Foundries and the Evolution of Sustainable Manufacturing

Bryant Esch

Metalcasting, one of the oldest industrial processes known to humanity, has traditionally been synonymous with recycling. For centuries, foundries have transformed old metal scraps into new products, embodying a form of environmental sustainability. While this is a foundation to a claim that a well-run foundry is an environmentally sustainable business, what other opportunities define a foundry’s success in achieving benchmark environmental performance? In today’s rapidly changing landscape, what does sustainability truly mean for foundries, and how can they stay ahead of evolving standards?

As a freshly-minted environmental professional in 1990, I unpredictably found myself immersed in the metals industry. Working with a family-owned electroplating firm, I witnessed firsthand the challenges posed by burgeoning environmental regulations. Significant legislation including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Resource Recovery and Conservation Act had been promulgated in the 20 years prior. Even from the viewpoint of a young manufacturing manager, the costs and impacts these environmental requirements held over the business’s operation were apparent. Just prior to my employ, the company had faced enforcement action under the Clean Water Act, leading to significant operational changes and the hiring of the firm’s first environmental manager in the company’s 65-year history. Despite my judgment that the owners had acted honorably in their historical decision making, the experience significantly impacted their business as they implemented measures to prevent a recurrence. 

From this initial experience grew an appreciation of manufacturing’s significance to our society and the impact of “making something.” Many of my peers found themselves employed by governmental agencies, laboratories, and consulting firms. When asked why I had chosen an environmental career in industry in lieu of these other options, the answer that always felt right was, “manufacturing is where the action is.” 

Transitioning into the metalcasting industry felt like coming home. My first visit at Waupaca Foundry Plant 2/3 in Waupaca, Wisconsin, left an indelible impression. The intricate process, skilled workforce, and recognizable iron castings, along with the relevance of so many environmental media areas spoke volumes about the industry’s significance. I still get a wave of nostalgia when I think about it!

At the time, Waupaca held some shared experiences with my prior employer. Environmental regulation continued to expand throughout the ’90s and Waupaca’s management was focused on maintaining regulatory compliance and working to be a good neighbor in the rural communities where facilities operated. This focused paradigm was challenged near the turn of the century. Stemming from growing global concern and the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the United Nations reached an agreement to protect the environment by reducing the negative impacts of business’ activities. This sentiment progressed as the International Organization for Standardization developed the ISO 14001 Environmental management systems – Specification with guidance for use in 1996. 

The Dawn of EMS

ISO 14001 would evolve over time, but its initial introduction made a splash with the largest automotive OEMS, who issued a mandate to improve environmental impact within their supply chains. Waupaca, along with many other U.S. metalcasters, were faced for the first time with environmental requirements not stemming from regulation or the jurisdiction of the U.S.

The new mandates generated some initial consternation, but ISO 14001 implementation and certification marked a pivotal moment for Waupaca and its peers. It propelled the adoption of formal Environmental Management Systems (EMS), fostering a culture of continuous improvement. The company was functionally familiar with the predominate management standard of the time––the quality-focused ISO 9001––but development of a formal EMS offered an expansion of the existing and limited compliance-driven management approach. Through meticulous assessment of environmental aspects and impacts posed by metalcasting operations, foundries like Waupaca began systematically addressing their ecological footprint. 

For my early compliance-biased brain, the ISO 14001 EMS revealed the importance of (1) managing programs over individual projects and (2) goal-setting with clearly stated objectives and targets. By 2001, Waupaca Foundry had successfully leveraged the new EMS to drive improvements in various environmental areas including water use and discharge, solid waste recycling, and air pollution control. The EMS grew in maturity and served as a catalyst for early improvements in energy use reduction (later evolving to an understanding that energy consumption and resulting emissions represented Waupaca Foundry’s largest environmental impact). Subsequently, in 2016, Waupaca Foundry achieved ISO 50001 Energy Management System certification.

Customer Requests Multiply

However, the landscape continued to evolve, with stakeholders demanding transparent sustainability information. Waupaca received the first formal stakeholder request tagged as a “sustainability” inquiry in 2007. Sustainability, in the context of a balanced relationship between an organization and the environment, was familiar territory, but receiving a request packaged in this way was something new. At first, these requests arrived sporadically from the wild but grew in intensity. It became clear that the need for transparent environmental information was not a passing trend and was amplified for metalcasters with a global customer base. Those metalcasters with dozens or hundreds of customers were more likely to experience a number of those sustainably-mature customers in the ranks who wanted this information.   

From this period grew some revelations. First, many stakeholders were unsure what they were looking for but were eager to collect environmental information to build a narrative or satisfy an upstream requirement. Second, requests were rapidly expanding in scope to incorporate Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) topics also including management, human rights and working conditions, health and safety, business ethics, and responsible procurement. Third, while many foundries, including Waupaca, had achieved significant and ongoing improvements in these areas, the metalcasting industry was poor at publicly communicating this success. As a result, parties seeking information will resort to unreliable or incomplete alternative information sources. It became clear that relevant and accurate information needed to be developed and accessible for Waupaca’s stakeholders. 

This spurred Waupaca to embark on the journey of developing a Corporate Sustainability Report (CSR) in 2014. Given Waupaca’s EMS experience and a reasonably well-archived wealth of information, it appeared the development of the CSR would prove to be a relatively mundane report-writing exercise. In truth, the project highlighted some new lessons. 

It Takes a Team

A primary function of CSR development was to perform a “materiality assessment” to gather insight on the relative importance of specific ESG issues within the organization’s boundary. Issues that cause the most impact within these areas and those considered most important by the organization’s internal and external stakeholders are weighted to a higher degree of relevance. This review was like the “aspects review” conducted earlier for ISO 14001 but was more holistic and informative for the organization. Developing this assessment, and acting on the results, must be supported by the business integration of sustainability in all foundry disciplines. Achieving ESG and sustainability goals is not simply an environmental manager’s task, but a positive outcome from a multidisciplinary sustainability team (including quality, procurement, health & safety, operations, legal, sales, etc.) working together to incorporate the wider elements of sustainability into all organizational activities. 

