Reconfiguring the Enterprise: Shifting Manufacturing Culture in Australia


Katherine Gibson
Jenny Cameron
Stephen Healy
Joanne McNeill

Project Location



Beyond Business as Usual

This project explored the future for manufacturing in Australia in the context of social and environmental sustainability. In-depth qualitative research with 10 manufacturing enterprises based in NSW showed that there is indeed a viable future for manufacturing in Australia in the 21st century. The project revealed a new culture of economy that is beyond business as usual. This culture is enacted through commitments to:

  1. Maintaining firm viability and thereby safeguarding manufacturing in Australia
  2. Providing decent jobs in an inclusive society and thereby building a more just manufacturing sector
  3. Producing with a smaller ecological footprint and thereby building a more environmentally sustainable manufacturing sector.

The research adds to the body of evidence that highlights the importance of manufacturing in Australia. The sector supports 1.27 million jobs. It offers practical hands-on problem-solving work (both unskilled and skilled) that builds up the nation’s industrial know-how. It uses this know-how to devise solutions to address environmental problems and to minimise negative environmental impacts (including from manufacturing). It continues to play a role in building social cohesion by integrating people from diverse backgrounds into worksites where new skills and habits are learnt on the job.

Project outputs include:

Manufacturing Futures, Animation


  • Hands at Work. This short video uses images from the case study enterprises to bring to life the diversity of manufacturing in Australia.

Hands at Work, Video


  • Beyond Business as Usual: A 21st culture of Manufacturing in Australia. This final report was launched on 23 January 2020 by Senator for NSW, Dr Mehreen Faruqi (The Australian Greens Industry spokesperson) followed by a discussion with Senator for SA, Rex Patrick (Centre Alliance), Federal Member for Parramatta, Ms Julie Owens MP (Australian Labor Party), and NSW Member for Coffs Harbour, Mr Gurmesh Singh MP (The Nationals), and panel discussions with representatives of the manufacturing enterprises involved in the study.
  • Public Declaration. The Public Declaration on Just and Sustainable Manufacturing is signed by the participating manufacturers and it outlines the forms of manufacturing that are needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It was developed in conjunction with representatives from the participating enterprises, and was disseminated widely to industry associations and representatives, NSW State and Commonwealth politicians, unions, researchers, and other interested stakeholders.
  • Submission to the Senate’s Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers (and presentation of evidence at the Public Hearing in Sydney on 21 February 2018). This submission highlighted a finding from the research that it is not sufficient to focus on technological change in and of itself, rather technological change needs to be developed in service to forms of work and ways of working that directly contribute to social and environmental wellbeing.
  • Postcapitalism as an Everyday Politics. This 2018 piece in a special issue of the Australian Quarterly magazine discusses how manufacturers are implementing post-capitalist ideals into their business models (to great success), and how by building alternatives to business-as-usual they are demonstrating better ways of organising economies, politics and society.
  • Ethical Action in the Anthropocene. In April 2018, Katherine Gibson delivered the Howard G. Roepke lecture (in Economic Geography) at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans. The lecture featured the ethical actions that the manufacturers in this study are taking to build more socially and environmentally sustainable manufacturing. Along with the video of the lecture, a transcript is available.
  • Economic Geography, Manufacturing and Ethical Action in the Anthropocene. This 2019 article in Economic Geography argues that although manufacturing has been implicated as a key driver to a world beset by the problems of climate change and growing socioeconomic inequality, it also has the potential to contribute to different pathways forward in which care for people and the planet are foregrounded. The pre-publication version is available here. The rejoinder to the Vicky Lawson’s response is available here and the pre-publication version is available here.
  • Action Research for Diverse Economies. This 2020 chapter for Edward Elgar’s The Handbook of Diverse Economies discusses how research can be part of a social action agenda to build new economies, and the chapters features this project as an example of how research can play a role in strengthening more environmentally sustainable and socially and economically just forms of manufacturing. The pre-publication version is available here.
  • Ethical Businesses Making Ecocities a Reality. This 2017 piece from The Conversation discusses how manufacturers can use a reparative ecological approach and a commitment to socio-economic inclusion and thereby help to make ecological cities a reality.

This project was featured in the 2020 edition of the ARC’s Making a Difference publication, which showcases the ways in which ARC-funded research makes a transformative contribution to Australian society.


Research Approach

The project conducted in-depth qualitative research with ten manufacturers using what is called a strengths-based approach. This means the research sought to find what it is that manufacturers are already doing to build a viable, just and sustainable manufacturing sector that will meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The project took as one line of inquiry the differences that enterprise ‘type’, in terms of ownership and governance structure, might have on manufacturing commitments and practices. The business as usual mode of operation is largely associated with an ideal type of ‘capitalist’ business, one that is animated by profit-making, competitive growth and the private accumulation of wealth. This study incorporated cooperatives, family-owned firms, social enterprises and globally listed companies manufacturing across a wide range of sectors including: dairy, fashion, mattresses, blueberries and packaging, mattress recycling, carpet tiles, furniture, electronics re-use and repair, and specialised vehicles. The case study companies, as listed below, service local, national and international markets and are also engaged with global supply chains in sourcing their material inputs.

A.H. Beard


NCMC (Northern Co-operative Meat Company Ltd)


Oz Group Co-Op Ltd

Sebel Furniture

Soft Landing

The Social Outfit

Varley Group