Alternative Energy

Going beyond industrial sustainability awareness

16th August 2021
Lanna Deamer

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly published its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), laying out the body’s blueprint for tackling global challenges through to 2030. Six years later, progress has been slower than anticipated from governments and businesses alike. Here, Ben Smye, Head of Growth at Matmatch, looks at how manufacturers and material suppliers can bolster their sustainability strategies.

2021 marks five years since implementation of the UN’s SDGs began, several months after the ambitious goals were first set. However, as we all know, a goal without a plan is seldom destined to succeed, just as a manufacturer’s new product will not materialise without a formula, defined production process and adequate raw materials.

The UN itself subsequently realised that the goals would benefit from having specific objectives. As such, the organisation introduced a resolution in 2017 to make the SDGs more actionable. Yet despite the UN taking steps to help governments and businesses to move from SDG awareness to action, most companies have not aligned their strategies with the goals.

According to a 2020 analysis by MSCI, only 38% of the 8550 companies in the MSCI All Country World Index were aligned with SDGs, with just 0.2% being strongly aligned. This is unsurprising when we consider that a 2019 report by PwC found that although 72% of companies mentioned the SDGs in their reporting, just 14% included targets related to them.

A strategy for all stakeholders

The challenges highlighted in the SDGs may span all facets of society, industry and policy, but manufacturers and materials companies still have an important role to play. The key is for manufacturers to develop their own sustainability strategies around the SDGs that are most impacted by core business functions, without negatively affecting other business objectives.

For example, a manufacturer of electronic devices might include an objective in their sustainability strategy to increase the quantity of responsibly sourced metals used from 20-50% by 2030. This would contribute towards SDG 10 - reduced inequalities - and SDG 16 - peace, justice and strong institutions - by minimising support of materials linked with exploitative or unethical activity in conflict areas.

If the company approaches this objective by sourcing conflict-free gold, tin or tantalum at a higher raw material price, it could impact profit margins and adversely affect the company’s bottom line - something that would likely displease several stakeholders. But focusing on the direct impact on the bottom line alone is short-sighted. Responsible sourcing has myriad other benefits - from improved brand image to the ability to sell into markets or participate in tenders that have strict sourcing requirements. Such benefits may take longer to be realised, but their long-term impact can far outweigh the downsides.

This is just one example of a potential sustainability objective for manufacturers built around SDGs. For many other manufacturers and businesses involved in material supply, a more fitting example may be around SDGs 12 and 13: responsible consumption and production, and climate action, respectively.

For many in industry, there is a misconception that ‘greener’ operations predominately involve making greater use of power from renewable energy sources, employing carbon offsetting strategies and, where applicable, using fewer hydrocarbon-based plastics in production. These are undoubtedly all good actions that businesses should take, but there is more that can be done.

Strategic approach to carbon reduction

One immediate action that many manufacturers can take is to re-evaluate the carbon footprints of their products and, more specifically, the net carbon impact of materials. For those working with metals such as steel, the embodied carbon - the total carbon dioxide emitted to produce a material, including extraction, smelting and transport - of the metal can be significantly reduced by sourcing steels with a higher recycled percentage.

A common misconception of using metals with a high recycled content is that the material will lack the mechanical properties of their newly manufactured counterparts. However, this is not the case.

Take, for example, special steel producer Deutsche Edelstahlwerke (DEW). In its catalogue, the company features its innovative ‘green steel’, which comprises 90% recycled steel and 10% alloying elements. In addition, it is produced on a site run entirely on renewable energy. In doing so, carbon emissions are reduced to approximately 107kg CO2 per ton of crude steel - less than six per cent of the 1900kg CO2 produced per ton of non-green steel.

In terms of application performance, DEW offers several products in its ‘blue steel’ range via Matmatch’s platform. These steels are suitable for a wide range of applications, with materials offering ideal properties for industries with specific requirements such as automotive or wind energy. For example, Carbodur 6587 steel has a tensile strength of 980-1420 MPa and a Brinell hardness of 179–229, which contribute to the material’s high wear resistance and fatigue strength - ideal properties for drives and gears in wind applications.

Simply sourcing steel with a higher recycled percentage instead of virgin steels can substantially reduce the carbon footprint of the resultant product, without compromising performance. This makes for an ideal and measurable part of a manufacturer’s sustainability strategy, either to reduce per product carbon footprint by ‘X’ percent or for recycled materials to comprise ‘X’ percent of raw materials by 2030. Engineers and product developers can use online databases and comparison tools like Matmatch to find recycled materials and get in touch with the suppliers that offer them.

Similarly, materials producers and suppliers can align their own sustainability strategies with the UN’s SDGs by increasing the amount of scrap metal recycled into new products. DEW is an example of how effective these materials can be. A supplier can benefit from setting their own sustainability targets for materials to be sourced from a certain percentage of recycled content by 2030.

Setting such a goal would help the supplier to futureproof against further climate legislation, as well as ensuring they can meet the changing expectations of increasingly sustainability-driven manufacturers. Increasingly, we’re finding that design engineers are considering environmental factors when sourcing materials - factors that Matmatch is also highlighting on its platform.

With only nine years to go until the UN’s deadline for its SDGs, much more action is needed from governments and companies alike if we are to reach those targets. Fortunately, there is still time to plan and take that action. By thinking of a sustainability strategy as we would a business strategy, industrial businesses can identify ways of making small adjustments that create substantial changes. With proper planning and consideration, sustainability does not need to involve sacrifice.

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