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Your Stuff is Killing the Planet — but Data is Changing That

Photo courtesy Pungu x, Adobe

Take a look around you. Notice the clothes you’re wearing, the furniture you’re sitting on and the device you’re using right now. Think about the coffee you had this morning and the machine that made it. Think about all the apartments in your building, the houses on your street and the buildings in your city, all the objects held in those walls. Every man-made object is the result of some kind of manufacturing process. Those processes consume energy, materials and labor. Now pick an object near you — can you identify the energy used to produce it? Was it clean? Can you locate the source of the materials? Do you know if there were any human rights violations in the manufacturing process? 

As consumers, we’re comfortable not knowing the finer details, because we believe someone else does, and we trust that. In reality, there is likely no one that can answer all of these questions related to whatever object you selected. That’s true of almost all the things we use in our daily lives. It’s no wonder that Bill Gates founded Breakthrough Energy and listed “how we make things” as the biggest of the group’s five grand challenges in combating climate change.

First we need to surface this information across the global manufacturing base and connect the dots to understand where we are today. From there we can take action toward a reimagined future state. Currently manufacturing is a data desert, but there are steps we can take now to change that.

Understanding the History of Supply Chain Optimization

To understand this a bit more, we need to take a look back. Supply chains have been optimized for one thing since the Second World War — cost. This endeavor of globalization saw supply chains stretch across the planet in search of cheaper capabilities. William Blake said “you become what you behold,” and there is an apocryphal quote in business often attributed to Peter Drucker: “You become what you measure.” The flip side of this is what you don’t measure atrophies; we measured cost and so manufacturing capability became cheap. But at what cost? 

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Global ecologies, human rights, provenance transparency and the climate all suffer. We have general ideas of the broader complications but no specific understanding of the impacts of global manufacturing. We know that 11X our personal carbon impact is in the supply chains for the goods we consume, but we don’t know exactly where. In fact, our supply chains account for 30% of all global emissions, the largest contributor by sector.

Every now and then data emerges on a specific good around a specific issue and the clarity can be alarming. Famously, 95% of the world’s cobalt (found in the lithium-ion batteries in our phones, computers and electric cars) comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 20% of which is mined in “artisanal and small mines,” which are notorious for modern slavery and child labor

We know we need to shift the way the world manufactures if we want to solve these existential problems, but historically, not much is being done about it. 

Adopting a Culture of Innovation in Manufacturing

Manufacturing is also a foundational industry, responsible for a lot of good in the world. It’s the global trade mechanism that sees capital flowing out of wealthy nations and into developing countries, helping them thrive. It’s how we get medical supplies, sanitation supplies and the gadgets that make our lives easier. By any stretch, global manufacturing and logistics are critical systems. 

It would be wrong to say that the manufacturing sector doesn’t innovate at all. Companies like Tesla, Vinfast and SpaceX show us what can be achieved through an innovative approach to the systems that create the products we love. Those companies innovate aggressively in data-driven design, process optimization and automation, improving their ability to produce novel offerings efficiently and transparently. Because these firms are vertically integrated, they have no barriers to collecting data. What they achieve through this approach has changed the nature of the auto and space industries. 

Data is the Key

What we need to do now is take this approach and apply it across the entire manufacturing industry. As the companies mentioned above have done, we must collect comprehensive manufacturing data: capability data, ecological data, human rights data and economic data. We must harmonize and organize that data and bring it to bear on the challenges our world now faces.

A data-rich future unlocks a world of possibilities for manufacturing. We can not only mitigate the challenges but also create outcomes that contribute to the good of the world. That also means giving consumers confidence in the products they are buying — those clothes, that furniture, that device, the coffee you had this morning. Technologies such as cloud manufacturing, AI-driven supply chain formation based on sustainability and human rights outcomes, as well as creativity boosts from data-enabled design tools are all within reach once we have access to this dataset. 

There is a bright future ahead of us, but it relies on manufacturing data transparency and everything that can enable.


Nick Benson is the Founder of Atelier, a cloud manufacturing platform for the beauty industry that creates insider access to the best product developers and manufacturers in the world to offer rapid new product innovation and reliable manufacturing of products. Prior to founding Atelier, Benson helped teams build and grow unique companies and products from blockchain applications to airlines and skincare brands.

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