Sustainability Science Program Working Paper No. 2013-04

Sustainability Science Program Working Paper No. 2013-04

Manufacturing Sector Discussion Paper: Background Paper for the Project on Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development

Kira Matus, Vanessa Timmer and Dwayne Appleby


This background paper examines how the model set forth in the “Conceptual Framework for the Project on Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development” applies to the manufacturing sector.  Increasing innovation and access to technology for greater sustainability and equity in the manufacturing sector requires a systemic perspective – manufacturing products and processes include solutions that span the material resources, water, energy, agriculture and health sectors. In fact, manufacturing processes create products essential to each of these sectors. Manufacturing aimed at advancing society toward sustainability needs to be defined in the context of a fair and socially just economic system that meets the needs of all people while maintaining the Earth’s life support systems.

The industrial revolution over the past two centuries is responsible for many of our largest environmental challenges, but has also brought unprecedented improvements in the quality of life for a huge proportion of the world’s population. The products of the manufacturing sector are required both for their direct benefits, but also because the production of goods is one of the major drivers of economic livelihoods. Production and consumption are fundamental human activities, and a sustainable future will require a better understanding of the kinds of technological changes and the transformation in the industrial system that are required to make these activities sustainable for generations to come. Overall, changes in consumption are driven by norms around consumption and the way in which key needs are filled by a balance of tangible goods and different services. Technological innovation to support sustainable development in this area is also indispensable, particularly when it is coupled with social innovations that support its implementation.

Moving the global innovation system in this sector towards a more sustainable trajectory requires solutions that address key weakness in terms of the development and flow of technical information, the capacity to identify, evaluate and implement new technologies at a local (firm/individual/organizational) level, institutional structures that do not overly privilege incumbent technologies, better information flow through value chains, capacity building for understanding and adapting to complexity, and a rebalancing of priorities to expand beyond narrow definitions of efficiency. For each of these, there are ways in which institutions can be leveraged to circumvent and generate solutions to weaknesses. But more data and research is required to better understand which approaches will be of broader applicability in the manufacturing sector. Broader shifts are also taking place within the manufacturing sector in which the traditional industrial model of linear extraction, use and discard is being fundamentally challenged and moved toward a circular model of reuse and redesign. The question remains as to how this transformation of manufacturing impacts the most vulnerable in society and catalyzes innovation to advance sustainability.

Keywords: sustainable manufacturing, innovation, green production

Download the paper in PDF format