The CSR proved instrumental in communicating Waupaca’s commitment to sustainability, providing stakeholders with a comprehensive overview of its ESG initiatives. From emissions reduction to waste management and other relevant ESG topics, the report showcased Waupaca’s progress and future aspirations. Importantly, it underscored the collaborative effort across various departments, emphasizing sustainability as a collective responsibility. This allowed stakeholders to readily access accurate information and created a starting point for ongoing communication. The report was designed to be easy to understand and provide an account of organizational objectives and targets to achieve ESG improvement, including trials and success along the way. 

Ultimately, the initial and annual publications of the CSR have proven to be valuable tools to help stakeholders understand how continual improvement is achieved and broadcast the organization’s vision of the Green Foundry of the future. I appreciate that a large segment of the growing demand for “sustainability” information could now be satisfied by providing a single document. Stakeholders have provided positive feedback to this approach, so I unabashedly promote that the metalcasting industry expand the use of this tool as standard practice.

Roadmap to Reduction

Yet, the journey didn’t end there. More recently the stakeholder expectations for transparent ESG information to be available “on demand” has only intensified. Heretofore unseen ESG topics have now become primary drivers for information requests. These topics may now include forced labor, whistleblower, ethical recruiting, anti-corruption, and data security policies. As a result, metalcasters must be prepared to answer these questions in a complete and timely manner. 

In the vanguard of these requests is a rising demand for carbon emissions data as foundry customers seek to understand their supply chain emissions. This is accelerated with the setting of carbon and climate goals to achieve emission reductions in the pursuit of carbon neutrality or Net Zero (in some cases posing targets of 2030 or earlier). With supply chain partners prioritizing reductions in their carbon footprint, foundries like Waupaca are at the forefront of this shift.

Why is this happening now? Supply chain customers are under mounting pressure to measure and reduce emissions for fear of upcoming regulation, appearing less desirable to ESG-minded investors and financial institutions, growing consumer awareness, and losing business to competitors who are more climate focused. With these significant pressures underway, metalcasters will benefit from improving the ability to support their customers and develop and pursue their own relevant measurement and climate goals. 

To navigate this new terrain, Waupaca charted a roadmap focused on carbon emissions reduction and management. By developing an annual carbon footprint, prioritizing energy efficiency measures, and fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration, Waupaca aimed to align with emerging sustainability standards.

This roadmap outlines a comprehensive approach to reducing carbon emissions and improving sustainability within an organization. Here’s a breakdown of each step:

1. Developing an Annual Carbon Footprint: This involves tracking energy consumption and carbon emissions (Scope 1 and 2 initially, expanding to Scope 3 as the measurement system develops). This step provides a baseline for understanding the organization’s environmental impact.

2. Implementing an Energy Use Reduction Program: This program focuses on both quick wins (“low hanging fruit”) and longer-term capital investments that offer justifiable cost/benefit outcomes. By reducing energy consumption, the organization can decrease its carbon footprint.

3. Leveraging Existing Management Systems: Utilizing frameworks like ISO 14001 can help systematically manage energy use reduction efforts. Setting clear objectives and targets ensures accountability and drives progress. Consideration of implementing an ISO 50001 Energy Management System, or equivalent, to further accelerate improvements in energy efficiency.

4. Establishing a Sustainability Committee: Forming a multi-disciplinary committee dedicated to sustainability allows for diverse perspectives and expertise to be brought to the table. This committee can develop a holistic approach to managing energy use and carbon emission reductions throughout the organization.

5. Communicating Carbon Information and Climate Goals: Determine how to effectively communicate carbon information and climate goals to stakeholders. Options include proactive communication through a published CSR or providing information upon request. Familiarize yourself with voluntary reporting platforms like CDP and Science Based Targets to assess their relevance to your communication strategy.

6. Utilizing Available Resources: Take advantage of resources such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings or Better Climate Challenge programs. These resources offer tools, guidance, and best practices to support organizations in their sustainability efforts.

By following this roadmap, the supply chain can systematically work towards reducing its carbon footprint, improving energy efficiency, and aligning its operations with sustainability goals. Regular monitoring and adjustment of strategies based on performance metrics will be essential for ongoing progress.

Manufacturing stakeholders are rapidly expanding beyond the expectation that foundries simply operate in regulatory compliance. As the demand for sustainable manufacturing intensifies, foundries must embrace change and proactively address stakeholder expectations. Whether it’s through transparent reporting or strategic partnerships, the path to sustainable manufacturing requires foresight, collaboration, and a commitment to continuous improvement. What a change from the business landscape three decades ago. 

It’s evident that the landscape of sustainable manufacturing is rapidly changing, and the demand for transparent sustainability information is growing among stakeholders. Adapting to these changes is crucial for metalcasters to remain competitive and meet evolving buyer (or manufacturers’) expectations.

While change can be daunting, especially for established organizations, it’s important to recognize that embracing sustainability isn’t just a trend but a necessity for long-term success. By proactively reviewing stakeholders’ expectations and considering the evolution of sustainable manufacturing, metalcasters can position themselves as leaders in the manufacturing sector and build trust with customers, investors, and other stakeholders.

Author’s note: Bryant Esch is corporate sustainability manager at Waupaca Foundry. He chairs the xxxx Committee in the AFS Environment, Health & Safety (EHS) Division. To learn more about joining the AFS EHS Division, contact Kim Perna at