Sustainability is an ever-growing concern for manufacturers in every industry, and for good reason. Improving their sustainability practices can help these companies reduce costs, meet their own environmental goals, and provide consumers with the more earth-friendly products they increasingly desire. But the path to improved sustainability is beset by hidden pitfalls. In the rush to produce better environmental outcomes, companies can actually undermine their sustainability goals and increase costs. So executives must tread carefully, considering how new materials or sustainability processes will affect their manufacturing facilities.

Executives Must Avoid Sustainability Pitfalls

It’s hard to fault manufacturers for eagerly pursuing sustainability improvements. After all, reducing material and energy waste, eliminating inefficiencies from the development process, and creating more sustainable products can aid the planet and the company’s bottom line. But achieving these outcomes is far more complex than simply incorporating new materials or manufacturing processes. As with any large-scale company initiatives, executives must weigh their potential benefits and their potential for failure and disruption. Failing to do so risks everything from spiraling costs to worker safety issues to product contamination.

This post explores the unforeseen issues that can arise when manufacturers pursue new sustainability—and offers guidance on avoiding them. 

New Materials Can Bring New Complications 

One way that manufacturers improve environmental outcomes is through the introduction of new, more sustainable materials, such as paper, cardboard, and recyclable plastic. However, these materials possess different properties than their predecessors. As a result, they are often difficult for industrial equipment to process, which means their adoption can create unexpected issues with timelines and costs. 

To avoid those outcomes, manufacturers need processing or packaging equipment that works more effectively with sustainable materials. New low-density plastic, for example, may not fit a machine’s tensile requirements, or it may require an adjustment of the machine’s tensile settings. Stress and heat calculations must be performed on new materials to ensure their suitability to different packaging material types or sizes. If the organization’s existing machines  cannot work with these new materials, the equipment will need to be upgraded to accommodate them (if possible) or replaced altogether to avoid extensive processing issues. 

Materials with new properties also behave differently in various manufacturing environments. Paper packaging may deteriorate when exposed to excessive moisture in the air. Manipulating new materials may produce dust and other airborne particles, which can create safety concerns or even violate OSHA regulations if not accounted for. It is imperative for companies to thoroughly research the impact of the use of new materials so they can satisfy these regulations and ensure every standard has been met. Failure to do so could result in significant financial and legal consequences.

ROI Calculations Are Critical

Using more sustainable materials in the manufacturing process is just one way today’s companies can reduce their environmental footprint. Many companies also implement regenerative energy sources, such as solar panels and water reclamation equipment. Such equipment can play an important role in helping companies reach their sustainability goals. However, these kinds of improvement projects must be planned carefully to ensure that the efforts actually reduce net energy consumption.

Manufacturers must consider a range of factors as they plan sustainability initiatives, from scalability to return-on-investment (ROI) calculations, if they want to achieve meaningful improvements. Installing a water reclamation system, for example, may reduce water consumption by a few hundred gallons, but if the energy required to run the system offsets the reduction in water usage, the net impact will be too limited to justify the project. Adding solar panels provides clean energy, but maintenance issues could reduce or eliminate those benefits if the facility’s structure predisposes the installation site to leaks. Issues like these reduce the impact of a company’s sustainability initiatives and can damage its reputation. If improvement goals aren’t met, or initiatives fail altogether, consumers may question the company’s commitment to sustainability in the first place.

Manufacturers can avoid such scenarios  by carefully evaluating the potential benefits and drawbacks of new sustainability initiatives. Then they can make fully informed decisions to improve the chances that the initiatives will succeed. 

Support Initiatives Through Organizational Change

The adjustments companies make to their manufacturing processes and facilities are often a critical part of their sustainability efforts. But the changes they make to the company culture to reinforce those efforts are just as critical. If companies can’t get their employees to buy into their improvement efforts, they risk disrupting the initiatives’ timelines and reducing ROI. To generate buy-in from company stakeholders, companies must support sustainability-related changes with corresponding adjustments to existing processes, roles, and responsibilities.

Sustainability initiatives may require employees to use new technologies or equipment. In that case, the organization must provide the training necessary for those employees to do so. Organizations may also adopt new recycling practices. If so, roles and responsibilities must be changed so that employees know who is responsible for executing which tasks and how the recycling initiative’s success will be measured. Without that understanding, employees are less likely to take ownership of the initiative and drive it forward. As a result, the initiative may fail to produce the desired outcomes, which can increase internal skepticism about its value and lead to cultural pushback.  

Companies can also offer employees incentives to reach milestones on the path toward their broader sustainability goals. In this way, they motivate stakeholders and highlight the company’s progress while also reinforcing the importance of those goals. But what matters most is that these incentives and other modes of support can ultimately increase sustainability initiatives’ chances of success.


Manufacturers in every sector are working to reduce their environmental impact. Their success is essential to the planet’s well-being and, of course, their own business prospects. But improving the sustainability of their products and processes is a complex undertaking for these companies. If manufacturers don’t take the proper precautions as they pursue sustainability initiatives, they can easily fall victim to unforeseen side effects and undermine the positive impact those initiatives could have had on the environment. In addition, they can drive up their costs, reduce internal support for improvement efforts, and even put employee well-being at risk. 

There’s no doubt that more environmentally friendly manufacturing is an essential part of a sustainable future. Companies’ desire to see rapid improvements is admirable. But in their eagerness to turn their visions of the future into a reality, they must not ignore the pitfalls on the path ahead.