The role lubricants play in driving sustainable growth for industrial sectors

Gavin Warner, General Manager, Sustainability at Shell Global Lubricants, unpacks the links between fluid management and environmental impact.


Key Takeaways

  • Icon of a factory and tools

    Lubrication is a foundational part of most industrial operations. However, because it represents only a relatively small percentage of total operating costs, its potential impact on operational and environmental success can often be overlooked.

  • Icon of a battery being recharged

    With energy demands rising and equipment becoming more powerful, the role of lubricant is only set to grow. It is increasingly important for operators to understand how it can contribute to business and sustainability aims – especially across large, complex value chains.

  • Icon of a droplet

    Thanks to its protective qualities, the right lubrication can help extend equipment life and support productivity. In turn, this helps improve energy efficiency and lower carbon intensity, reducing emissions as a result.

  • Icon of waste management

    With the correct processes and procedures in place, effective fluid management can contribute to a reduction in waste, while re-refined base oils allow operators to adopt circular economy thinking.

  • Icon of biodegradable lubricants

    Biodegradables and environmentally acceptable lubricants like Shell Naturelle, can help contribute to a more sustainable future, offering greater protection for wildlife and ecosystems in the event that the lubricant comes into contact with the environment, in comparison to conventional lubricants, safeguarding sensitive ecosystems, without compromising equipment performance.

Gavin Warner profile

Gavin Warner: General Manager, Sustainability at Shell Global Lubricants

As the general manager for sustainability within Shell, Gavin Warner is helping to define and drive the overall sustainability transformation agenda within the business’ lubricants division. This means embedding sustainability into every stage of the business’ culture, systems, and processes, so that Shell can support the sustainability needs of its customers while putting its own Powering Progress strategy into action.

The challenge

With sustainability increasingly becoming a driving force behind business strategy, companies across every industrial sector are being forced to reconsider how their operational output relates to their environmental impact. Between its capacity to improve energy efficiency, reduce waste and support wider environmental factors, fluid management is arguably one area that deserves greater attention. But, to realise this promise, there is work to be done to shift the longstanding industry view of lubrication from a necessary cost to a potential opportunity.

The solution

With the right mindset, products and strategy in place, the marginal gains that lubrication can deliver across a business can contribute to a sustainability transformation that does not endanger, but instead drives, operational success.

Is it time to put more focus on lubrication’s role?

Given the events that took place across 2020, it’s not surprising that global lubricant demand reaching a historic high of 37 million metric tons did not make the headlines.1

Even for those embedded in industries that deal with lubricants day in, day out – from manufacturing to mining – lubrication tends to be further down the list of maintenance priorities. As more and more businesses align their decisions with growing sustainability directives, however, lubrication is perhaps starting to take more of a critical role.

Which is welcome news to Gavin Warner, General Manager, Sustainability at Shell Global Lubricants, whose role is heavily focused on helping Shell – and its customers – realise the full environmental potential that lubrication offers.

“What is really encouraging about lubrication,” explains Warner, “is that it fully integrates two important elements of Shell’s decarbonisation agenda: achieving net-zero emissions and respecting nature. And because, ultimately, our lubricants are products that we provide in service of customers, this doesn’t only allow Shell to benefit from reduced emissions and environmental benefits but helps customers to do so as well.”

Setting internal targets for those working within the lubricants business, in order to help them align with company goals and commitments, is one lever that we use to help drive sustainability transformation.

Gavin Warner, General Manager, Sustainability at Shell Global Lubricants

The importance of a fluid approach to value chain emissions

Stitching areas of an industrial operation together, by understanding the different links and where they intersect, is becoming increasingly important for companies looking to improve their sustainability credentials. 

After all, carbon emissions are produced at every stage of the value chain from the sourcing and use of raw materials, to production, distribution and to losses in use and on disposal after use. Indeed, some estimates suggest that more than 90% of the average business’ carbon footprint originates in the value chain – meaning decarbonisation is something that must happen at each stage and every step.3

“Because one company’s product may well be another company’s raw material – and that raw material falls into their carbon footprint scope – it’s extremely important to consider the entire value chain when discussing sustainability,” says Warner.

“So, if you’re at the beginning of a sustainability journey, the first thing we would suggest to do is calculate your footprint across the full value chain. Go beyond your factory gates and what it is you deliver and consider everything from the raw materials that you source, through to what happens to the product you sell at the end of its life.”

This value-chain approach makes understanding the differences between Scopes 1, 2 and 3 critical for industrial operators, particularly those whose operations interact across sectors and geographies.

Three ways your oil can make an impact

“The products that we offer today from a lubrication standpoint are able to help customers deliver in a few key areas,” says Warner, “such as fuel and energy efficiency, circular economy and waste reduction, as well as biodegradability.”

1. Energy efficiency and emissions reductions

At its core, a lubricant is designed to reduce friction. Doing so helps it perform its primary role of reducing wear and tear – protecting equipment so that it can perform better, for longer.

The result of this is threefold: less energy is wasted; the energy that is used performs more efficiently; and consequently, output becomes less carbon intensive.

“When you convert this into what it means from a CO2 point of view,” explains Warner, “our most advanced, low viscosity lubricants can actually increase energy efficiency in industrial applications by up to 4.4%.6 When you add that together with the ability to extend engine or machine life, then it all points towards lower emissions for customers.”

Shell’s approach to emissions reduction where we first avoid creating carbon emissions wherever possible and then reduce emissions that cannot be avoided, is, how Shell has successfully taken out over 40 kton CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions from its own lubricant and grease operations, reducing its production carbon intensity by more than 40% since 2016.7

2. Waste reduction and the circular economy

When an oil supports the extension of oil-drain intervals and equipment life, while reducing the need for maintenance or part replacement, it contributes to waste reduction. However, there are other factors at play when it comes to lubrication’s role in waste management.

A circular economy view of material usage and maintenance – where materials are reused, repurposed, and recycled and equipment is kept in use for longer – opens further sustainability opportunities for companies that regularly purchase and use lubrication.