Zero Waste can Transform Business

Businesses are delivering sustainability targets with zero waste strategies

After a year of the pandemic there is an opportunity to redefine business strategy. With consumers increasingly looking for sustainable products, businesses should be looking at zero waste strategies. The tools are there to achieve it.


You know sustainability is a big deal when a hard-nosed businessman like Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, starts going on about it. In a talk that must have raised eyebrows among investors, Polman struck out at business leaders who put profits ahead of sustainability. “If you make closed-loop systems you de-risk your model and it’s good for the planet”. The surprising part is that he said this in 2014.

By ‘closed-loop’, Polman meant ‘zero waste’. Sustainability and profit “don’t need to compromise,” he said. As purveyors of the size zero business, we wholeheartedly agree. In fact, we’d go a step further: if you are wasting anything then your business clearly isn't as efficient as it could be. And that's likely costing you money. Polman knew this.

At the time, Unilever’s investment in zero-waste manufacturing helped the company increase its profits by 7% even though revenues were down.

How far can you go in terms of achieving zero waste? Environmentalists Braungart and McDonough claim you can go all the way. Noting that in nature everything eventually gets recycled. They developed the cradle-to-cradle approach to zero-waste.

“Imagine a world in which all the things we make, use and consume provide nutrition for nature and industry,” says McDonough, “a world in which growth is good and human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint.”

Notably, the two environmentalists take issue with the prevailing reduce, reuse and recycle approach to sustainability. Instead they argue for manufacturing processes that involve upcycling: converting waste material into new or improved materials or products. In cradle-to-cradle thinking, the objective is to make sure every one of your products ends up either as technical nutrients, which can be reused for industrial processes, or biological nutrients, which can be released safely into the environment.

This is important thinking. Most of today's businesses are only concerned with getting products to market, selling them and potentially offering some kind of after-sales service. What happens at the end of that process is largely irrelevant.

This needs to be addressed as we understand more about the sheer cost of pollution and waste. Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year. WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits containing high levels of pollutants.

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues, as rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products overwhelms the world’s ability to deal with them. Plastics made from fossil fuels are just over a century old. Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. Production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Production is expected to double by 2050.

Most of the plastic trash in the oceans, Earth’s last sink, flows from land. Once at sea, sunlight, wind, and wave action break down plastic waste into small particles, often less than one-fifth of an inch across. These so-called microplastics are spread throughout the water column and have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough.

Microplastics are breaking down further into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic microfibers, meanwhile, have been found in municipal drinking water systems and drifting through the air. Microplastics also attract, concentrate and magnify other persistent toxic chemicals from the surrounding aquatic environment onto their surfaces - exacerbating the growing risk from chemical pollution.

The solution to the microplastics crisis is to prevent plastic waste from entering rivers and seas in the first place, many scientists and conservationists—including the National Geographic Society—say. This could be accomplished with improved waste management systems and recycling, better product design that takes into account the short life of disposable packaging, and reduction in manufacturing of unnecessary single-use plastics.

With cradle-to-cradle, all business processes start with the question: where does my product end up? This may sound like an onerous way to go about things, but if you can re-use half of your old product to make new ones then you've just saved 50% on your materials costs.

How achievable is this vision? Perhaps more than you would think. Climatex Lifecycle, a furniture upholstery fabric manufacturer, makes zero-waste products from wool and ramie, a form of nettle. Its trimmings get used as gardening mulch. Shaw Industries, meanwhile, have eliminated the need to send worn-out carpets to landfill by creating a process to make new carpet materials from old ones. Apple offers a recycling service for all of its products in every major country.

For an increasing number of enlightened business leaders, such a rethink of industrial processes is not just desirable but necessary.

The Global Footprint Network warns: “Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and 8 months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030’s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And, of course, we only have one.”

From a big-picture perspective, striving for zero waste is simply a market investment.

Without sustainability, there may one day be no commercial markets left to exploit.

More immediately, though, it is a simple way to identify and cut costs. It means doing more with less; squeezing more output out of every capital input, including financial, human and natural capital.

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It’s also a potential competitive differentiator. Nielsen’s Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility regularly finds a majority of global online customers in more than 60 countries would be happy to pay more for “products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.”

A growing number of companies are starting on a path towards zero waste. A number of them are hiring chief sustainability officers. Many are also developing plans to achieve net zero emissions. But, there is still a long way to go. Sadly, there is less time.


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