Innovation and sustainability: new frontiers in the Italian ceramic sector

Mariolina Longo, Matteo Mura November 9, 2023 4 min read

The Circular Economy (abbreviated CE) is emerging as a key economic model to meet the global challenge of the transition to sustainability. The approach to CE needs to be articulated on three different levels to maximize the value generated at each stage of the process. At the most immediate level, the “micro,” we find individual companies, their products and consumers. Moving up the scale, the “meso” includes a network of economic entities operating in cooperation, such as supply chains and business consortia, up to and including industrial parks. Finally, the “macro” extends to a wider geographic area, including cities, regions and government institutions. For this reason, industrial clusters and districts can be a valuable resource for increasing the CE potential of territories.

In this context, the ceramic sector, an integral part of the construction and building value chain, plays a key role. The report by the Sustainability Measurement and Management Laboratory (SuMM Lab) of the University of Bologna, titled “Strategic Value Chains for Circular Economy – Ceramic sector” and authored by Mariolina Longo (Department of Management, University of Bologna; Bologna Business School | Centre for Sustainability and Climate Change), Matteo Mura (Department of Management, University of Bologna; Bologna Business School | Centre for Sustainability and Climate Change), Sara Zanni (Department of Management, University of Bologna; Bologna Business School | Centre for Sustainability and Climate Change) and Chiara Vagnini (Department of Management, University of Bologna), explores sustainable practices implemented in this strategic sector and suggests new ways for a greener future.

The ceramic sector, particularly in the Sassuolo district of Emilia-Romagna, not only represents an important share of the Italian economy but is also an example of how the industry can move toward more sustainable practices. In Italy, sustainability-related practices adopted by Italian companies are still scarce, as fewer than 15 percent of the companies mapped in the report appear to be developing sustainability processes in general. Yet more than 88 percent of Italian ceramic companies implement at least one sustainability practice, with 56 percent adopting more than ten simultaneously. These figures reflect an important commitment to reducing environmental impact and toward a more circular economic approach. Among the most widespread practices in the industry are wastewater treatment and purification, waste recycling well beyond legal requirements, and careful and constant monitoring of air emissions. These actions, focusing on different environmental matrices, require a broad and structured approach, allowing the sector to embody a true best practice. In addition, the ISO 14001 certification emerges as a common practice, underscoring all companies’ focus on increasingly effective environmental management systems. 

The report also suggests several strategies to further enhance sustainability in the industry. At the corporate level, it recommends developing internal expertise to be able to identify new market opportunities related to sustainability, and it suggests investing in innovations related to products and waste management. At the industry ecosystem level, the importance of developing partnership networks and useful synergies to maximize material recovery and energy savings is emphasized. Finally, at the policy level, it is proposed to reward companies that implement sustainable practices at the systemic level.

The SuMM Lab report thus offers an in-depth and strategic analysis of the ceramic industry within the circular economy, highlighting both current best practices and potential areas for improvement. This study not only provides a solid basis for future business and policy decisions, but also serves as an exemplary model for other industries aiming for a more sustainable approach. 

This article is based on
Observatory on Sustainable Development – Report 7
Matteo Mura, Mariolina Longo, Sara Zanni, Chiara Vagnini