Sustainable manufacturing will be key to Milwaukee’s future

Manufacturing built Milwaukee. I believe sustainable manufacturing can position Milwaukee for 21st century leadership in a strategic growth sector.

Prior to taking a new position with the City of Milwaukee, I spent 11 years in Washington, D.C., working for the U.S. Department of Commerce in several different capacities. Some of my most rewarding years at Commerce were spent with an agency responsible for analyzing the impact of U.S. economic policies on American manufacturers.

From that vantage point, my colleagues and I saw and advocated for the importance of maintaining a robust, innovative manufacturing base in the United States, not only because of the jobs issue, but because of manufacturing’s increasingly strategic importance to the U.S. economy.

One state that caught my eye was Wisconsin. It ranks in the top half of all states in total exports at nearly $20 billion in 2010. Wisconsin’s economic engine, Milwaukee, stands out as the country’s most manufacturing-intensive city as a percent of workforce employed in this sector.

More importantly, Mayor Tom Barrett was among the first municipal leaders in the nation to embrace sustainability as an economic driver. In fact, back in 2004, before many other cities in the U.S. embraced this new economic development paradigm, Mayor Barrett was already leading the way, stating that he wanted “to create an alignment of economic and environmental interests that improves Milwaukee’s quality of life.”

It is my privilege to live and work in this city whose leadership and industrial base gives it a competitive advantage over every other city in this country. Every manufacturing job supports several service industry jobs in the supply chain; and jobs in the manufacturing sector pay well and require highly skilled, adaptive workers.

Even more important, manufacturing is driving current economic growth in the U.S. As policy-makers in Washington fight to maintain and create manufacturing jobs in the face of rising economic powers in Asia, they can look to Milwaukee’s historical leadership and innovation in manufacturing as an example of what U.S. cities could do to contribute to a manufacturing resurgence in America.

I don’t want to overstate my case: not everything is perfect in Milwaukee and our local economy needs nurturing. Like businesses compete with each other in the marketplace for capital, resources and sales, cities compete for similar resources like skilled labor, entrepreneurs and innovative businesses.

Milwaukee is not always going to win those battles for talent and jobs. One way to hedge our economic growth is to help ensure our homegrown talent is the most innovative and competitive it can be, especially the small and medium-sized manufacturers which are integral to the stability of our community. One way to distinguish our city, while at the same time strengthening our manufacturers, is for city leaders to promote the benefits of environmental sustainability as a competitive advantage.

Michael Porter, the eminent scholar and thinker on competitive advantage, literally wrote the authoritative book on it and illustrated how companies increase their competitive advantage by doing one or both of these items: (1) cutting costs/lowering prices; (2) differentiating products/services (e.g., through value or brand enhancement).

Thousands of companies across the U.S. have used environmental sustainability as a business practice to achieve quantifiable, bottom-line impacts that result from better resource efficiency, process improvement and waste reduction.

At its core, environmental sustainability as a business practice is about doing more with less: spending less on inputs to production, eliminating waste from the production or distribution process and finding revenue streams for manufacturing by-products while enhancing brand image and exceeding environmental regulatory standards.

Environmental sustainability has enhanced the competitiveness of a few companies you might have heard of: General Electric, 3M and Xerox, not to mention some of our homegrown success stories like Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls.

I’m glad Wisconsin is open for business because Milwaukee certainly is (and has been). In fact, under the mayor’s leadership, the city and a wide range of partners from Milwaukee and the state have developed a sustainable manufacturing program called Milwaukee E3 (Economy, Energy and Environment) whose mission is to improve the competitiveness of small and medium-sized manufacturers in Milwaukee by promoting the implementation of cost-effective sustainable manufacturing practices and technologies that collectively reduce community-wide negative environmental impacts.

There are currently eight local small and medium manufacturers in this program benefitting from a wide partnership dedicated to leveraging technical assistance resources to cut costs and improve environmental performance at these companies.

Let me be clear, Milwaukee E3 is not a single bottom-line proposition, it is a triple bottom-line to our community where these companies operate: less air and water pollution, less waste to the local landfill and an increased ability to pay family supporting wages with a profitable company that embraces corporate social responsibility.

I believe working with our local manufacturers on improving their competitiveness through the use of cost-effective environmental sustainability practices will not only distinguish our local economy in the global marketplace, but also help to improve our city’s physical environment and social infrastructure.

In fact, Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership has recently definitively demonstrated resounding returns on investments to over 40 small and medium size manufacturers across the state that implemented profitable sustainability practices.

If you don’t believe what I say about the benefits of sustainable manufacturing, what about Alan Mulally, president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Company which has gained market share for two consecutive years and just posted its largest first quarter profit since 1998:  "This is one of the most exciting times in our industry since mass automobile production began more than a century ago. New technologies are radically transforming some of the most fundamental and enduring elements of the automobile. The companies that lead these changes will create new ‘green’ jobs and generate profits while reducing fuel use and CO2 emissions, benefiting both the economy and the environment."

Matt Howard is the environmental sustainability director of the City of Milwaukee.

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