6 business ethics and sustainability in the steel industry

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This ethics case study looks at how Tata Steel is committed to environmentally-sound practices and tackling the challenges of sustainability.

Below is a list of Business Case Studies case studies organised alphabetically by company. To view more companies, please choose a letter from the list below.

Introduction

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Steel is a unique and vital material. It touches almost every part of modern life. It is a key element of our infrastructure. From buses to buildings, from canned food to computers, almost everything we see around us is either made of steel or is made using steel. Steel is essential to modern society. Tata Steel is the second largest steel producer in Europe and has its main steelmaking plants in the UK and Holland. It supplies steel and related services to major industries, such as construction, vehicle production and packaging. The European operations are a subsidiary of Tata Steel Group, one of the world’s top ten steel producers. The combined Group has around 80,000 employees.

The challenges of sustainability

A commitment to environmentally-sound practices is part of many businesses’ commitment to act responsibly. Social responsibility refers to an organisation’s obligations to maximise its long-term positive impacts and minimise its negative impacts on society. For Tata Steel, it is a core part of its vision to be ‘the global steel industry benchmark for value creation and corporate citizenship.’

Tata Steel is committed to tackling the challenges of sustainability. This means that it takes its responsibility towards both the environment and its communities seriously, balancing these against the need to make a profit. It has put systems in place to meet international standards for environmental management such as ISO14001.

Respecting and safe-guarding the environment is a central principle held by all Tata Group companies and can go hand-in-hand with profitable business.

 What are business ethics and sustainability?

Business ethics

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Business ethics means ‘taking the right course’. Acting ethically takes into account all the factors of doing business. These include production, business processes, and the company’s behaviour with its customers and the communities in which it operates. It is about doing the right thing in everything the company does.

Tata Steel has five core values which define the ethics of the company: integrity, understanding, excellence, unity and responsibility. These values are evident in everything that it does and drive the ethical behaviour of the company. For Tata Steel, taking responsibility for tackling the challenges of sustainability follows naturally from this ethical stance.

Sustainability

The Tata Steel definition of sustainability is ‘an enduring and balanced approach to economic activity, environmental responsibility and societal benefit’. Sustainability is about meeting the challenges of ensuring that future generations can enjoy the same kind of lifestyles people enjoy today. This naturally involves taking a long-term perspective on balancing economic, environmental and social impacts of business.

A commitment to ethical behaviour is often shown in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy of a business. Businesses are no longer judged solely on their ability to deliver goods and services but also on the manner of delivery and how they impact on society and the environment. The Tata Steel sustainability policy states that:

‘Our policy is to conduct our activities in relation to economic progress, social responsibility and environmental concerns in an integrated way in order to be more sustainable and to meet the expectations of our stakeholders.’

Legislation and ethical practice

There are current laws or regulations that encourage ethical and sustainable practices. For example, anti-pollution laws place strict limits on levels of CO2 emissions. Tata Steel, like any other company, must ensure it abides by these laws, but with its high ethical standards, it aims to go beyond the minimum required by law, making a positive contribution wherever possible.

This approach to CSR ensures that Tata Steel can tackle the relevant sustainability challenges and in particular satisfy all its relevant stakeholders. This is good for the environment, for the people that work with and for Tata Steel, for the communities in which Tata Steel operates and also good for customers and therefore for business and profits. Through saving energy and waste, Tata Steel can work more efficiently and reduce costs.

Benefiting business reputation

Acting responsibly also benefits its reputation. This enhances the image of Tata Steel as an environmentally-committed and responsible business, giving good PR in a competitive world market. Tata Steel also develops and sells products which enhance long-term sustainability and which at the same time provide additional margins.

Steel is one of the best materials to use to ensure sustainability. Steel is a unique material because it is truly recyclable – when steel is recycled it becomes new steel and not an inferior product. Since steel does not downgrade when recycled, it can be re-used over and over again. Steel is the most recycled material on Earth. The impact of making steel can be viewed as an investment in a material which will be used again and again, rather than a one-off, making steel a very ‘green’ material.

Making ethical and sustainable decisions

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Tata Steel builds ethical and sustainable practices into all areas of its operations. Steel has the benefit of being truly recyclable but is produced by a process that produces CO2 emissions. Sustainability is about much more than CO2, but one of the major challenges of sustainability is to reduce CO2 emissions which may contribute to climate change.

Tata Steel is working to reduce these emissions using new technology and practices. For example, it has introduced technology to re-use gases produced at its Port Talbot plant to create electricity equivalent to 10% of its needs. This has reduced the need for natural gas for power and helped reduce its CO2 emissions by nearly 300,000 tonnes. Tata Steel’s work on reducing CO2 emissions is demonstrated through its climate change strategy. It has set itself specific goals, for instance, to reduce CO2 emissions to less than 1.7 tonnes per tonne of crude steel by 2012.

Setting priorities

Tata Steel has continued to invest effort and resources in relation to the five key priorities that underpin its vision with regard to climate change. These priorities are to:

  • continue to achieve emission reductions
  • invest in longer-term breakthrough technologies for producing low-carbon steels
  • develop new products and services that generate lower CO2 emissions through the life cycle
  • actively engage the entire workforce in this challenge
  • lead by example within the global steel industry.

While Tata Steel is taking a responsible approach to its own operations, in terms of choices made by its customers and end-users of its steel, it is vital that balanced decisions are taken. This means not just looking at CO2 emissions, but at the whole range of environmental, social and economic considerations. It also means taking a ‘life-cycle’ approach to decision-making – assessing products in terms of how they are made, used and finally disposed of. Often, just one phase is included, typically just manufacture or just use-phase. However, Tata Steel promotes life-cycle thinking so that decisions are taken on the basis of manufacture, use and end-of-life phases for any material or product.

