Industrial Sustainability and the Role of Research in Addressing the UK Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenges

Industrial sustainability has been established as a core tenet of the UK’s Industrial Strategy. The Government’s Clean Growth agenda sets out a new narrative that embraces research and innovation to support the development of a regenerative, restorative and net positive economy.

About the research

In 2011, the EPSRC announced a £5.2m investment in Industrial Sustainability Research with a vision to explore how industry might “double output while only using 50% of current resources and generating 20% of current CO2”, representing a new industrial revolution termed Industrial Sustainability1. This demonstrates the importance placed on research in addressing the Grand Challenges set out in the Industrial Strategy.

Understanding broader strengths and weaknesses in the academic field can direct research investment to areas most needed by policymakers. This study offers the first systematic review of industrial sustainability research from 1992 to 2014. 574 articles were reviewed from 62 peer-reviewed journals, providing the first opportunity to assess the realisation of these possibilities.

Key findings

  • Three substantive conversations in industrial sustainability focus on “productivity and innovation”, “corporate citizenship” and “economic resilience”.
  • Research has been dominated by a focus on efficiency strategies that minimise negative impacts on industry, offering improvements to firm-level operations and production activities, and aiming to incrementally reduce negative impacts of industrial activity on society.
  • 69% of the sample examines product (re)design, material/resource utilisation and optimisation strategies, and rethinking what is meant by value creation. This has led to several widely adopted innovations in these areas such as reducing harm, abatement, end of pipe solutions and doing more with less.
  • Innovations have included revaluating energy consumption, substitution of material with high toxicity/carbon emissions and recouping materials from production waste streams for re-use.
  • 21% of the sample focuses on wider business-in-society issues at organisational or extended enterprise levels, encompassing the business case and ideological issues of corporate citizenship.
  • Only 10% focuses on the transformative potential of such ideas at an institutional level, focusing on the notions of natural capitalism and sustainable industrial systems.
  • The strong focus on operational excellence will need to be followed by wider institutional system-level change that privileges on scaling-up and transition.

Policy implications

• The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund should encourage complimentary efforts that support transformative long-term changes at the legal, regulatory and political levels while continuing to focus on incremental operational level change.

• The applied sciences currently lead interdisciplinary research on industrial sustainability. Greater engagement with the social sciences will accelerate the adoption of innovation and generate civic value. The ESRC should be given an explicit role in delivering the Industrial Strategy. In turn, the ESRC should represent the full range of social science disciplines on its Executive Council.

• Policy makers and funders must utilise a more holistic assessment of national productivity and innovation. The work of organisations such as Innovate UK/ESRC (Innovation Caucus), ESRC Productivity Insights Network and Nesta is vital in leading the way.

• The manufacturing and engineering sectors are championing practices to decarbonise supply chains/ networks. It is vital that they can work with experts in social sciences, arts, and humanities to realise the value of such innovations.

•The UK’s leadership role in Industrial Strategy research must be protected through increased R&D spending and a new Commission to champion a regenerative, restorative and net positive economy. The Government’s inter/transdisciplinary research agendas are vital in promoting porous university interfaces.

Further information

1 CIS (2010), EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability: A Joint Proposal with Cambridge, Loughborough Universities, Cranfield, pp. 1-20.

Smart, P., Hemel, S., Lettice, F., Adams, R. and Evans, S., 2017. Pre-paradigmatic status of industrial sustainability: a systematic review. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 37(10), pp.1425-1450.

This work acknowledges the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre of Excellence for Industrial Sustainability (Grant Reference: EP/I033351/1).

Contact & Researchers

Palie Smart, Professor in Operations Management, Department of Management, Howard’s House,
University of Bristol, Queen’s Avenue Bristol, BS8 1SD



Professor Palie Smart, University of Bristol

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