these proven methods to meet customer and market needs with ecoefficient processes and their corresponding benefits to the environment, key stakeholders, and the community. The sustainability comes from the value to the business' top line branding and the bottom line as it contributes effectively to creating a robust local economy. This may be the best argument for senior management to support sustainable manufacturing processes in an operation.

Green versus Sustainable Manufacturing

The term green is usually restricted to manufacturing that has substantially lowered its energy use or where it has used materials with high recycled content or has lowered its waste production. Sustainable manufacturing seeks to move beyond what people call green. Three types of outcomes need to be examined—environmental, social, and economic—if the practices are truly considered to be sustainable. This is controversial because many manufacturers limit their so called sustainability efforts to what is essentially environmental sustainability. Other manufacturing companies refer to their work as green manufacturing or lean-to-green manufacturing. If there are three responsibilities or outcomes involved in sustainability, then green efforts and lean-to-green efforts do not fit the definition.

Stakeholder Engagement

A major differentiator of sustainable manufacturing practices when compared to business as usual is the use of something called stakeholder engagement. It is very important to listen to the stakeholders and learn more about their interests in the sustainable manufacturing practices. Many companies think that if stakeholders are engaged at all, they must also be appeased. This is not true, but it is important to listen to what stakeholders have to say. Many sustainable manufacturing companies are showing a wide variety of stakeholders detailed information on their core processes responsible for their activities, products and services. Knowing more about what the company does, takes away some of the fear. Stakeholders appreciate transparency and accountability. And they often have good comments that could lead to further innovation. Stakeholder engagement starts with an intensive effort to increase employee involvement in the process. Next, the company should be asking the suppliers about how they make their products and how others are using them in their processes. Suppliers are usually only asked about delivery time and price. They have so much more information that could be of help to an OEM. There are other stakeholders in the neighborhood and community that could be approached to determine their interest in the manufacturing process. Some good stakeholder engagement tools are available on the Internet.3 The use of these tools becomes apparent over a longer time as the company gets familiar with them and sees the value of using them to add sustainability to the manufacturing processes.

Management Systems

Many manufacturing managers feel that management standards are needed only to meet a customer requirement. This requirement by a key customer—to be certified to a particular ISO standard (e.g., ISO 14001, environmental management system standard)—is treated by managers as “the need to put a certificate on the wall.” Such thinking leads to the implementation of minimally responsive programs, so naturally, the company realizes little benefit from the management system. A management system is defined as making quality, environment, sustainability or social responsibility (depending on which management system is used) part of the way the organization is operated. Many medical device manufacturers adopt ISO 9001 to help them meet good manufacturing practice requirements of FDA. However, it is unlikely that these manufacturers are using the management system to make quality part of every employee's job every day. ISO 9001 provides an excellent foundation for the company to implement ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 (i.e., health and safety management system). There are management system standards for sustainability and social responsibility (e.g., ISO 26000, BS 8900 and AS 8303) that can also be integrated with these other management system standards to provide a foundation for a sustainability management system. The key to success is to ensure that the employees are involved in the program and that the program is designed and operated as an active means for promoting sustainability within the company.

Operating in Silos

Many manufacturing companies operate their process improvement programs and management initiatives independently of one another. Independent programs are commonly referred to as silos.4 Each of these silos is often run by a champion whose value to the company is determined, to some extent, by the success of the activities associated with the initiative (silo). These people are often reluctant to consider the integration of programs (e.g., management systems, business excellence frameworks, risk management, and process improvement techniques like lean and six sigma). They find such integration threatening. However, if the integration is focused on equipping the employee with a single integrated approach to their work, some of these threats can be mitigated. Employees become confused with the large number of initiatives and the competition between them for their attention. The initiative champions are not able to help the employee do their job better or more effectively. By having all of these programs coordinated by the integrated sustainability management system as described, it will be possible to have one process improvement system in the eyes of the employees. In this way, the silos are not destroyed—they are harmonized in an integrated fashion to help the employee move to sustainable manufacturing processes.

It may be easy to understand the many varied elements that constitute sustainable manufacturing practice, but it takes a lot of focus and dedication to put these elements into place and begin the continual improvement process that will ultimately lead to sustainable manufacturing practice. Companies that have discovered the benefits of an integrated sustainability management system are convinced that it helps them improve the business. However, it seems that many manufacturing companies have precious little time for implementing a sustainability management system. When manufacturing volume is high, they are too busy to work on these projects. When manufacturing volume is low, they cut the resources necessary to plan and implement these processes and programs. Companies that implement the integrated sustainability management system gain a competitive advantage because all activities, products, and services can be coordinated and controlled in a manner that promotes the environmental, social, and economic responsibilities that are inherent in the sustainability program.


After reading this article, you may be reminded of some of the activities that you have initiated that meet the criteria for sustainabilty. That's great! You are officially on your way! The challenge now is to keep these efforts moving forward. Engaging stakeholders, channelling existing standards, and integrating silos are significant steps that can help a medical device company improve resource management and thereby improve productivity and the bottom line.




1.R B Pojasek, “Understanding Processes With Hierarchical Process Mapping,” Environmental Quality Management 15, no. 2 (2005): 79–86.

2.R B Pojasek, “A Framework for Business Sustainability,” Environmental Quality Management 17, no. 2 (2007): 81– 88.

3.Stakeholder Engagement and Facilitation, AcountAbility; available from Internet: www.accountability21.net/default.aspx?id=256.

4.R B Pojasek, “Energy and Water Management Systems: Building More Silos?” Environmental Quality Management 18, no. 2 (2008): 79–87.

Robert Pojasek is senior program director at Capaccio Environmental Engineering Inc. (Marlborough, MA). He can be reached at [email protected]

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