Manufacturers remain bullish on sustainability but need more clarity on climate regulation

US manufacturers who participated in our Sustainable Manufacturing Summit this week are bullish on sustainability and are continuing to invest in green strategies despite the economic downturn. What’s missing for companies is clarity on the timing and substance of carbon regulation. Certainty over a national cap-and-trade system is necessary for manufacturers to make projections of carbon costs over time and develop long-term sustainability plans.

Attendees gathered at Chicago’s Navy Pier for this second annual event looking at best practices in sustainable manufacturing. Participants were a combination of technical professionals (engineers, facility/energy managers, EHS) and strategic sustainability executives (vice presidents, CEOs, directors) all looking for news they could use. Industry was clearly excited to get together and exchange ideas.  Right now sustainability professionals are  being bombarded with environmental news and some find it a challenge to filter information – and do their jobs.

The session on carbon regulation provided some clarity on Climate Bill and mandatory GHG reporting. Experts estimated a December timing for the Climate Bill (before Copenhagen) and a October/November timing for final GHG reporting rules with companies expected to report 2010 emissions in 2011. Manufacturers were also advised to contact their state energy departments about federal funds flowing for energy efficiency projects included in the stimulus package.

But as with any social or economic revolution, the real change in sustainable manufacturing is coming from the companies that are voluntarily investing in broad sustainability plans during this recession. Sustainability experts from Herman Miller and Shaw Industries talked about the importance of their CEOs’ commitment to sustainability and that they are continuing to broaden their green strategies despite the economy.

Industry is excited about the opportunities for energy efficiency projects and renewables investment coming from climate regulation and new technologies. One manufacturer discussed setting up separate capital funds to pay for energy efficiency projects so that they don’t have to compete with other projects for investment.

Despite the positive outlook for sustainable production, attendees also identified common sustainability hurdles including employee motivation, regulatory uncertainty and budgetary constraints. Ken Alston, CEO of MBDC, suggested the need for a fundamental change in corporate mindset for some companies. “There is a fundamental paradigm shift that has to change from where we are going from being less bad to being more good,” he said. Letitia Webster of the North Face also brought up the need for a more systemic, holistic approach to sustainability planning – which is the basis of our ASA series and our Seattle event.

Overall it was exciting to hear how enthusiastic manufacturers are about continuing to push for new levels of sustainable production and to share best practices. The timing seems right for companies to develop the green strategies that will deliver long-term profitability. “I am bullish on sustainability – I think the time is now,” said Ira Feldman, President and Senior Counsel for Greentrack Strategies. “I want to congratulate the Green Power people for bundling these sustainability events under the Action for a Sustainable America banner.”

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