In order to survive – let alone thrive – in the 21st century, management must proactively cope with ceaseless waves of change. One way to proactively approach the future (which doesn’t yet exist) is to examine existing conditions that are likely to drive change as the 21st century unfolds. There are a daunting number of current realities that, jointly or severally, are likely to drive change. For convenience of organization, this blog groups change drivers as:
Demographics & Trends
This series of posts examines a few especially significant change drivers in each of the four categories. This post focuses on Sustainability and two of the change drivers it generates:
Sustainability and Manufacturing
It is not always clear what “Sustainability” really means in a given context. For manufacturing managers, “Sustainability” refers to a greatly expanded scope of concern – a scope of concern that encompasses an entire value chain. As the diagram to the right indicates, manufacturing lies between the natural world, where your raw materials are ultimately sourced, and humanity (which includes your employees, your customers and your customers’ customers). Here in the 21st century, it is necessary to be constantly aware of your firm’s interactions with the natural world and with humanity (with all of humanity’s foibles) in order to remain “sustainable” – meaning “capable of continuing to exist”. Manufacturing’s scope of concern certainly does not start and end at the loading dock.
Global Warming > Climate Change
Climate Change is currently Sustainability’s primary issue. In essence, the assertion is that substantial and dangerous changes to the earth’s climate are in the process of taking place, due to a warming trend in the Earth’s atmosphere (i.e. Global Warming). The warming trend is mainly due to increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere, mainly due to combustion of carbon based fuels.
That certain common atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide, can have a “greenhouse” effect that can raise atmospheric temperature is well established fact. That the carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased in recent times is a matter of recorded measurement. And humanity does burn one heck of a lot of carbon based fuel every year.
However, the Earth’s atmosphere is a large and complex system. Complex systems are prone to respond to changes in inputs or changes in conditions in surprising non-linear ways. Adding humanity’s participation adds another major element of indeterminacy. Consequently, predicting future responses of a large, complex system to changes such as an increase in greenhouse gas concentration over time measured in decades is challenging at best, if not a fool’s errand.
Repeated polls by reputable organizations like the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Gallup organization suggest that only about 50% of Americans believe that human caused climate change actually exists. The latest available Gallup poll, for example, holds that while 69% of Americans polled agreed that 2015 was an abnormally warm year, only 49% believed the cause of that warmth to be human-generated. 
The Pragmatic View
So, views on human induced global warming – hence climate change – are polarized. But, for a manufacturer, it really doesn’t matter which side you favor.
Why? Three quick reasons:
>> A continuing stream of increasing governmental regulations is coming, like it or not. The CAFE standards for decreasing vehicle fuel consumption and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon emissions from electrical generating facilities are just a two of a growing crowd.
>> Actions to cut power usage across your firm’s value chain are simply good business, regardless of your views on Climate Change.
>> Actions that reduce atmospheric emissions respect both human well-being and the natural world that we all depend on.
Materials Utilization Efficiency
There are three primary approaches to improving materials utilization efficiency:
>> Recovering and reusing waste materials – Recycling, in its many forms, is the first thing that comes to mind: recycling of waste streams generated in the manufacturing process itself (recycled in-house or by others) and general recycling by third parties in the resources recovery industry (recycling of packaging materials, for example).
>> Improving production processes – Reducing waste in any guise, including materials waste, is a primary area for continuous improvement projects, especially by using Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma techniques.
>> Designing (or redesigning) your products – Product design now encompasses your entire value chain. Product design starts with sourcing materials, continues through materials sensitive manufacturing processes, design for product performance, design for durability and ultimately design for end of product life reuse or disposition.
The key to all three of these is attention to your entire value chain, including waste in transportation at each step along the value chain. 
These are only two of many fundamental changes already occurring in response to Sustainability. There are many more. Because of the scale of these matters, the resulting conditions as they specifically affect your business may prove to be surprising. In the 21st century, it is absolutely necessary for even small businesses to follow and understand these zoomed-out, big picture change drivers, so that proactive steps can be taken.
Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.
… Chuck Harrington
P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about surviving and thriving in the 21st century … CH
This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.
 For more on materials utilization efficiency, see Embracing the Circular Economy, a recent post to this blog available at: http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2016/03/21/embracing-the-circular-economy/