4 Lessons for Building a Sustainable Manufacturing Plant

Method Products has opened the doors of its sustainability-oriented “South Side Soapbox” factory in the economically depressed south side of Chicago, and the move should boost the environmental chops of the “planet-friendly” brand of household, fabric and personal care products.

At the same time, selecting and perfecting the site and beginning operations at the 150,000-square-foot facility has taught Method some lessons that could be valuable to other manufacturing CEOs and COOs.

The Soapbox is the first LEED-platinum certified factory in its industry, the highest level attainable. Among other things, this means that the plant not only guards environmental sensitivities, but also has been integrated as much as possible with the local community.

“South Side Soapbox will operate on 100-percent renewable energy in its first two years.”

So, for instance, Method’s South Side Soapbox will produce half of its annual electrical needs with an on-site refurbished wind turbine and solar-energy system, and along with renewable-energy credits, will operate on 100-percent renewable energy in its first two years. There’s also a 1,520-square-foot green roof covering the entry walkway, a light-reflecting concrete and rooftop, skylights in the distribution center and a 120-gallon, solar-powered water-heating system.

Also, the Soapbox exemplifies Method’s commitment to the local community, with measures ranging from “the world’s largest rooftop greenhouse farm” at the plant, which will market its produce to the Chicago retail and restaurant market, to the lack of a fence around the 22-acre factory site, providing public access to the green space. And three and a half acres have been developed as a natural habitat for wildlife while the remaining land is being restored.

Here are 4 lessons about sustainable manufacturing that have been learned along the way, from Garry Embleton, vice president of operations and supply chain for Method.

1. Start with a community orientation. “Having a positive impact where you manufacture and the location of that manufacturing is something that was very much a part of our thinking and strategy around [our] approach,” Embleton told Manufacturing CEO Briefing. “We didn’t want to build in a corn field; we didn’t want to build in the middle of nowhere. We wanted to find an area where we could build a great facility and in a location where we could have a positive benefit in connection with the community where we’re situated.”

2. Keep the end-customer in mind. For many Method customers, the sustainability of the company’s supply chain is important. “There’s more focus [today] around not just products, but also where the products came from—soil to shelf,” Embleton said. “So it’s increasingly important for brands and manufacturers to be able to be transparent and for things within the product to be traceable and to be able to talk about all of the practices and approaches as it relates to how that end” product is manufactured.

3. Recognize the broadening of “sustainability”.Embleton said that, beyond purely environmental considerations, “more and more we’re getting questions like, ‘What are the labor practices that you employ?’ with a focus on avoiding practices that may involve underage labor. And, ‘As a sustainable premium brand, do you pay your workers a living wage? Do your workers have healthcare benefits? Do you source ingredients in areas of the world where you know what the practices are?’

So there’s a real broadening, and the questions are changing, and a lot of it is consumers not just wanting to understand whether anything illegal or bad is being done but, ‘If I support this product, is it sprouting good things in the supply chain?’”

4. Build the costs in from the start. Building a LEED-certified factory “comes at a premium,” Embleton said. “You have to build those elements into the initial design and it has to be part of your economic framework. You can’t think of it as a bolt-on cost. You also have to think about the longer-term payback: Most renewable-energy elements take 5 to 10 years, not one to two years.”


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