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

Words by Leon Kaye

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]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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