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The Sustainability Supply Chain: Zero Waste, 100% Possibility

It’s no secret that sustainability has become a top concern throughout the world of industry and manufacturing — for both consumers and companies alike. But amid this heightened awareness, we still don’t even know where much of our plastic waste is ending up. To address these types of issues, climate change is on the tips of our tongues and at the heart of many a political showdown, and environmental stewardship weighs heavily on the bottom line of business operations across the world.

What Is a Zero-Waste Supply Chain?

The zero-waste supply chain is a key element in creating a high-powered value chain. Every step of your process should increase value to the customer or boost your company’s advantage in the marketplace, and eliminating waste achieves both.

A zero-waste supply chain embraces a redesign of the resource lifecycle, evaluating every step to ensure that each product is reused or recycled. The goal? Eliminate trash sent to landfills, incinerators, or worse — the ocean. Zero-waste strategies emphasize overall waste prevention and seek to change the way materials flow through the entirety of the production pipeline.

Rethinking packaging, shifting sourcing strategy, restructuring production processes, upending distribution systems, and developing closed-loop supply chain methods are the main focuses in today’s supply chain waste-reducing efforts.

Real-World Example: Unilever

As far back as 2014, Unilever reached the gold-medal goal of zero waste: Across more than 600 international locations, the manufacturing giant officially registered zero non-hazardous waste to landfills. The company’s low-impact facilities encompass more than 240 factories, as well as distribution centers, offices, and warehouses.

Before implementing the initiative to combat climate change and tackle environmental trauma, Unilever’s manufacturing network alone sent 140,000 tons of waste to landfills — as recently as 2008. How can such a dramatic change come about so quickly?

The First Steps Toward a Zero-Waste Supply Chain

Unilever credits this success to the “four R approach” for waste management.

  • Reduce — The program was developed at minimal cost, with maximum attention to detail. Reporting, documenting, and recording usage helped the team in identifying waste streams, cutting down unnecessary usage, and sealing up unnecessary waste piece by piece across every department.

  • Reuse — The company treats waste as a resource. For example, factory waste enters a pipeline to become alternate building materials, and cafeteria food waste goes to compost instead of the dumpster.

  • Recover — In a closed-loop model, recovery reaches all the way to the customer. For example, reverse logistics flows that allow products to be processed, repaired, and returned to users provide highly efficient recovery while minimizing waste.

  • Recycle — In the Unilever program, the recycling step allows for more than environmental benefits. It also creates empowering jobs for individuals with disabilities.

The Benefits of a Zero-Waste Supply Chain Model

Unilever is far from alone — Ikea made headlines in 2018 with a carbon-positive business plan, which includes explorations into creating closed-loop resale marketplaces and recycling opportunities for customers.

The benefits reach beyond just positive vibes. The zero-waste program at Unilever rapidly logged upward of $227 million in cost benefits, including both avoided costs and savings. In some markets, the company’s waste even became a commodity, producing an additional stream of revenue.

In addition to the beneficial environmental impact, a zero-waste supply chain strategy:

  • Boosts good partner relationships, including easier environmental compliance

  • Enhances the value chain and contributes to the triple bottom line, appealing to customer values

  • Saves on direct material and input costs

  • Encourages and inspires company unity and teamwork

  • Demands efficient operations and streamlines usage, from power to product.


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