Assessing environmental impacts

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Life-cycle assessments (LCA) assess the true environmental impact of a product over its full life. They look at the environmental impact of manufacturing a material, using it and finally disposing of the product. Through LCA Tata Steel is able to show that, in many cases, steel provides the most environmentally-friendly material solution. One example of the use of LCA was on a project to find the most cost-effective combinations of materials and technologies to make low and zero carbon buildings. Zero carbon buildings can use low carbon technologies, for example, solar panels, to generate all the buildings' power. They are also built using materials with a low carbon footprint.

A critical part of this project looked at the differences made by using alternative materials for building structures. It found that whereas at the end of the life of a timber or concrete framed building the materials are destroyed or dumped in landfill, a steel frame can be recycled as new steel. This lowers the building’s carbon footprint. The results of the study have given designers and developers clear guidance on how best to create buildings with sustainable, low or zero carbon impact.

Examples of promoting the sustainability of steel

Tata Steel demonstrates ethical and sustainable practice in its own operations. However, it goes further in encouraging its customers and markets to also make decisions based on sound sustainability principles. These three case studies demonstrate where life cycle thinking is helping Tata Steel to promote the use of steel, while at the same time encouraging ethical behaviour.

 Case study I: The automotive industry

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A major part of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from cars, referred to as ‘tailpipe emissions’. The government has passed laws targeting the reduction in such emissions. However, this only looks at car emissions in the ‘use’ phase, rather than those caused by manufacturing and scrapping vehicles. One way to reduce use-phase emissions is to make the car lighter as lighter weight cars use less fuel.

However materials such as aluminium, magnesium or carbon-fibre reinforced plastics have high environmental costs in manufacturing and they are not as easy to recycle as steel. The savings made from using them are usually outweighed by the CO2 produced in the other life-cycle phases. Providing the whole life cycle of the material is taken into account (LCA) - not just the ‘use’ phase - steel has been shown to be the best material to decrease CO2 emissions of cars.

Outcome: Tata Steel has joined forces with other steel-makers to produce the ‘Future steel vehicle’ which showcases the latest advances in steel technology. Using its LCA studies, it is now influencing the next generation of legislation to move towards an LCA approach rather than just looking at ‘tailpipe’ emissions.

Case study 2: the construction industry

Traditionally, timber was used for constructing frames for buildings but it was difficult to find trees large enough for bigger buildings. New technology means that timber can now be used for large buildings and with increased concerns about sustainability, there has been a revival in the use of timber frames for buildings such as supermarkets, warehouses and schools. Timber is perceived as being a sustainable and ‘green’ resource.

However, when Tata Steel looked at the LCA of timber in terms of where it came from and how it was recycled, it found that carbon emissions were similar to a typical steel framed building. How the timber is dealt with once the building is demolished was found to have a major impact on the overall sustainability of the building structure. Most timber from demolished buildings is either land-filled or incinerated. The final result shows that using a steel frame (where studies have shown that 99% is recycled) produces less CO2 over the entire life-cycle than using a timber frame.

Outcome: The results from the LCA study of building structures are being used to provide facts to architects, engineers and legislators regarding material choice.

Case study 3: the packaging industry

Many consumer brands are keen to give an image of environmental responsibility. One way is to try to reduce packaging. It is an area where government regulators have a big influence too. The UK government’s goal is to reduce the carbon impact of grocery packaging by 10% by the end of 2012. One legislative approach to this is to reduce the total weight of packaging used.

However, LCA studies by Tata Steel have shown that focusing on weight reduction does not necessarily make for more sustainable packaging. Targets just on weight reduction could lead to the wrong decision, for example, to use alternative packaging materials that could take more energy to produce and are not always completely recycled when they are disposed of.

All steel cans that are collected are truly recycled. Steel does not downgrade when recycled. It can be re-used over and over again whereas other materials tend to be used only once and, even if recycled, will be used for alternative, lower-grade applications. When adopting the Tata Steel LCA approach, it is clear that steel cans, even though they may weigh more than some alternative packaging, provide a more sustainable packaging material.

Outcome: Tata Steel and its industry partners used their LCA approach to persuade regulators to take a different view on steel used in packaging. This resulted in national recycling targets taking a full life-cycle approach by using actual recycling rate as the measure, rather than reducing the total weight of cans.

Benefits of taking responsibility for sustainability

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Sustainable practices are often the best business options for a company. As corporate reputation becomes more important and more companies are adopting ethical stances, taking responsibility for sustainability is increasingly important both to ensure reputation and also to satisfy the demands of a range of stakeholders.

The benefits of taking responsibility for sustainability include an enhanced reputation which, in turn, leads to greater customer loyalty. The benefits can also be seen in terms of efficiency, with businesses using fewer raw materials, less power and more recycling. Both of these have an impact on profits and shareholder confidence.

Achieving differentiation

Taking responsibility for sustainability is one way for Tata Steel to compete, by differentiating it from those competitors who are not able to promote such a positive stance. Moreover, taking these ethical and sustainable approaches helps the company to leverage its position and encourage sustainable decisions in others. This can help to promote its own products.

The benefits are also felt by employees, who are better motivated to work for a company that they perceive as ‘doing the right thing’, including working with governments and regulators to help achieve environmental targets.

Conclusion

Tata Steel has shown that it is committed to sustainable and environmental practices as part of its overall aim to act responsibly. It shows commitment and progress towards key targets of sustainability as well as encouraging sustainable decision-making in its customers and within their markets.

The key to the success of this approach is to recognise the unique properties of steel as a recyclable material and to ensure that measurements of sustainability are taken over the entire life cycle of a product, not just the use-phase.