Discussions about manufacturing in Australia tend to focus on either the demise of the car industry or the potential of advanced manufacturing to reinvigorate the sector as a whole.
Against the backdrop of these narratives of death and rebirth, a new study by researchers at Western Sydney University and the University of Newcastle sheds a different light on manufacturing in Australia.
Conducted over three years and funded by the Australian Research Council, the study is based on in-depth research with 10 manufacturers and it finds that along with operating dynamic and viable businesses these manufacturers are fostering a culture of just and sustainable manufacturing that is helping to tackle the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century.
The manufacturers ranged from the privately-owned engineering firm, Varley Group, which is headquartered in the Hunter region and has been operating since 1886 to the not-for-profit social enterprise and clothing manufacturer, The Social Outfit, which was established in Newtown in Sydney in 2014.
Other firms in the study were A.H. Beard, Interface, NCMC (Northern Co-operative Meat Company Ltd), Norco, OzGroup, Sebel Furniture, Soft Landing, and WorkVentures. The mix of firms included public, private and family-owned companies, producer cooperatives with manufacturing operations and social enterprises.
Out of this diversity, a common story emerged of manufacturers that are putting in place more environmentally sustainable forms of production while also providing decent jobs that help to contribute to a more inclusive society.
What’s the sustainability strategy?
Sustainability strategies include the use of lean manufacturing as the foundation for a greener and less wasteful approach, producing high quality and durable products that need to be replaced less often and innovations to keep products and their components in use for a long as possible before responsible recycling.
The just transition means prioritising workers’ wellbeing
A just approach to manufacturing is achieved by prioritising workers’ wellbeing when introducing technologies, valuing workers and their contributions and finding opportunities for employing those who face barriers in the labour market.
The report based on the research, Beyond Business as Usual: A 21st Century Culture of Manufacturing in Australia, was launched on Thursday 23 January by Senator for NSW, Dr Mehreen Faruqi (The Australian Greens Industry Spokesperson) followed by a discussion with Senator for SA, Rex Patrick (Centre Alliance), Federal Member for Parramatta, Ms Julie Owens MP (Australian Labor Party), and NSW Member for Coffs Harbour, Mr Gurmesh Singh MP (The Nationals). There were also panel discussions with representatives of the manufacturers involved in the study.
One theme from the discussions was an acknowledgement that along with value-adding and jobs growth, manufacturing makes an important contribution to a more inclusive society and environmental restoration.
The report highlights how manufacturers are taking practical steps to build a manufacturing sector that aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 9 (Industry Innovation and Infrastructure), Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).
Policy recommendations include:
- support for manufacturing sub-sectors to collaboratively develop robust environmental standards for product design, production processes and responsible care for the product and its components at end-of-life
- designing methods to appropriately account for the full cost of manufacturing high-quality and durable products in an environmentally responsible way (and the costs of not manufacturing this way)
- acting on procurement policies that are based on full-cost accounting that require robust environmental standards to be met
- engaging with customers to educate them on the benefits of durable, high-quality and responsible products, and to explain the basis of price differences
- developing partnerships between TAFE and employers to provide training in emerging areas
- developing a micro-skills approach that provides locally appropriate and timely training and skills development through collaborations between schools, training centres, employers, industry associations and unions
- support for commercial partnerships with not-for-profit social enterprises that focus on appropriate training and employment of people who face barriers in the labour market.
For those who consider that manufacturing in Australia is dead, the research shows how a vibrant and diverse sector continues to make a vital societal and environmental contribution and provides an exciting future for young people.
For those who place all their eggs in the basket of advanced manufacturing, the research shows how Australian manufacturers continue to craft a diversity of products in which hands-on work remains important and can be complemented with advanced technologies.
Jenny Cameron is a conjoint associate professor at the University of Newcastle. Throughout her academic career she has researched diverse and community economies.
Katherine Gibson is a professorial research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.
She is an economic geographer with an international reputation for pioneering research on diverse economies.
Stephen Healy is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. He has researched social and solidarity economies during a research career that spans the US and Australia.
Joanne McNeill was the research project manager for this research, based at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. She is currently employed as a Senior Lecturer (Research & Learning), Impact Innovation, Yunus Centre, Griffith University.
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