Working with Volvo to address circular practices during manufacturing

Industrial welding robots at the automated car manufacturing factory assembly line

Credit: imaginima/GettyImages

A phone call to the Swedish giant Volvo laid the foundations for a project embracing the concept of the circular economy. It uses materials for as long as possible then recycles or repurposes them at the end of their useful lives, to make manufacturing and construction significantly more climate change-friendly.

Dr Kathi Kaesehage, from the University of Edinburgh Business School, had set out to find a different way to apply circular methods on the car assembly line. Dr Kathi Kaesehage said:

Through its partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and its funding for research, Volvo has developed a reputation as a sustainability trailblazer. So, I decided to pick up the phone to some contacts in its construction equipment division I knew through our work with UK construction group Costain.

Kathi hoped to share best practice from Volvo Construction with firms in the UK construction sector. However, the Swedish giant’s response took her in a very different direction. She said:

The sustainability team was refreshingly honest. They explained they have the same difficulties adopting circular practices in their manufacturing process as many other large companies do. We soon agreed on the idea of an exploratory project to find new ways of benchmarking and distributing circular solutions throughout the company. We were particularly interested in understanding the role diverse stakeholders play to enable circular practices.

Kathi secured funding from an award scheme backed by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to take the project forward. Meeting the company’s leaders and employees gave Kathi a new appreciation of how deceptively small changes can have a significant impact on improving climate change-related practices. She said:

What struck me most was the sheer number of people involved in building these huge machines and the care each one of them takes to avoid waste. Simple actions such as reusing screws and leftover metal, when multiplied hundreds of thousands of times, can have a huge cumulative effect.

Kathi is now writing a qualitative whitepaper for the company and planning to share what she learned from the project back in the UK. She says the work has also supported her teaching:

Sharing these anecdotes helps students to understand theories on sustainability, climate change and innovation from a human perspective. It shows them that change doesn’t happen without people driving it. It’s a great example of how big businesses need to go through a learning process too.

Last updated: 12 April 2021

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