Small Manufacturers are Hot on Sustainability, But Trouble Looms

American Small Manufacturers survey finds growing interest in sustainabilityThe American Small Manufacturers Coalition first began surveying manufacturers’ attitudes about sustainability in 2009, and it has just released the latest results in its . The 2011 study finds a significant increase in the proportion of manufacturers reporting that sustainability is either important or very important to their future.

The numbers – 59 percent today versus only 35 percent in 2009 – indicate a stronger awareness of the consumer demand for green products, and a stronger awareness of the potential for using sustainability to reduce costs and increase profits. However, the survey also reveals that most small businesses are unprepared, in terms of workforce training and technology, to take full advantage of these two trends.

Sustainability, Profitability and Job Creation

The results of the Next Generation survey are consistent with another recent survey that describes how sustainability can help small and medium-sized companies become more profitable. The findings also coincide with the Obama administration’s push for more federal support for advanced clean energy technology that creates new jobs in the U.S. As the above chart indicates, the U.S. manufacturing sector took a nose dive leading up to the end of the Bush administration, and has been on the road to recovery with these federally supported technology-driven policies in place.

A Potential Golden Age for Small Manufacturers

One significant result of the Next Generation study was the finding that almost six in ten U.S. manufacturers could have a new leadership team within the next five years, due to retirements and other turnover at the top. Given the prominent role that sustainability is carving out for itself in academia, public policy and corporate decision-making, it is likely that these manufacturers will focus even more closely on sustainability as a profit-making tool under new leadership.

An Uncertain Future for Small Manufacturers

Unfortunately, the Next Generation study also identified significant obstacles for small manufacturers, putting them at a disadvantage in the global market and also in relation to larger U.S. companies. The basic problem is that few smaller manufacturers have the wherewithal to invest in world class technologies that enable innovation, and few have developed up-to-date management practices that focus on sustainability in the supply chain. Another significant problem is the lack of resources to develop a talented, technologically advanced workforce.

A Federal Program that Helps Small Manufacturers Compete

The American Small Manufacturers Coalition commissioned the Next Generation survey in part to support a program called the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), which is run through the U.S. Department of Commerce. Apparently modeled on the long standing – and highly successful – agricultural and community health sciences Extension system run by the Department of Agriculture, MEP is designed to provide manufacturers with guidance and resources that may be beyond the reach of their in-house capabilities. It can provide an assist for larger companies, but for smaller companies that kind of help is a real lifeline.

A Real American Jobs Act for Small, Sustainable Manufacturers

For a number of years now, we’ve been hearing that tax breaks for business will create more jobs in the U.S. From the same sources, we’ve also been hearing that small businesses are vital job creators. Ironically, tax breaks may be of nominal help to large companies, but given the technological and workforce development challenges that lie head, a few thousand dollars in tax cuts here and there will do nothing to help individual small manufacturers get their hands on the resources they need to compete.  A “real” American Jobs Act that fails to provide for greater public investment in shared resources for small manufacturers will simply leave these small businesses in the lurch.

Image credit: Manufacturing job trends courtesy Office of the Democratic Leader/Nancy Pelosi on

Twitter: @TinaMCasey

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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