Sustainability and Environmental Compatibility

R&D Trend 2022 / 2023

Greenwashing Is Yesterday’s News

For a growing number of companies, sustainability is no longer just a marketing argument, but an economic necessity. In a time characterized by supply bottlenecks for raw materials and rapidly rising energy prices, using scarce and expensive resources efficiently is gaining importance. Zero emissions and CO2 neutrality are also increasingly coming into focus. 

There are many approaches to shaping a sustainable economy. Perhaps the most sustainable one – to stay in the terminology – is that of »strong sustainability«: This concept places ecology at the center of all efforts. The idea is that a strong social system can only be formed within an intact ecosystem, and only a strong social system will produce an economy that functions in the long term. A society that exploits its environment beyond its regeneration capacity is not economically viable in the long term, let alone capable of survival. 

More sustainability is therefore achieved first and foremost through ecological action. The importance of ecological action is currently being recognized more strongly than ever before. Just a few years ago, energy efficiency and the sparing use of resources were in large parts of the economy primarily sales arguments for companies that wanted to »give themselves a green makeover«. Now they are becoming a prerequisite for competitiveness. Since energy prices have exploded and even raw materials from which one would not have expected this – wood, for example – have become a luxury good, it has become clear, at the very latest: Things cannot go on as before. 

Saving energy, reducing emissions

The areas where the pressure to act is currently greatest are energy efficiency, closely linked to CO2 neutrality. Energy is becoming increasingly expensive. The causes lie, on the one hand, in market effects. Emerging economies are increasing demand, while international crises are tightening supply. On the other hand, CO2 compensation payments, such as those enshrined in the German Climate Change Act, place an additional burden on industry. But they also create strong incentives. According to the Energy Turnaround Barometer 2021 published by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), a third of German companies want to become climate-neutral by 2030 or sooner. To remain competitive, especially internationally, their energy consumption must drop noticeably. 

Here, too, data-based approaches are interesting. Intelligent control technology, such as we have developed together with the company ÖKOTEC Energiemanagement, can infer ideal setpoints from energy measurement data, which are then automatically transmitted to the relevant machines. In this way, the most energy-efficient operating mode is not only determined, but directly set on the machine. Advances in artificial intelligence will in the coming years leverage additional potential in this area. Further approaches are offered by applying more energy-efficient basic physical principles in mechanical engineering.

From linear to circular economy

The next challenge is obtaining raw materials. »Supply difficulties as well as significant price increases for primary products and resources are currently not only causing problems for internationally oriented German industry – they are affecting companies in all sectors and of all sizes,« the DIHK stated in a flash poll in August 2021. Against this background, we are strengthening our plea for a circular economy

The widespread linear economy entails a disproportionate consumption of resources. The problem was already evident before the COVID 19 crisis made the scarcity of raw materials an issue for society as a whole. Modern economy extracts raw materials from its environment to produce goods that are used and then disposed of. With the amount of goods that a growing world population needs and demands, this economic method reaches its limits. 

Circular economy postulates a regenerative system. Energy and material cycles are slowed down or closed. This reduces resource and energy consumption, while producing less waste and emissions. An important key here is remanufacturing and refurbishing. At the end of their useful life, products are not disposed of but refurbished or broken down into components that can be recycled or even reused. 

Resource-saving lifecycle design

Where the use of raw materials cannot be avoided, they must be used in a material-saving manner. The best way to do this is to make the entire lifecycle of a product sustainable right from the start. Even the first decisions that product developers make have a direct impact on the ecological balance of products. For example, it is not enough for them to be power- or fuel-efficient in operation. »Real« sustainability must also take into account how much energy and material is used in manufacturing and under what conditions the product is produced – for example, which social standards were decisive in the process. And: to what extent it can be disposed of with little waste at the end of its service life. 

Our researchers are therefore looking at a wide range of solutions to make products sustainable over their entire lifecycle. This begins with product creation and ends with the use of biopolymers that can be disposed of without leaving residues. 

Demonstrating and communicating corporate responsibility

Admittedly: Sustainability means effort, and that comes at a price, too. Energy efficiency, for example, is not possible without investing in modern production technology. But the good news is that it pays off. Consumers are increasingly rewarding sustainability in their purchasing decisions. Companies are therefore well advised to make their efforts transparent, for example in their financial reporting. With the Integrated Sustainability Cockpit (INC) and other methods, we provide industry with suitable tools for this purpose. 

In conjunction with appropriate data management, such solutions make a decisive contribution to prove responsible action. Corporate social responsibility is motivating a growing number of companies to provide evidence of the origin and manufacturing conditions not only of their products, but also of their products’ components. In some cases, such evidence is even mandatory. At this point, a look at the supplier network becomes interesting again. Being able to show not only in one’s own company, but also in the manufacturing processes of supplied components under which conditions they were manufactured, doesn’t just increase credibility, but also facilitates certifications. 

Our solutions for this topic area

  • Energy and resource efficiency through optimal process parameters
  • Lifecycle design based on sustainability criteria
  • Remanufacturing and refurbishing for material efficiency and waste prevention
  • Circular economy concepts for sustainable production of goods
  • Sustainability benchmarking and cockpits for future-oriented business design

Q & A

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Holger Kohl

Fraunhofer IPK


Sustainability Potentials Identified

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Learn more about our R&D on circular economy in our customer magazine FUTUR.