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.

“At Shell, waste management and circular economy thinking have become really important from a lubricants perspective,” says Warner. “Because lubrication is a product, rather than an energy or a fuel, we have opportunities to look at what happens to those products at the end of their use or life. Equally, we have opportunities to look at the plastics in packaging that are used to transport our products. And we also have opportunities – as an industry – to look more closely at the refining of waste oils.”

Lubricants are typically made with virgin base oils, which are derived from virgin fossil-based crudes, which come with emissions associated with the extraction and production of crude, but also emissions associated with the refining and processing into base oils. Re-refined Base Oils (RRBO) is derived through removing water, contaminants, and spent additives to create good quality recycled oils which can be used in lubricants with a robust quality management system. Overall, this is a less energy intensive process, helps to drive waste reduction and conserve natural resources and helps to prevent further CO2e emissions from being created by avoiding improper disposal and incineration.

3. Biodegradables and Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants (EAL)

Likewise, biodegradable lubricants and EALs are further helping to transform the role that lubrication can play as part of a more sustainable industrial world, by providing greater peace of mind to business leaders from a safety and regulatory perspective.

The industry faces a delicate balancing act: how to meet demand and drive profitability while improving its environmental impact. Projects taking place near woodland, farmland and waterways require careful management – with mismanagement not only causing damage to a company’s reputation but also to its license to operate. They are one area that can have a positive impact on performance and decarbonisation across a wide range of industries. They can prove an effective tool for helping companies to do more with less – achieving that difficult balance between sustainability and productivity.

“Biodegradable or environmentally acceptable lubricants are an opportunity to reduce the risks in the event a lubricant comes into contact with the environment” explains Warner. “And, as the technology improves, we are increasingly seeing the performance capability of biodegradables match that of standard lubricants – meaning it’s not a performance compromise for operators, but a sustainability opportunity

Shell Naturelle is a perfect example. As a range of biodegradable lubricants, they are approved by leading manufacturers for use in applications such as agriculture, forestry, inland waterways and those that have a potential oil-to-sea interface. Whether dredging in lakes, running turbines in the arctic or mining near water supplies, industry must minimise the impact of any contact with the environment (soil and water). 

And it’s not just performance parity that makes these lubricants a more attractive prospect. Industry applications for biodegradables are extremely varied and are evolving to the point where they can be used in almost every system that a conventional lubricant is traditionally found, with particular relevance for:

  • Total loss systems – including chainsaw lubricants, corrosion preventatives and mould release oils
  • Hydraulics – such as for excavators working in environmentally sensitive sites
  • Water pumps and grease applications – where accidental or partial release into the environment is unavoidable.

How Shell can help refine your industrial operations

Looking ahead, lubrication demand is unlikely to fall any time soon. As populations grow, energy needs rise and machinery becomes more complex, sectors will continue to turn to their lubricants to keep the wheels of industry turning. And as operational output rises, emissions must fall. Fortunately, lubrication can help contribute to this. And importantly, it can do so without compromising performance.

“We still believe that product performance and quality is paramount, so we will keep delivering the highest performance, highest quality products to our customers,” says Warner. “In addition, we’ll also consider how we can continue to work with our customers to understand the additional benefits of lowering emissions, reducing waste, saving costs and unlocking efficiencies.”

“After all, our goal is to help customers grow their business while enabling them to meet and exceed both their commercial and sustainability targets.”


Waste management
A strategy for reducing the waste associated with an operation, by avoiding, reducing, and reusing products. It requires planning, investment, and legislative awareness to be successful.

Circular economy
The aim to create a world in which nothing is ever wasted. Achieved by ensuring products are designed to either last longer or be reused, repurposed, or recycled.

Re-refined base oils (RRBO)
Base oils that have been sourced by recycling used oils, as part of a process that removes old additives and dirt material before distilling the remaining base oil, which is still able to perform its original role as efficiently as virgin base oil.

Environmentally acceptable lubricants (EAL)
Fluids that are readily biodegradable, minimally, or non-toxic, and non-bioaccumulative.


1 Statista. “Global demand for lubricants from 2000 to 2020, with a forecast for 2023 and 2028.” 2022.

Shell Lubricant Solutions. “Under Pressure: Leading in Paradox Industries.” 2021

3 Saverio Lapini and Evan Farbstein. “Why your value chain’s carbon footprint matters.” Normative. March 05, 2021

4 CDP. “Supply chains hold the key to one gigaton of emissions savings, finds new report.” December 09, 2019.

5 Shell Lubricant Solutions. “Under Pressure: Leading in Paradox Industries.” 2021.

6 Statistically validated, average savings per hour observed during a third-party field trial using Shell Tellus S4 VE formulation ISO VG 32 and compared with the original ISO VG 46 fluid.

7 Figures are based on FY2021 and includes activities such as process optimisation, direct use of renewable energy including Solar installations and well as use of renewable energy credits. This refers to
lubricant blending and grease manufacturing plants under Shell Direct Operational Control and does not represent the whole of Shell’s operations.

8 European Commission. “EU Ecolabel facts and figures.” September 2022.

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