Taking a global perspective of manufacturing from 2014 on

Manufacturers overseas are taking it upon themselves to tackle the challenges of implementing sustainability as a core business model, but this is just the first step along a much longer path.

This is the fourth article of a 4-part series by PSFK that investigates the findings in our sustainability report.

As consumers we are most familiar with the final stage of a product–the item and its packaging, and some basic information about where it was produced, but thanks to today’s information age a product’s backstory is becoming just as important in the minds of consumers.

Dingding Guan - PCH

Look no further than the success of brands like Patagonia or TOMS to see that the topic of ‘sustainability’ has gained traction in the minds of consumers and producers alike. And while we all may agree that the products we purchase should be produced in a more sustainable way, the realities of achieving those standards is a long process requiring both innovation in its truest sense and an unwavering commitment to instilling new standards into methods of production.

In part response to a growing consumer and producer demand, and in part because it is simply the right thing to do, a handful of manufacturers overseas are taking it upon themselves to tackle the challenges of implementing sustainability as a core business model, but there is still a ways to go.

As part of a larger series on sustainability, PSFK will be exploring the topic through the lens of the initiatives of PCH, specifically its manufacturing in China as detailed in its recently released sustainability report. As we look at manufacturing in 2014 and beyond, to succeed both on the balance sheet and in the minds of consumers and producers, producers will need to have a stake in the communities where they exist, and become even more aware of the resources they are using.

The current landscape for manufacturing is undoubtedly being influenced by consumer purchase patterns, which suggest a trending interest in sustainability. However the concept that consumers can influence the standards imposed on an industry has been witnessed many times before.

“This is the same approach that can be observed in the food industry where consumer concern in relation to human health has driven increased traceability resulting in better supply chains. We need the same level of transparency in the tech industry and visibility into the supply chain is the crucial first step towards positive impact.”

Alan Cuddihy, Head of Sustainability, PCH

However consumer advocacy for better products is just one side of the coin. The other side is brands sourcing manufacturers specifically because they can demonstrate progress towards sustainable practices. Terry Foecke, Head of Supplier Development of the Sustainability Team at PCH, comments:

“There is now a demand for sustainability from both clients and consumers which is more sophisticated than ever before. Requests for certifications and reports are turning into expectations of progress. This is due to global citizens’ increased understanding that if their children and grandchildren are to have productive, safe and fulfilling lives, change is needed. These changes are often so complex that we as manufacturers cannot expect citizens to make all the required choices: it is time for organizations who make products to assure that what they are providing does not have negative environmental and social impacts.”

On the one hand consumers and producers are demanding more conscious practices from their manufacturers, and on the other hand it is the sobering reality that we need a more cohesive effort from all parties involved. Alan Cuddihy comments:

“There is no other way to move forward and make progress. Consumer demand for manufactured goods is inevitable and indefinite, but resources in many cases are finite. Sustainability cannot be achieved without collaboration among all the parties involved.”

To achieve buy-in requires a mix of transparency and working together with as many parties as possible. Terry Foecke continues:

Yuhui Peng - PCH

“Transparency means going beyond “what” is done to design and make products to “how” it is done. And when we know the “how” we can begin to figure out “how can it be better?”. This means products and processes that are safer, faster, more efficient, and smarter. More and more companies realize that a distant relationship with manufacturing is risky. In the 21st century, the challenge is not to create new knowledge but to gather and apply the volume of information already out there.”

Implementing sustainable practices across its supply chain and workforce at PCH is just the foundation for much more. Founder and CEO Liam Casey knows that the company is still learning and there is room to improve, but PCH is constantly working with its customers and suppliers by making recommendations and adopting best practices in its own operations. He comments:

“Our next step in 2014 and beyond is to expand our initiatives and then scale them across the entire supply chain. Since one of our greatest sustainability opportunities is influencing companies at the beginning of their product design phase, we will be working with our customers to reduce packaging, hazardous materials and chemicals in their products, as well as implementing smart, just-in-time manufacturing that reduces inventory and potential waste.”

As ‘sustainability’ captures the hearts and minds of consumers, producers and manufacturers alike, innovation will be required to rethink processes at every stage of a product’s life cycle.

The challenges are complex, but a handful of manufacturers are taking it upon themselves to tackle these challenges as fundamental to their core business model. Going forward, countering the most intractable issues around implementing sustainable practices will require a mix of innovation, collaboration and commitment from all parties involved.

This article was originally published on PFSK on 15th December, 2014. More on this series is available here.

Images by Gareth Brown