The Case for Zero Waste Supply Chains

Sustainability is the supply chain trend that’s here to stay. Supply chains are chasing sustainability, in industry, farming, and manufacturing. The onus is on both consumers and producers. It’s also on everyone in the supply chain in between. In this article, we look at the case for zero-waste supply chains.

This sustainability drive has been borne of greater awareness, with big names such as Unilever leading the way. However, this isn’t just about being seen to do the right thing. This is seeing for ourselves that we are doing the right thing, and why doing so is beneficial for a large number of reasons, including business success.

This understanding, that visibility is key to sustainability, has an enormous way to go. We’ve hidden behind a lack of knowledge about where our waste truly ends up. However, it’s time to face the facts, introduce seamless visibility, and address the issue of waste.

Defining a Zero-Waste Supply Chain

Before dismissing this as a pie-in-the-sky idea, it’s time to realise that whilst supply chains run with enormous waste now, they needn’t. Similarly, just because you cannot envisage zero waste now, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for it as an ultimate goal and thus significantly reduce waste in the meantime.

Ultimately, reducing the waste of a supply chain is also about creating a high-value chain. Less waste requires us to use resources more efficiently. This requires looking at each individual step in the production and supply process to eliminate waste. In doing this, you increase value – not just to the customer, but also in terms of your own competitive advantage. Eliminating waste has many positive by-products.

Inevitably, this means we need to go back to the drawing board in terms of the lifecycle of our resources so that we can take a good look at each stage in terms of where changes can, and need, to be made. We should be continually asking ourselves, at each step, ‘can this product be reused or recycled?’ We then need to address whether it is being reused or recycled, and if not, why not.

The aim is to consider where each and every element of each resource ends up. Does it end up in the hands of the consumer in the product alone? Or does it end up in incinerators, landfill, or even the ocean?

Zero-waste supply chains aren’t afraid of these questions. Instead, they welcome them as a way to gain insight into themselves and thus embrace positive changes.

It cannot be achieved overnight, but instead needs to be a continual and gradual re-evaluation of everything from sourcing strategies, through to packaging design, production processes and distribution systems. Ultimately, the aim is to create closed-loop supply chains where visibility is paramount and waste is vastly reduced.

Unilever Leading the Way on Zero-Waste

Unilever is a big name in household terms. However, it’s also a big name when it comes to leading the way in tackling waste in supply chains. In 2015, Unilever announced that 240 of its factories were operating as zero-waste to landfill, having ascertained different non-hazardous waste alternatives. By 2016, this was extended to over 600 sites across 70 different global locations.

It’s important to recognise the numbers involved in this enormous change. Before these changes, Unilever was sending 140,000 tonnes of waste per annum, from their manufacturing arms alone, to landfill.

If Unilever Does It, Can Everyone?

It’s easy to think that given Unilever’s size, it was easier to implement a zero-waste strategy. However, with size also comes increasing difficulties of control and visibility. We can learn from their approach, in order to effect change in our own supply chains.

Unilever credits its four ‘R’ approach to achieving zero waste. The four R approach encompasses: reducing, reusing, recovering and recycling. Viewing waste in this way – as having various potential alternative uses – can be introduced across all businesses. Unilever states that coming up with and implementing the four R approach incurred a minimal cost, but brought about cost benefits of $227 million.

Let’s take a look at the four ‘R’s’ in a little more detail:

Unilever’s 4 R’s with Regards to Waste Management

  • Reduce: Perhaps the simplest way to reduce waste is to reduce the resources needed to produce items. Focusing on details, it is possible to reduce waste across the board. Unilever utilised a strategy which involved reporting all waste and recording this against usage. Piece by piece, they could then reduce the waste going to landfill.
  • Reuse: Unilever’s success in achieving zero waste is largely due to the mindset of viewing waste as a resource. Viewed as a resource, and again piece by piece, it is possible to question how these resources can be reused, or redeployed. A simple example of this is taking food waste and sending it to a composter, instead of sending it to landfill.
  • Recover: The third ‘R’ concerns how waste is recovered, which is where it is vital to recognise the importance of the closed-loop model. Here, previous waste products come back into the loop and are recovered. This may be as simple as using the original items for parts or reconditioning, it may be for repairs. In such a way, it is possible to minimise waste.
  • Recycle: Where it isn’t possible to reduce waste, reuse it, or recover it, then recycling should be the end goal. By taking the waste and recycling it into another useful material or product, waste is more productive and certainly less harmful to the environment.

Benefits of a Zero-Waste Supply Chain

The benefits of a zero-waste supply chain are wide-reaching.

  • Financial cost benefits: As stated, Unilever has revealed that its zero waste approach has realised cost benefits of $227 million. The process of the four R’s eliminates inefficiencies and that benefits the bottom line. By saving on materials and input costs, in a bid to reduce waste, you make savings overall.
  • Positive environmental impact: Obviously, reducing waste has a positive environmental impact which in turn impacts our health and wellbeing. Whilst this benefit can seem less tangible to some, it will become increasingly a financial benefit as incentives (and sanctions) are put in place to encourage greater sustainability. Easier environmental compliance makes sound business sense.
  • Boosts to reputation: Both your consumers and industry partners are increasingly seeking businesses which are taking steps to improve their sustainability. Zero waste is one such way to boost your reputation within your market.
  • Powers efficiency: Streamlining is a likely by-product of implementing the four R’s. Efficiency is often brought about by looking at each element of a process individually. A zero-waste goal can fuel this.

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