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The case for sustainability: Thoughts from two SMEs on the frontline

Rebecca Chedd shares the thoughts of two of her clients in Greater Manchester who are making great strides towards sustainability, despite differing perspectives and challenges.

In March, Creative Apparel, a clothing producer in Stockport, and Crystal Doors, a manufacturer of vinyl-wrapped doors and components in Rochdale, were invited to speak about their approach to sustainable manufacturing in a special panel debate at the Made Smarter: Journey to Digital Manufacturing conference.

I have been working closely with both companies over the last few years. Both are using cutting-edge digital manufacturing technologies to achieve their goals, as well as more conventional measures such as LED lighting and energy efficient equipment. However, they also have differing priorities and face different challenges. Between the two of them they’re a perfect example of why every business should understand what drivers are most important to them when starting out on their own sustainability journey. 

It’s not always about carbon

When it comes to sustainability, and especially the net zero agenda, carbon emissions are often the first thing on everyone’s minds. But it shouldn’t necessarily be the main priority for every business.

For Crystal Doors, carbon is at the top of the agenda. The company aims to be carbon neutral by 2022 as part of their vision to embed climate action into the heart of the business.

Crystal Doors’ story

Energy use is Crystal Doors’ biggest direct concern. They have focused particularly on energy efficiency and renewable energy generation as a result, and a lot of importance is placed on being able to track the associated impacts on their carbon emissions, as Digital Transformation Manager Ben Horn explained in the panel debate:

“One thing that my team is working on at the moment is building a dashboard specifically for sustainability, where you’ll be able to see the fight for carbon neutrality in real time. We’re developing a sensor network to measure all of the energy usage of our machines and their efficiency. We will be able to measure what we’re generating from our solar panels and biomass heating, how much carbon we are outputting from our vans minute-by-minute as they’re driving down the road, what energy is being used by our LED lighting – we want to monitor every single one of these and create a full picture.”

Creative Apparel has a slightly different set of concerns. For starters, unlike Crystal Doors, they use water in their process. In 2015, we helped them obtain grant funding for an automated screen cleaning machine on the basis that it significantly reduced their water and chemical use. The company’s new factory, which is currently under construction, will feature a rainwater harvesting system to capture and reuse as much water as possible.

Creative Apparel’s story

As it is part of the fast fashion industry, Creative Apparel also faces heightened responsibilities around material sourcing and minimising waste product. For this reason, the company is investing in AI software that could eventually help it to eliminate the production of excess ‘non-sellable’ products.

Managing Director Phil Millar explained:

“Textiles is very complex because it starts with the farmers who grow the crop, the chemicals used, the amount of water used, the actual manufacturing of the product, how it’s supplied and then when you’re finished with it, how you recycle it. We’re trying to do our bit and be as self-sufficient as possible.”

Cost savings

For Phil, tracking carbon emissions in and of itself is not a key priority:

“The way I looked at it wasn’t really the carbon; it was how much will I save. If I invest in solar, what’s the payback? If I invest in rainwater harvesting to take water off the roof and reuse it in the factory, what are the cost savings? If I put more skylights in to increase natural light, there’s a saving there as well.

“I look at pounds and pence more than carbon. You’re saving raw materials going into the factory and it’s bringing your costs down and making you more competitive. It’s a win-win situation.”

The cost savings opportunity has also played a central role in Crystal Doors’ journey to carbon neutrality. Describing their approach, Ben said:

“Carbon neutral isn’t something that just comes from having loads of money to throw around. Actually, it’s something that can be cashflow positive. We’ve invested in technologies such as a biomass burner, which burns our waste and converts it into heating, and solar panels on the roof which means we pay less for electricity and supply back to the grid. Our dust extractor, which used to run 24/7, is now a smart system that controls itself. All of these things have been saving us lots of money. At the same time, over the last five or six years we’ve reduced almost 80 per cent of our carbon emissions.”

Supply chain pressure

Both companies also have a supply chain element to their sustainability actions, albeit from different ends of the spectrum.

Supply chain sustainability has grown steadily in importance over recent years and fast fashion is a particularly notable example. The sector has been under intense scrutiny in recent years due to unethical practices and product waste. By demonstrating ethical sourcing and forward-thinking sustainability credentials, Creative Apparel will stand out from the crowd as buyers begin to clamp down on their suppliers.

Crystal Doors, on the other hand, is the one applying the pressure in its industry, as Ben explained:

“Supply chain engagement is crucial. At the end of the day, we can make our processes as sustainable as we like, but if our customers are going to dispose of them poorly the next year, or if our suppliers are cutting down rainforests or pumping loads of carbon into the atmosphere, we can’t just wash our hands of that and claim that we’re having a good impact on the environment.

“One of the things we’re doing this year is making sure our whole supply chain is invested by stopping work with customers or suppliers who aren’t also committed to sustainability. That doesn’t mean that we’re just going to simply cut them out – our goal is to bring them with us on the journey. Our approach to begin with is to ask all of our suppliers to sign up to sustainability commitments and work with them over this year to understand what it means for them and how they can implement it.”

There are very few supply chains that aren’t now affected by the sustainability agenda in some form. In the last year alone for example, tech leader Microsoft, carmaker BMW and consumer goods giant Unilever have all announced significant engagement programmes.

Lots of companies we’re working with are actively responding to this trend as part of their strategy. Along with Crystal Doors and Creative Apparel, others include schoolwear supplier Rowlinson Knitwear, metal fabrication firm Trufab, fume cupboard manufacturer Clean Air Ltd, data centre operator Teledata and arts venue HOME

Tip of the iceberg

The drivers identified above are far from the only reasons to engage in sustainability. Increasing resilience to risks, improving productivity and efficiency, future-proofing against new regulations and standards, attracting and retaining talent, the list goes on. Every business will have its own individual business case for change.

Our Resource Efficiency service can help to identify the key priorities for your business, so your sustainability strategy is as effective as possible.

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Rebecca Chedd

Rebecca Chedd, Environmental Business Advisor

Rebecca has eight years' experience of working in the environmental sector and has been supporting SMEs as part of the Hub's Resource Efficiency team since 2015. Rebecca has previously delivered carbon reduction workshops for organisations including Transport for Greater Manchester and Great Places Housing Group. Rebecca holds an MSc in Energy and the Environment and is an Associate Member of IEMA.

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