The Little Manufacturer that Could (Be Sustainable)
My children, ages three and five, are typical boys: rambunctious, curious, and seemingly tireless. Like many boys they love anything to do with trains, including reading the classic storybook, “The Little Engine that Could”. There is something magical about rereading stories of your childhood to your own children. To see the way your children engage with and interpret the story is warming, and it provides a parent with a sense of connectivity and balance. I have also discovered, in the act of rereading childhood stories like “The Little Engine that Could,” that many have an everlasting message of hope, resilience, and accountability. These remain important messages for children and for adults as we transition our way through life.
It is well established that the production of goods is an essential element for a well-functioning economy and society. For a long time the manufacturing sector was the economic engine of America. Yet in the past decade, America had drunk the proverbial globalization Kool-Aid and many high performing manufacturing companies chose to compete against each other in a “race to the bottom” driven by customer demand for lower priced and higher quality goods, all the while regulatory controls and the costs of business escalated and squeezed profits. This formula, even at a global scale with use of lower cost labor or less restrictive regulation, is ultimately unsustainable. Where many manufacturers doubled down on globalization, assuming the world was big enough to bail them out, others chose a less conventional path. The path was and remains a steep climb. The path is unchartered, and for small manufacturers without deep pockets or the backing of equity investors, the course appears outright ridiculous. But amid the complexity of globalization, the collision of converging challenges like energy supply and price volatility and climate change, manufacturers like Harbec, Inc. have found solace in sustainability as they reinvent the art and science of modern manufacturing.
Situated near Webster, NY Harbec, Inc. remains a bustling business whereas building after building at large industrial complexes once occupied by Kodak and Xerox remain vacant, dormant, and an emotional reminder of a manufacturing economy that once was. Until recently sustainability has been a buzzword for business, a conceptual idea far away from the production and cost reality needs of manufacturers. However, companies like Harbec have discovered that sustainability opens a doorway to pragmatically manage business risk and reputation while earning new opportunities. As the “race to the bottom” continues, companies pursuing a sustainability strategy are realizing they can achieve access to new markets, higher margins for their products, and lower operating costs. By de-risking their future and working on new economy products for customers that are produced with a lower carbon, water, and energy footprint, Harbec and other new-age manufacturers are recapturing their role in the modern American economy.
In a sense Harbec is the “Little Engine that Could,” chugging and climbing its way over the mountain, chanting “I think I can, I think I can” so that the “good little boys and girls” (our future generation), can get their toys delivered, and also with a lower impact on natural resources and the environment. Businesses like Harbec are re-teaching us, like the way my two boys with wild imaginations are learning from the Little Engine story, that by having a strong sense of purpose and passion, and by working hard with determination, we can overcome large obstacles, even in the face of ambivalence and the status quo. After a decade of chugging up the steep sustainability learning curve, Harbec is now saying loudly, “I knew I could” to its peers in the manufacturing sector. They do this with a desire to help small manufacturers see the value of sustainability as a strategy to differentiate their businesses, and thrive once again.
We should celebrate the work of American manufacturers working hard to earn the right to be in business another day. Through their ingenuity, discipline, and hard work they provide a sense of possibility to an economy and generation in transition. Further, they remain a critical backbone to the American culture, lifestyle, and economy which supports and enables our collective freedoms, and so that our children can remain optimistic dreamers that don’t accept adversity at face-value, but rather say “I knew I could!”
Mark Coleman is president of CMM and the author of the book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!, www.thesustainabilitygeneration.com. Throughout his career Mr. Coleman has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment, and sustainability. His career has spanned strategic and leadership positions in government, applied research, technology development, and management consulting organizations. This rich and diverse experience has enabled Mr. Coleman to have access to, engage, and work with a broad range of regional, national, and international leaders on the subject of sustainability. Mr. Coleman resides in Auburn, NY with his wife Aileen and two sons Owen and Neal.
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