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50% of Unilever’s Factories are Zero-Waste While Sales Surge

Leon Kaye | Friday January 25th, 2013 | 2 Comments
Unilever, zero waste, waste diversion, Leon Kaye, Paul Polman, Sustainable Living Plan, consumer packaging, zero waste factories, Tony Dunnage

Unilever factory in Mexico

Unilever’s ambitious Sustainable Living Plan reached an important milestone yesterday when the Dutch/British multinational announced over half of its factories across the globe are now zero-waste. The goal comes in the middle of the company’s far-reaching strategy seeking to double sales in 2020 while slashing its environmental footprint and building a positive global social impact. So far the plan appears to succeed on the environmental and financial fronts: annual sales are now at €50 billion ($67 billion), up from €41 billion ($55 billion) in 2010. Unilever’s focus on metrics is paying dividends all around.

The company’s rapid decrease in waste is impressive considering where Unilever was a year ago. In 2011, 74 of Unilever’s 258 factory sites scored the zero-waste mark; Unilever was determined to meet the 50 percent goal this year, and has exceeded it. Such progress is important if the company meets its 2020 goal of lowering waste disposal rates to meet or fall below 2008 levels. So how is Unilever doing this?

The answers lie in both improved consumer packaging and more vigilant practices within its factories. The company has redesigned its packaging so that less waste ends up on factories floors and trash bins, and has also focused on the packaging in which its consumer goods are shipped. Some of the new developments may appear small at first glance: in Russia, sacks once holding tea end up as animal bedding; at a Chinese factory, reusable elastic fabric cloths cover pallets instead of plastic.

Small changes add up to big results: Unilever estimates that its waste diversion and reduction efforts add up to the equivalent of one million household trash cans. Furthermore the results benefit Unilever’s bottom line. Tony Dunnage, Unilever’s Eco-Efficiency Manager says the cost savings add up to €70 million ($94 million) annually.

Some observers may roll their eyes when companies set goals far into the future, but 2020 is not far away and revamping a supply chain, retraining employees and sourcing improved materials is no easy task. And Unilever is not proceeding with a business-as-usual approach: The company has announced that the 2020 goal of having all factories reach zero-waste status has been moved up five years early. Unilever insists it can meet that goal by 2015. Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, has been a champion of this effort and others: we really could use more executives like him.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost). He will explore children’s health issues in India next month with the International Reporting Project.

[Image credit: Unilever]


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  1. January 26, 2013 at 14:06 pm PDT | Kevin Hagen writes:

    Leon – nice article. I really appreciate any company that is demonstrating that we don’t have to settle for trade-offs, sustainability means better solutions that deliver better outcomes, period. And they are doing at serious scale.

    As a details question, I’m digging for Unilever’s definition of “zero-waste”. I know it sounds like splitting hairs, but I want to be able to appreciate their accomplishments with apples-to-apples comparisons to other companies. For example there are some who say that incinerating waste on site is “zero waste”. I note that is some of their material it says “zero non-hazardous waste”. Do they publish a “methodology” or “definitions” appendix to their reporting that I have not yet found? Sorry to be such a detail picker.

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  2. January 28, 2013 at 11:18 am PDT | DrHenry writes:

    It appears to be zero “solid” waste (not “solid waste”). Of course, water, human waste, CO2, and energy are not included. It is a good goal and result, but they should be more straightforward in the terminology. Of course, they are using the terminology for the PR, not for clarity.

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