Impact of Industry 4.0 on corporate environmental sustainability: Comparing practitioners’ perceptions from China, Brazil and Germany

Industrial production needs to be fundamentally transformed if the UN Sustainable Development Goals shall be met. Digital technologies can potentially drive such a sustainable transformation, but two main objectives of environmental sustainability must be considered for achieving this target: decarbonisation and dematerialisation. We empirically investigate the potentials for these two objectives by employing a survey-based approach, investigating companies’ developments in China, Brazil, and Germany, in a variety of industrial sectors, and in companies of different sizes. These cases provide insight on a multi-country perspective into developments in digitalisation in countries with different pre-conditions for digital transformation, which is a novelty to this research field. We show that even though most industrial practitioners expect an improvement of the environmental sustainability of their respective company due to the application of Industry 4.0 technologies, factual improvements in resource efficiency and energy consumption are not expected to develop in a similarly optimistic fashion. These findings challenge the assumed effects of Industry 4.0 discussed in the vast majority of prior literature which expresses high hopes for positive impacts on resource efficiency and energy consumption . This can be interpreted as an indication that Industry 4.0 will not automatically lead to environmental improvements instead this transformation towards a more sustainable economy needs to be accompanied by supporting measures. On the positive side we find that the higher the current Industry 4.0 level of companies, the greater their ability to match their supply with the actual demand and their likelihood for participating in Demand Response schemes. This is an important prerequisite for the stabilisation and efficient use of future renewable energy systems. Our study provides insights to policy makers and practitioners but also fellow researchers regarding current trends in the implementation of Industry 4.0 and in how far they support the transformation towards more sustainability. We conclude that the implementation of the Industry 4.0 concept should always be critically evaluated against the background of the SDGs and must be supplemented by a combination of regulation and incentives through governing bodies, which includes setting binding targets for saving energy and material and reducing non-recyclable waste.

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