Can factories become good for the environment?

Some barons of industry are building factories that give more to the planet than they take away, saving money and creating more productive spaces for workers in the process.

Manufacturing may be in decline, but factories still do what they were designed to do 150 years ago: turn raw materials into consumable goods at a maximum profit. In the process, many workers spend long hours in windowless warehouses while machines ingest natural resources and churn out products and waste. Pollution comes with the territory. Annually, U.S. factories discharge 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage and industrial waste into water, emit 3 million tons of toxic chemicals, and consume nearly 16 billion gallons of water per day.

But a handful of business leaders are reinventing the factory to elevate the people inside and respect the environments around them. By adopting the most advanced green building standards, these 21st Century barons of industry are running factories that give more to the planet than they take away. Think sunnier spaces, healthier air, and complete self-sufficiency. These buildings generate their own energy, capture and reuse water, eliminate waste, and use materials harvested from sustainable sources. Surprisingly, this kind of design often doesn’t cost more than traditional facilities and saves money on energy, results in more productive workers, and helps create better, longer-lasting products.

It may sound like some kind of post-industrial utopia, but companies such as Industrial Louvers, 30 miles west of Minneapolis, are one of the early pioneers applying a sustainable approach to their manufacturing endeavors. This past October, the 46-year-old company broke ground to build a new, 50,000-square-foot addition to their plant where they make custom louvers, sunshades, decorative grills and screens for building exteriors.

The expansion will accommodate an entirely new production line that will be free of toxic chemicals common in the aluminum industry. A stronger roof will support photovoltaic solar panels, which they hope to install in about five years. Electricity generated from the panels will run energy-intensive compressors and other electric machinery. The roof will also get a rainwater harvesting system that will direct 60,000 gallons of water to an underground holding tank, which they’ll use for the wash system on the finishing line. Lisa Britton, the company’s director of sales and marketing and its sustainability champion, says she expects that the rainwater system could supply at least 25 percent of their needs and maybe up to 100 percent.

Inside the existing building, a bland white, one-story warehouse with some offices and windows that face the street and a plant entrance at the side, they’ve already replaced the bulbs in older fixtures with LEDs. So far, they’ve seen a 15 percent drop in kilowatt hours over the same period last year. New high efficiency natural gas infrared drying and baking ovens will replace much older, less-efficient ones.

“Our strategic plan for the last couple of years has been to double our business by the year 2025. In order to do that, we have to make this investment, increase our capacity and our operational efficiencies,” says the company’s CEO Jo Reinhardt, whose father started the business in 1971.

Exact energy cost-savings are not well-known because they’re nearly doubling the size of their facility and modifying the production line. But Reinhardt says she sees it as an investment in the industry as well in the employees. Removing the toxic chemicals from the process improves air quality in the building for all of the employees. But they’ll see other benefits as well. Windows and skylights in the new manufacturing facility will bring natural light into the shop and be particularly useful in the quality control area where finished products will be inspected. A single entrance to the building as well as a new lunchroom will encourage more natural interactions between the people who work in the office area and the two shifts of employees who work in plant, painting and fabricating the products. Locker rooms give those who commute by bicycle or work out at lunch a place to shower and change. Outside, everyone will have access to an employee garden.

“Happier, healthier employees are better workers,” says Reinhardt. “They’re more productive, efficient, and loyal. We feel it pays off there. We want this to be a place where people enjoy coming to work.”

By April 2018, the new addition will be complete and the company’s dingy, windowless and inefficient manufacturing plant will be a thing of the past. Many of the changes underway were inspired by standards set by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), a nonprofit organization established in 2009 to create strict green building benchmarks that directly counter climate change. The institute runs a handful of challenges, including the Living Building Challenge, which was formalized three years earlier and the Living Product Challenge, introduced in 2015. Both have seven performance categories, called Petals, meant to push construction and manufacturing to a kind of environmental nirvana. Projects that adhere to the mandates established within each of the Petals — Place, Water, Energy, Materials, Equity, Beauty and Health and Happiness — function like they’re a part of nature. So-called “Living Buildings” and “Living Products” are built with sustainable, toxic-free materials, get all of their energy from the sun, all of their water from the sky, and create a positive impact on people and the planet. They’re beautiful and adapted to their local climate.

“We started with the mechanized production lines and cubicle systems that were designed for efficiency and now we’re recognizing the importance of designing for creativity and collaboration,” says James Connelly, Vice President of Products & Strategic Growth at the International Living Future Institute.

As of May 2017, 380 projects in 23 countries have registered for the Living Building Challenge. Of them, 73 have passed the rigorous certification. Almost all of them are homes, offices, environmental centers, or university buildings. So far, none are industrial factories. But because the institute’s Living Product Challenge requires that a manufactured item be made at a facility with zero waste and be net positive for energy and water on-site, some factories, like Industrial Louvers, have been motivated to turn up the sustainability dial on their production in order to receive full certification for a product.

Britton says that Industrial Louvers is currently undergoing an assessment to certify their line of custom sunshades as a Living Product. The products are made from pre- and post-consumer recycled materials, have a decades-long lifecycle, and are designed to reduce the energy a building requires to stay cool in hot or sunny climates. Together, these features offset the products’ cradle-to-grave environmental impacts, meaning not just those associated with manufacturing, but also acquiring the raw materials, shipping the products to customers, and the time it takes to replace it. As part of the company’s commitment to producing truly sustainable products, Britton worked with suppliers to get them to disclose the chemical makeup of their products, which contain harmful toxin such as hexavalent chromium, an industry standard that ensures years-long durability. Then she helped coordinated efforts with their pre-treatment and paint suppliers to develop toxic-free solutions that would uphold their 20-year warranty. It took a year and a half of research and development, but they did it.

“Of all of the things we’re doing, that’s the most boring, but the most important,” says Britton. “We’ll sleep better knowing that’s no longer in our facility.” The factory’s addition will support the new manufacturing line, where products will be sprayed rather than dipped.

Other examples of Living Products include the height-adjustable desk, called Float Table, from office furniture company, Humanscale, located in Piscataway, New Jersey, and the line of modular carpet tiles, called the Lichen Collection, from carpet manufacturer Mohawk Group, headquartered in Atlanta.

“Every time they’re making something, it’s actually helping to reduce the environmental impact,” says Connelly of the International Living Future Institute, “and actually turn our industrial ecosystem back in on itself to create positive impacts, instead of negative impacts.”

CXO Magazine is a new publication founded at Northeastern University to chart the ideas, events, and people shaping the future of work. Learn more.

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