Sustainability Is Important… But Focusing On It Too Much Can Cause Significant Issues


The big buzzword in environmental, health and safety (EH&S) these days is sustainability. Corporations love to tell the public how sustainable they are. Makes for great press and builds the brand. And public opinion is turning such that sustainability – “being green” – is something consumers are demanding more and more of companies.

It’s all about reduce, recycle, and reuse – and being efficient.

Essentially, as a facility manager, you must strive to do more with less for the good of the company – and the environment, of course.

I’m not saying sustainability is not important. It does have a key role to play in a strong EH&S policy and your standard operating procedures.

Sustainable manufacturing can bring about a lot of benefits.

By improving the efficiency of your process, you can use less material, reduce waste, boost productivity, decrease production time, and even lower your consumption of energy. These all save money, allowing you to increase profits and offer competitive pricing to customers.

In the big picture, you are also doing your part to conserve natural resources like water and fossil fuels and protect the environment by producing fewer emissions. Plus, you can create a safer and healthier work environment and a safer surrounding community. You should also be able to worry less about environmental liabilities and exposures.

Another bonus: there are tax credits, government grants, and other incentives for adopting sustainable policies

All good things. No dispute there.

Where Sustainability Goes Wrong

However, sometimes upper management’s focus on sustainability can actually lead to EH&S problems at your facility because upper management is sometimes far removed from the realities on the production floor. Sustainability policies that look good on paper aren’t always necessarily practical – or even truly sustainable.

The main issue is that sustainability should never be the sole focus of your EH&S program.

Let me give you a quick example.

In one case we saw at a manufacturer’s facility, there was pressure from management to reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds in the coatings and inks used in their production.

They were able to secure a colored ink with lower levels of volatile organics. But there was a hitch: When the resulting product was sent to their client for testing, the result just wasn’t the same. The lower levels of volatile organics affected the ink. The client wasn’t happy with the quality at all. The colors were not as vibrant, and they tended to fade if applied to exterior materials.

The client was on board with using less volatile organics in the process if the product performed as it had before the switch. If not, they wanted to go back to the old material. Otherwise they’d switch to another manufacturer.

As you can see, focusing solely on sustainability can impact customer relationships. But it doesn’t stop there. It can also impact other key EH&S issues at your facility, including:

  • Regulations
  • Compliance
  • Safety
  • Permits
  • Training
  • Documentation
  • Plans and Procedures
  • Liability Management
  • Risk Reduction
  • History

When sustainability is the focus, these key issues are sometimes the last to be considered. The tendency for management is to say we have to “go green” first and then worry about the other stuff later.

But that can impact operations, your company’s reputation, client relationships (as you saw in the example above), your rapport with regulators, and even the business’s survival.

If these key EH&S issues are put to the side, I guarantee you that problems will soon follow!

Sustainability can actually have the opposite of the intended effect – impacting the bottom-line in a negative way. And, when that occurs, management often points its finger at the facility or plant manager, facility engineer, or production manager and asks why did you let this happen?

Finding a Balance

The solution is to have sustainability work in tandem with your EH&S program. You can’t simply institute sustainability efforts in a vacuum. Your first step here is to have one of the Core Four Requirements in place: Facility Knowledge.

You must know your raw materials, finished products, and waste products inside and out. You need to know what your facility does and how you do it at a detailed level.

Then be practical and always consider the impact on the manufacturing process and the quality of products. Planning is the key. For example, say you established a measure to save energy costs by instituting a new production schedule for a key part of your process. But, as a result, all production slowed and products were late to customers. Sustainability has sabotaged you in this case.

To get management on board with taking this more cautious, measured approach, you have to use one of the other Core Four Requirements: Communication.

When a ruling comes down from upper management to institute a new sustainable practice… that you don’t believe is practical… be willing to communicate that to management, with evidence to back it up.

By the same token, be willing to listen to your team on the production line about how they feel the new sustainability policy is impacting their work or the product quality. Nobody knows that better than they do.

The key to effective communication with employees is to be approachable – so people will want to work with you. And when dealing with management, speak their language: you need to convert your concerns to dollars and cents. When you explain how a supposedly sustainable practice is actually hurting the bottom-line, you’ll get their attention.

Sustainability Gone Good

Sustainability, done right, can be a wonderful thing.

A case study from North Carolina State University’s Industrial Assessment Center profiled Besam, a company that manufactures automatic doors. By simply replacing metal halide lighting with fluorescent fixtures equipped with occupancy sensors, reducing compressor air pressure, and repairing compressed air line leaks in their manufacturing space, they were able to save over $25,000 on an annual basis. The payback on the associated capital costs was realized within 1.8 years. And there was no impact on operations.

In another case outlined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the Canyon Creek Cabinet Company implemented efforts to reduce hazardous and solid waste, reduce wastewater discharges, and decrease energy use.

They were able to reduce lead time, defects, and material loss and damage. They increased production by 11% while saving nearly $1.2 million per year.

Carpet manufacturer, Shaw Industries was able to save $872,000 and 93,000 MMBtu in natural gas and No. 6 fuel oil by reworking its energy management program. Although the changes cost $1.5 million, they were able to pay that back in less than two years thanks to the savings.

Incorporating Sustainability in Your Organization

As you can see, sustainability can be well worth the efforts.

But it has to be done with careful thought and planning that considers how it will impact all that you do at your facility.

Think about cost, efficiency, and productivity. It can’t be done on a whim.

I’d be happy to discuss with you how to incorporate effective sustainable practices at your facility that won’t adversely affect operations or impact your bottom-line. Just give me a call at 609-208-1885 or send an email to

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