I am fortunate enough to have experienced a very nacent environmental movement while at university in the 1970's. Yes, it is true, there were even some departments of Environmental Studies. I studied Chemical Engineering and was fortunate enough to come across a number of professors interested in reducing the environmental impact of human activity. For example, many mines in South Africa are over a mile deep and most of the material that has to be hauled up to the surface gets thrown away. Hauling it up uses an enormous amount of energy and disposing of the residue on the surface is both unsightly and environmentally hazardous. Concentrating the ore underground would help to solve both issues. Another professor in waste water treatment was looking at ways of adapting the process to deal with waste from factories. While the catch phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" was still to come, at least some people were trying to address the environmental consequences.
My point is that we have been talking about these topics for a very long time. While there has been progress, there hasn't been a lot of progress. If there had been, we wouldn't see such strong green sentiment at the moment. As with anything else, I believe people and comapnies will change their behaviour when they have a vested interest, other than good will, in doing so. For example, Germany instituted a law making manufacturers responsible for the disposal of packaging. In no time at all those half empty cereal boxes with lots of pretty colours disappeared from the shelves, replaced by much smaller and full boxes.
So, what will make green manufacturing a reality? Good intentions, or good legislation?
I recall a time when my neighborhood joined a recycling program. We learned to seperate glass, newspapers, plastics into one bucket and regular trash into another. We had been doing this for some time and my son an I were cleaning out the garage and made a trip to the local dump.
While unloading our truck we noticed the "recyling" trucks dumping these glass, metal, paper and plastic materials into the garbage heap along with regular trash!
We called the city and asked what was going on here! After several calls we finally talked to an official who gave us the facts of life. It's been several years but the conversation went something like this:
"Mr. Oppenhem, this is a pilot program. You see there are two types of recycling. Enviromental and Economic.
Right now we are doing environmental recycling. The cost of acquisition and recovery is greater than the value it would return.
The important thing, is it gets us ready for when the marketplace situation is ripe for economic recycling.
Your participation is vital to ensuring we are developing the habits now to help us succeed later."
Wow. I always remembered this situation and wonder now if there are any parallels to "sustainable manufacturing".
What habits do we need to develop now to set the stage for future success? Any ideas??
There are examples out there of companies that truly are focused on green initiatives either for altruistic reasons or as a way to improve their corporate image. The interesting thing is that in many cases these companies find that the process of reducing the environmental impact actually drives reduced costs. By looking at your processes to find environmental waste, you also unearth financial waste.
That being said, there will always be companies that lack the vision and foresight to move forward on environmental issues. These companies will require outside pressure to change. I see this pressure coming in two forms;
1) Legislative - As Trevor points out, companies can be legislated into being more environmentally friendly. This can work, however, it seems that government (at least in Canada and the US) has a difficult time doing the "right thing". This can be due to a strong lobby effort on behalf of the companies that don't want to see change, or from a self serving interest driven by a desire to be re-elected (enacting tough legislation could impact a large employer in my district so I won't vote for it)
2) From the Market - Walmart is putting a process in place where they will be working with suppliers to score their carbon footprint. This information will be provided to consumers in the form of a label on the product. I won't get into the inherent complexities of determining a single score for a product produced on a global supply chain, but assuming the process works, customers, for the first time will have the visibility to the environmental impact of their buying decisions. Those customers concerned with environmental issues can now choose the products they buy based on the product's environmental impact. The tough question though, is whether or not the general population knows or cares enough about the environment to make a difference. For example, despite knowing for years the impact cars have on the environment, people were buying big SUVs in record numbers. Only when the oil crunch drove up the price of gas did people change their buying habits and opt for cheaper cars.
I'd like to think that the movement to green will come from the market (some of it will...), but I think that in order to make the changes that need to be made in time to make a difference (if it's not already too late), government will need to step in and legislate the changes. This means that politicians will need to look beyond the next election and make some tough decisions. Let's hope it happens before it's too late.