Sustainable production – a new paradigm for a new millennium

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  • Int. J. Production Economics 6061 (1999) 17

    Sustainable production a new paradigm for a new millennium

    Christopher OBrien*

    University of Nottingham, Manufacturing Engineering and Operations Management, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK


    In approaching the new millennium, industry is forced to recognise it has an obligation to society not only to createwealth but to develop sustainable production systems which minimise environmental consequences. Such objectives canonly be achieved if there is the political will backed up by a coordinated R&D policy in clean and sustainabletechnologies. Three underlying questions need to be addressed:

    f what does industry need to do to address sustainable production?f who are the key players involved and what must they do to ensure that sustainable production is achieved?f how do government policy and regulation need to evolve in order to support the shift to sustainable production?

    ( 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Sustainable; Production; Environment; Re-cycling; Re-manufacture

    1. Introduction

    As society moves towards the millennium, oneissue above all others is likely to dominate thedevelopment of manufacturing industry well intothe 21st century the concept of sustainable pro-duction. As a driving force sustainability will be to21st century industry what automation was to the20th century, and steam was to the 19th century.

    By sustainable production we mean the develop-ment of manufacturing industrys ability to under-pin societys need not only to create wealth but todo so in a way which will support sustainable

    *Tel.: 115 951 4013; fax: 115 951 4140; e-mail:

    economic development. Present industrial systemsare not sustainable into the long term because oftheir demands upon the worlds natural resources.Even the development of the present industrialisednations is unsustainable at current rates of con-sumption. Add to this the natural aspirations ofdeveloping countries to emulate the consumptionpatterns of the developed world, and the scale of theproblem becomes readily apparent. To cut the rateof economic development is infeasible. The stabilityof the economic systems of the developed nationsdepends upon growth and no developing nationwill accept externally imposed limits to their owneconomic improvement.

    The industrial world was rst alerted to thedangers of unchecked industrial growth by theClub of Rome, founded in 1968, comprising a small

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  • group of researchers from a variety of dierentbackgrounds, who sought to simulate the inter-dependence and interaction of the following criticalfactors:

    f increase in populationf production of foodf industrialisationf natural resources depletionf pollution

    In its report published in a book by D.L. Meadows,The limits to growth: a report for the Club ofRomes project on the predicament of mankindthe Club reported If the actual line of developmentcontinues unchanged in these ve principal sectors,humanity is destined to reach the natural limits ofdevelopment within the next 100 years. The mostlikely result will be a sudden decline in the popula-tion level and in the industrial system. The applica-tion of technological solutions can extend theperiod of industrial development/growth and ofdemographic increase, but cannot eliminate thefundamental limits of development [1].

    The report stimulated a major debate on theneed for new initiatives to balance the worlds de-mand for economic growth and its ability to sustainsuch growth. In 1984 the World Commission onEnvironment and Development (WCED) rst metand published its report, known as the BrundtlandReport, in April 1987 [2]. The report rst denedthe term sustainable development, stating thathumanity has the ability to make developmentsustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of thepresent without compromising the ability of futuregenerations to meet their own needs. Whereas theClub of Rome report had been somewhat alarmistand pessimistic, the Brundtland Report was rathermore optimistic and emphasised the need for newstrategies if sustainable development is to beachieved, including:

    f establish environmental goals, regulations, in-centives and standards

    f make more eective use of economic instrumentsf broaden environmental assessmentf encourage action by industryf increase capacity to deal with industrial hazards

    f strengthen international eorts to help develop-ing countries

    f strengthen the role of the technological systemswhich much search continuously for new solu-tions [3].

    In 1992 the strategies put forward by the Brundt-land Report were further developed at the ocialUnited Nations conference on environment anddevelopment (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeirowhere representatives of 179 governments adoptedthe following acts in its nal session:

    1. The Rio declaration on environment and devel-opment

    2. A non-legally binding authoritative statement ofprinciples for a global consensus on the manage-ment, conservation and sustainable develop-ment of all types of forests

    3. The United Nations framework convention onclimate change

    4. Agenda 21.

    The acts sought to underline the responsibilities ofconsumers and governments, to emphasise the roleof technology, and to lay down the strategies neces-sary to underpin sustainable production, including:

    f more ecient production processes (in terms ofuse of energy and resources)

    f preventive strategiesf cleaner production technologies and procedures

    throughout the product life cyclef minimisation or avoidance of waste.

    These concepts have been taken back by the vari-ous representative governments and built into theirown legislative and strategic frameworks. Forexample, the 1994 European Commission whitepaper entitled Growth, competitiveness, employ-ment. The challenges and ways forward into the21st century states that a policy for sustainableproduction should promote

    f improved nature productivity of productsf a longer product lifetime, making repair and

    control services more attractive (labour-intensiveactivities)

    f more re-use and recyclingf improved process technologyf preventive strategies

    2 C. O+Brien /Int. J. Production Economics 6061 (1999) 17

  • f environmental industriesf research and development in environmentally

    sound technologiesf economic incentives for R&Df scal incentives for R&D (tax credit schemes for

    research)f bio-technologyf common information areaf eciency in transport networks (as well as for

    energy)f internalisation of external costsf redistribution of tax burden so as to lighten the

    burden on labour and increase the burden on theuse of natural resources [3].

    Whilst the need to address issues of sustainabledevelopment are now recognised by governmentsaround the world, the realisation of the objectivesof sustainability requires a fundamental shift in theattitudes of governments, industry and consumers.A number of underlying questions have to be ad-dressed:

    f what does industry need to do to address sus-tainable production?

    f who are the key players involved, and what mustthey do to ensure that sustainable production isachieved?

    f how do government policy and regulation needto evolve in order to support the shift to sustain-able production?

    2. Industrys challenge

    In recent years, much of the attention of environ-mentally conscious industries has focussed aroundthe need for end-of-pipe solutions, particularly inrelation to the treatment of waste and the control ofemissions into the atmosphere, water courses orlandll sites. Such solutions however do not inthemselves promote eciency gains or improve-ments in productivity. If the concept of eco-ecien-cy (the achievement of economic and ecologicaleciency at the same time) put forward by theWBCSD is to be achieved, then companies mustdesign, produce, distribute, and dispose or recycleproducts in such a way that the associated environ-

    mental impacts and resource use levels are at leastin line with the earths estimated carrying capacity.This requires a fundamental re-think in the designof a product to take account of all stages of a prod-uct life cycle, and a shift in manufacturing processesfrom cleaning technologies to clean technologieswhich reduce the actual level of emissions producedand the energy and other resources used duringprocessing. Nor should the scale of the problem beunderestimated. If the objectives of sustainable pro-duction are to be achieved on a global scale, reduc-tions in material throughput, energy use andenvironmental degradation of over 90% will berequired by the year 2040 to meet the needs ofa growing world population fairly within theplanets ecological means. This demand on industryto achieve current levels of industrial growth withonly one-tenth of the input of resources has beenlabelled the factor 10 approach.

    The achievement of such ambitious objectivesrequires a radical re-think of many of industryspractices. Continuous improvement is not enoughand a step change in environmentally related per-formance is required. Environmental consider-ations must be integrated into the corporate cultureand business planning at all levels of design, manu-facturing, distribution, and disposal. In the past,product design and manufacturing processes havebeen developed to serve the needs to produce high-quality products at minimum cost to promote thecompetitiveness of the company. Although recycl-ing and recovery have always been considered, theyhave had to compete on purely economic termsagainst the use of virgin raw materials and disposal.Such economic decis