Zero Waste Supply Chains: A Winning Business Strategy That’s Good for the Earth and for the Bottom Line

A Winning Business Strategy That’s Good for the Earth and for the Bottom Line

* By Carol Miller, MHI Vice President of Marketing and Communications  *

With the recent media focus (both traditional and social) on pollution, global warming, resource depletion, landfill limitations and food waste, the concept of zero waste is creeping increasingly into the public’s awareness. Likewise, companies worldwide are feeling both internal and external pressures to operate more sustainably as both materials costs and consumer expectations for better corporate citizenship rise.

But first, what exactly is “zero waste”? The term was originally developed in 2004 and subsequently updated in 2018 by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), which defines it as:

“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of products, packaging and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

As supply chains tend to be the part of an organization that handles production, packaging and distribution, the responsibility for implementing zero waste mandates has tended to fall upon their shoulders. And it’s easy to see why, said Pam Fitzpatrick, senior director and analyst in Gartner’s supply chain research group, where she focuses on corporate social responsibility, sustainability and circular economy strategies.

“There are currently three issues pushing businesses to implement zero waste initiatives,” she said. “First, public concern about pollution—particularly ocean plastics, which are getting a lot of attention globally right now because of activism and social media. Second, waste import bans from Southeast Asia and Africa, where countries are refusing to accept waste and shipping it back to high-consumption countries like the U.S. that now have to figure out how to deal with it. And, finally, the nuts-and-bolts business driver of cost optimization.”

That last point, Fitzpatrick said, is an evolution of supply chains’ mastery of implementing and executing efficiency programs that drive out waste. “It’s a natural evolution of lean, which is why—when the concept of zero waste first took off—many companies approached it as eliminating the waste they were creating within their own four walls,” she said.

Today, organizations are looking at zero waste as a part of what’s known as the circular economy, which is thinking about waste long after a product leaves their facility, Fitzpatrick added.

“Now, companies are starting to play a bigger part in closing the loops on post-consumer waste by taking back products, re-manufacturing, recycling, or repairing and reselling,” she said. “It’s not just about cost savings anymore. It’s about finding ways to innovate out of waste, then using those innovations as a platform for growth by creating new products and services and building stronger customer relationships.”

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