To ensure successful futures, manufacturing businesses must balance product sustainability with business sustainability. As well as considering environmental, social and economic dimensions, they must also consider competitiveness, profitability and risk exposure.

This is something I’ve been looking at since 2007, when I began Arup-sponsored research into the business case and strategic approach for improving sustainability in manufacturing. At that time, most industrial companies recognised that improving sustainability was important, though there were (and still are) widely differing views about what exactly they had to do.

Since then, many manufacturing companies have clarified their visions of what they want to achieve. Moreover, a lot of tools and approaches have been developed to manage and improve aspects of sustainability. For example, it is now commonplace for companies to monitor and report their corporate carbon footprint.

However, Arup’s industrial sustainability consultants report that many of the manufacturers they work with still struggle to integrate different aspects of improving sustainability into viable business strategies. Many companies I visited during my research had similar issues.

I think one reason for this is that manufacturing companies usually consider sustainability in three dimensions: environmental, social and economic. But this only incorporates half of what sustainability means for industrial companies. For manufacturers, sustainability is also about ensuring future success through competitiveness, with value-added operations leading to good profitability and reduced risk exposure.

Only by incorporating these dimensions into their definition of sustainability can manufacturing companies connect their sustainability strategies to their wider business strategies. Doing this should allow companies to identify win-win opportunities, and assess trade-offs between product sustainability and business sustainability.

My research produced a methodology to assess potential improvements based on all six dimensions of sustainability. It measures and analyses how a potential improvement would affect the environmental impact of the product and the resulting exposure to business risks; the cost of the product and the resulting effect on the company’s profitability; and the value created for customers by the products and the resulting effect on the competitiveness of the business.

By developing and testing it on different products, I showed that the methodology is practical and that the six-dimensional model of industrial sustainability is valid. I believe that the underlying model may be more valuable than the methodology over the longer-term, because it provides a framework for sustainability planning and management, in addition to sustainability improvement.

A manufacturing company is now investigating how the framework can be used by one of its business units to guide its sustainability improvement efforts. Time will tell if their research confirms my beliefs.