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Unilever zero waste

Unilever Chief Supply Chain Officer on How to Achieve Zero Waste

Unilever zero wasteUnilever now sends zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across more than 600 sites in 70 countries — an effort that has contributed €200 million ($227 million) in cost-benefits to the company.

Now that it has achieved zero waste, Unilever says it wants to help other businesses and industries replicate its waste-management model. To this end, it is working with 2degrees, which uses its online platform and specialists to help organizations cut costs and make sustainable business decisions. Unilever says the new collaboration program will go live this summer.

The company says that it is achieving zero waste through it’s “four R approach” — reducing, reusing, recovering or recycling — and treating waste as a resource with alternate uses, such as converting factory waste to building materials or composting food waste from staff cafeterias.

Environmental Leader caught up with Unilever chief supply chain officer Pier Luigi Sigismondi to talk about how Unilever eliminated waste and how other companies can follow suit.

Q: How much money did it cost to implement this zero-waste model?

A: Our zero waste program was developed in-house and at minimal cost. By working with our suppliers, partners and academics we were able to identify existing waste streams in different markets and come up with new uses and streams for each type of waste. Our journey started with our manufacturing network — over 240 factories in 67 countries — which achieved zero waste landfill in January 2015. We were then able to replicate this model to other parts of our business. By sharing best practices among the different teams, and across countries, we were quickly able to identify and roll out the most effective solutions.

Q: Where do these cost benefits of eliminating waste come from?

A: Overall, eliminating waste to landfill contributed to more than €200million ($227 million) of cost benefits. This includes both avoided cost and savings. In some markets, our waste was seen as a commodity and became an income stream — again proving that waste is a valuable resource.

Q: Did Unilever work with any other companies to achieve zero waste?

A: Collaborating and building partnerships with others was an essential factor in helping us achieve zero waste at this scale and at this speed. We worked with all our suppliers and partners to identify mutually beneficial agreements. For example, we worked closely with global building materials company Lafarge Holcim, which uses waste from our manufacturing process in its cement. The cement industry traditionally relied heavily on fossil fuels and such alternative fuels helps lower CO2 emissions.

In June 2015, we brought together over 100 representatives from academia, NGOs and sector companies to help create a movement for change on zero waste. We know that we cannot create systemic change alone, which is why we are committed to sharing best practices with other businesses and even industries so we can create a zero waste future.

Q: Does Unilever use any specific waste management/sustainability software?

A: As I mentioned, the zero waste model was developed in-house, which meant we used our own reporting systems to document and record our progress. Our first step was to identify all the different waste streams in our operations, which vary across sites and locations.

To give you one example — in Côte d’Ivoire our manufacturing network had more than 50 different types of waste and in each case, we had to find alternative uses or reconsider our choice of materials. We follow the four R approach to reduce waste at source — which remains our number one priority — then we look to reuse items where possible, then recover and then recycle.

Q:  What are specific examples of some of the alternate routes for waste from various sites?

A: The waste steams differ across sites and locations. Thanks to our global scale, we have been able to share best practices around the world, particularly in countries where waste infrastructure may be limited. As well as working with the cement industry in different locations, we also turn hard-to-recycle materials in Africa into low-cost building materials, including roofing panels and school desks. We compost food waste and in South Asia they use the compost to grow organic vegetables for the on-site canteens. In Egypt, the team has been part of a program that empowers disabled employees to earn extra income by recycling waste material from Unilever’s production lines.

Q: What steps will you take next to achieve zero waste across the value chain?

A: Our ultimate goal is to create a zero waste value chain, which means working closely with our suppliers and partners to identify even more opportunities. We are committed to sharing our best practices with other businesses to encourage others to join us on this journey. That is why we have also announced a new platform with the leading value-chain platform 2degrees that is due to launch later this year.

Q: Specifically how will Unilever work with 2degrees to help bring organizations together to leverage the zero-waste model?

A: The collaboration with 2degrees will focus on bringing organizations together to leverage the zero waste model and build greater momentum for change. This builds on our previous work with 2degrees, which facilitated our zero waste event last year. As well as continuing to engage those who came to our event, we also want to inspire and share learnings with others. Hopefully we have shown that progress on zero waste is possible and now we’re committed to helping others do the same.

Q: What advice or lessons learned can you give to other companies?

A: It’s about creating a change in mind-set within the organization. Achieving an ambitious target like this — and at our scale — meant we needed all of our employees to help turn this vision into a reality.

Our model can be replicated, which has meant we were able to scale up our manufacturing achievement to other areas of the business. The challenge now is to ensure we maintain this achievement 365 days a year — it’s not about being zero waste just one moment in time.

I want other businesses to feel inspired, encouraged and motivated that we have been able to realize this — even in the most challenging countries. The scale of the global waste problem is clear — and we need everyone to make a change to really make a difference.


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2 thoughts on “Unilever Chief Supply Chain Officer on How to Achieve Zero Waste

  1. Although I realise I will ruffle a lot of feathers, it’s difficult for me to consider energy savings as a green activity. One point can be made that such behaviour (as opposed to replacing fossils with renewables) may even promote fossil energy consumption, the reduced costs allowing to consume more. I’d like to share an analogy of a sex worker on the Titanic, who bravely worked until the ship eventually sunk and who, for the efforts rendered was proclaimed a rescue worker by the history. The really brave ones, who set off on the lifeboats to an uncertain fate – simply survived.
    This comparison illustrates much attention and financing the energy efficiency companies receive vs. those who generate zero environmental damage with the entire status quo against them.

  2. I have deep respect for the effort that Unilever put into such a great achievement, however I stumbled on the statement that it was done “at minimal cost” through in-house development. Unilever is large enough it makes perfect sense that the capability to do this was developed internally. What I find surprising is that the article presents pretty concrete numbers for the benefits of developing the program, but implies that they essentially didn’t track the “sunk costs” that were used to put it together – essentially leading the reader to a false conclusion that “it isn’t that hard” and “you don’t need consultants.” Unilever’s size, again, creates efficiencies that many companies will not be able to duplicate. Collaborating and building partnerships with suppliers is HARD, and it takes commitment and investment on the part of the company to make simple statements like “best practice sharing” work in business relationships founded on an exchange of value when that could be construed as a way to reduce costs at the supplier that can be captured by the buyer.

    Full disclosure: I am a consultant; however I do not practice in this area. It has been my career observation that the cost of setting up programs successfully is frequently downplayed, and the idea of “high-priced consultants” is simultaneously discouraged – while the true cost of internal staff and the development of capability the organization may not require long-term is completely ignored. A little data to that end, allowing the hopeful to see the full picture of the effort required, would have been appreciated.

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