Sustainable Glove Choices Protect Workers and the World
Companies are now creating and prioritizing public-facing sustainability goals.
- By Rodney Taylor
- May 01, 2022
The business community has accepted sustainability as a core element of strategy and an essential component of a company’s overall value proposition.
Not only are investors increasingly engaged in assessing the climate impacts of companies, but customers are also expecting sustainability value from all the products they purchase. As a result, today it is easier to call out the number of S&P 500 companies that are not providing sustainability reports (only 8 percent) versus those who are. This is a fascinating statistic when you consider that a decade ago the number of non-reporters was 80 percent (Governance & Accountability Institute Inc., 2021). There has been a dramatic rise in investor assessment of non-financial Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) performance as part of their investment analysis and decision making. Third-party assurance of ESG performance in corporate reporting has now become standard practice for mid to large-cap companies worldwide. Despite these impressive gains there is still a long way to go in corporate disclosure of meaningful data and reduction targets that truly reduce and offset environmental impacts.
Companies are now creating and prioritizing public-facing sustainability goals. Many of these sustainability goals are extremely aggressive. What is less clear when you dig into sustainability execution plans is how individual operating units and business functions will make tangible contributions to these aggressive goals. Traditional “green” initiatives (e.g., reducing paper, internal recycling programs, etc.) will be necessary but not sufficient to meet sustainability targets. Achieving sustainability targets for reduced carbon emissions will take significant effort and expense and will require action across every organizational function. At the same time, managers are expected to trim costs and reduce operating budgets.
What’s Carbon Got to do With it?
In 1824, French physicist and father of modern heat transfer analysis Joseph Fourier calculated that an Earth-sized planet at our distance from the Sun should be much colder. He posited that something in the atmosphere must be acting like an insulating blanket and trapping heat. Future scientific investigation confirmed that there is a blanket primarily composed of carbon dioxide and water vapor in Earth's atmosphere that traps infrared radiation and maintains planetary temperatures in a range that supports life—this process is often referred to as the “greenhouse effect.” This phenomenon is critical to life on planet earth. However, further analysis by scientists has confirmed the composition of this blanket can be altered by changes in the atmospheric composition of certain gases. The main gases responsible for the greenhouse effect include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor (which all occur naturally), and fluorinated gases (which are synthetic). Greenhouse gases have different chemical properties and are removed from the atmosphere, over time, by different processes (NASA.gov).
Since life began on this planet, the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has remained between about 200 and 280 parts per million. But in the past century, that concentration has jumped to more than 400 parts per million—driven by human activities. The higher concentrations of greenhouse gases are causing more heat to be trapped in the atmosphere leading to global temperature rise. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect. Global temperature rise can have a devastating impact on the planet’s overall ability to support life—too numerous to review in this article.
The imperative for the people that populate this planet is to reduce human impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Globally, corporations have the biggest carbon footprints of any source. Just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s GHG emissions, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit CDP in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute. Businesses across the globe are stepping up to do their part in reducing carbon emissions.
What are Emissions Scopes?
Every business has a carbon footprint associated with its normal operations. Corporate emissions are generally categorized into “scopes” to help bucket emissions sources and behaviors.
Scope 1 – direct emissions from company assets. Scope 1 includes emissions from combustion, process emissions and accidental emissions like leaks and spills.
Scope 2 – indirect emissions from purchased energy like heating and cooling buildings and running production processes.
Scope 3 – all other emissions associated with a company’s activities.
A good way to understand what each scope includes is Scope 1 = what the company burns; Scope 2 = energy the company buys; and Scope 3 is everything beyond that (Sustain.life, 2021). This includes all other indirect emissions associated with a company’s upstream and downstream operations. Scope 3 typically represents the most significant contributor to a company’s carbon footprint because it includes things like:
- Waste generated in operations and waste disposal
- Purchased goods and services
- Transportation and distribution tied to suppliers and customers
- Emissions from the use of a product or service sold
- Product’s end of life (when it’s no longer useful)
Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions are generally more straightforward to understand and track. But Scope 3 emissions are often the largest culprit of a company’s carbon footprint. Scope 3 emissions include an array of carbon-emitting activities that, when added up, often account for more significant carbon emissions than Scopes 1 and 2 combined. This is important as there tends to be a heavy industry focus on Scope 1 and 2 emissions, but Scope 3 emissions are just as important and can provide low hanging fruit for sustainability gains. Reducing waste can make a massive difference. Carbon emissions from the waste sector (largest end of life point for industrial PPE) have steadily declined, due in large part to effective mitigation measures, but still exceed 100 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents or CO2e. (EPA) annually. According to the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, small reductions in waste output can have a large impact on overall carbon emissions.
How Can Sustainable Products Help?
This is where sustainable products like sustainable PPE bring measurable value via globally accepted reporting metrics. Several leading industrial glove manufacturers have developed innovative technologies aimed at reducing carbon footprints. Broadly, these technologies leverage recycled or renewable content or have been designed with intentional end-of-life strategies such as recyclability or biodegradability. There was a time that “green” products were generally expected to offer lower performance at significant price premium. Advances in technology and economies of scale fueled by increased customer demand for sustainable products have turned those expectations on end. Many of the sustainable products entering the market today offer not only performance on par with non-sustainable alternatives but also offer a lower total cost of ownership at comparable purchase prices to incumbent solutions. This is particularly true in the industrial glove sector.
The increasing need for sustainable products has accurately been labeled “one of the key challenges facing industry in the 21st century” (Maxwell, Journal of Cleaner Production, 2003). Safety equipment suppliers recognize their critical role in developing sustainable products through sustainable production methods. Innovative product solutions must be combined with new ways of assessing the environmental impact of using these products.
Technology is the foundational first step, but stakeholders need quantifiable benefits to post against increasingly aggressive ESG assessments. There are several independent, objective assessment tools that can help calculate carbon footprints, including relatively simple calculators offered by The Nature Conservancy and the EPA. Leading industrial glove suppliers are not only providing innovative sustainable hand protection solutions but are also helping their customers quantify the environmental impact of these solutions. The output of these sustainability assessments can be fed back into ESG reporting. Further, sharing stories of tangible actions to be good corporate citizens and the global effort to combat climate change can generate a tremendous amount of goodwill to fuel employee morale and stakeholder engagement.
According to a study by the National Environmental Education Foundation, almost 90 percent of employees engaged in their company’s sustainability work say it enhances their job satisfaction and overall feelings about the company. With these facts in mind, think about how sustainable hand protection can make an impact in an industrial production setting. The path is straightforward. Companies provide appropriate hand protection required to allow workers to complete their work safely. Sustainable hand protection is deployed that offers comparable performance to higher carbon footprint incumbent. The immediate benefit is a sustainability benefit that can be quantified (using any metrics that align with company ESG commitments). The result is an immediate and impactful sustainability win that both motivates and engages employees while energizing broader stakeholders, investors and customers.
While maintaining fit, form and function suitable for application tasks and hazards, sustainable hand protection can offer a tremendous value-add proposal: quantifying and measuring environmental offset data consistent with company ESG targets. The discovery and analysis of this data will then inexorably lead to the next phases in environmental stewardship. Objective, data-driven processes then take shape and align business growth with environmental goals.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.