Manufacturing is changing. With technology making the unachievable achievable, customers demanding transparency around product creation and operations teams driving innovation, the manufacturing industry is at a tipping point.
This is set against the backdrop of a highly impactful people's movement focused on climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The opportunity for manufacturers to change their production processes and secure their future is here.
In June, the UK became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law which will bring all GHG emissions to net zero by 2050. Clean growth is already a key theme in the UK's industrial strategy and there is an opportunity for manufacturers to capitalise on this now to benefit their people, customers and the wider community.
It's estimated that the number of 'green collar jobs' could grow to two million and the value of exports from the low carbon economy will increase to £170bn annually by 2030.
Achievements to date have been impressive. UK GHG emissions have fallen by 42% since 1990, while economic productivity has risen by two-thirds. The change, however, has been driven by the decline in coal-fuelled power and the expansion of renewable energy. Five years ago, 40% of UK electricity came from coal power stations - now it is less than 5%.
From our manufacturing base in Craigavon, we operate as a sustainability leader of 25 years' standing. Each year our 200 colleagues produce five million sq m of flooring. At first you may think smokestacks and chemicals, but we have eliminated all these things and more.
Over the past 25 years our 'Mission Zero' vision has been to reduce our environmental footprint and have no negative impact by 2020. At first, people thought this impossible, unprofitable and even irrational. To force change our founder Ray Anderson created an 'unreasonable goal' in the early 1990s to eliminate harm and, in time, do good. He believed being unreasonable would be a 'forcing function' that produced results.
Today, globally we use 99% renewable energy at our manufacturing sites, GHG emissions are down 96%, waste to landfill has fallen by 92%, water-use per unit of production is down 89% and the carbon footprint of our carpet tiles has fallen by 69%.
Every flooring product that Interface now sells is carbon neutral across its full lifecycle through innovation and the purchase of a small number of offsets. If we can do all of this not at the expense of profit, then others can too. To support this we recently published a report 'Lessons for the Future' which details our journey and lessons learnt to help others navigate their path to positivity. By focusing on reducing impact in three key areas - factories, products and suppliers - we've made remarkable strides.
Meeting net zero targets will require a step-change in activity. Manufacturers will need to take ownership of the issue and start delivering their own solutions. Is that possible? Is decarbonisation really compatible with a thriving and growing manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland? From our experience, the answer is yes.
'Unachievable', counter-intuitive aspirations have driven our local management team to solve material challenges with science and imagination. Consequently, our operations are much more efficient, innovative and green.
And we haven't stopped there. Our latest movement is 'Climate Take Back', our commitment to help reverse global warming. We have also committed to become a carbon negative company by 2040.
Our experience of the past two decades - and it's a lesson transferable across business sectors - is that small ambition leads to small outcomes. Being counter-intuitive has paid dividends for Interface. It's changed the way we do business and shown that re-orientating Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector towards a decarbonised future can drive change that is good for both the environment and business.
Adrian Marks is site manager at Interface, Craigavon