Sustainable Manufacturing: From Raw Materials to Finished Product
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
As the global economy continues to grow and mature, the need for sustainable manufacturing solutions has never been more urgent. At its most basic level, manufacturing involves taking raw materials and turning them into finished goods. Within that process, lies complex supply chain networks involving several companies each playing unique roles.
To achieve a sustainable manufacturing industry, this requires significant changes along every point in the network. Below are four areas of focus that we need to work on to accomplish this goal.
1. Cleaner Raw Materials
Everything begins with raw materials. Without sustainable input, a sustainable output is impossible. Below is a rough breakdown of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions organized by broad human activities. It turns out, "making things", or manufacturing, is the largest category contributor of global GHG emissions.
Why is this the case? The process of producing raw materials commonly used in manufacturing/construction like cement and steel emits large amounts of CO2. Making
1 ton of steel produces about 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and making 1 ton of cement produces 1 ton of CO2. This adds up fast considering 1.95 billion metric tons of crude steel and 4.4 billion metric tons of cement were produced globally in 2021 (1,2).
What can we do about it? The answer isn't to stop making things. Instead, we need to find and implement more efficient processes and materials. Unfortunately, advancements in cleaner materials production is extremely difficult and slow moving. Another barrier is increased cost of zero-carbon alternatives. Most companies cannot afford to pay 15-30% premiums for lower-footprint raw materials produced using new technologies.
There are a few promising innovations like Boston Metal's electrolysis process for making steel, but more time and research is needed to bring them to scale at a competitive price.
2. Implementing Renewable Energy
Modern manufacturing requires large buildings, machines, robots, lights, computers, and more. These all require large amounts of electricity, which can be sustainable depending on the resource used to generate it. Below you can see that the switch to renewable sources of energy is happening, but an increased pace of adoption is needed.
One of the challenges of using renewable energy sources is their reliability. For example, wind and solar are intermittent sources of energy, meaning they do not generate electricity 24/7. Seasonal variations can also create significant challenges in some parts of the world. This requires the use of supplemental energy sources like nuclear or hydroelectric to fill in when the sun or wind is not available.
Another challenge is energy storage and distribution. Due to seasonal variance, intermittency, and geographic differences, a 100% renewable grid will require regional cooperation and new transmission lines to move energy from where it is produced to where it is needed.
Although the process of converting to renewable sources of energy presents significant challenges, it can and must be done if the goal is to create a sustainable industrial sector. The good news is most of the technology needed to make the switch exists today, we just need to increase scale, distribution, and implementation.
3. Sustainable Transportation
Throughout the entire manufacturing process, raw materials and products are moved to and from multiple facilities. Planes, trains, cargo ships, trucks, and vans are all involved depending on the quantity, size, and destination of the cargo.
For smaller modes of transportation like trucks and vans, electric versions are preferable due to relatively shorter distances traveled and ability to charge overnight. As battery technology and charging infrastructure continues to progress, businesses that choose to electrify their fleet will decrease their transportation costs significantly (lower fuel and maintenance costs).
Electric versions of large modes of transportation like planes and cargo ships are not currently feasible. This is where advanced biofuels need to be implemented. In their current state, these biofuels are too expensive to be used at scale. More research is needed to discover more efficient methods of production, improve development, and increase scalability.
4. Reduced-Waste Packaging
The bad news: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), amounting to 82.2 million tons of generation in 2018 (28.1 percent of total generation)" (3).
The good news: Significant progress has been made by several companies in the previous few years to decrease packaging waste. Using minimal packaging, prioritizing recyclable materials (paper, cardboard, etc.), and reusing boxes/packages whenever possible are just a few strategies to limit waste.
One example of a company making great progress in reducing packaging waste is Amazon. They state that as of June 2021, they have reduced the weight of outbound packaging by over 36% and eliminated more than 1 million tons of packaging material since 2015—the equivalent of 2 billion shipping boxes (4).
Dr. Kim Houchens, Amazon's director of customer packaging experience, said “My goal would be zero packaging of any type over the next couple years. By working with the manufacturers to think through product design and their primary package, to make sure that it serves the needs of transportation all the way to your door so that we don’t have redundant packaging added during the process.”
1. Statista Research Department. (2022, April 12). World crude steel production from 2012 to 2021. Statista. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from
2. Garside. (2022, March 2). Cement production in the united states from 2010 to 2021. Statista. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from
3. EPA. (2022, March 8). Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data. www.Epa.Gov. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from
4. Amazon. (2022). Packaging. Sustainability - US. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from