So often we view big business as the enemy of the environment and sustainability. We focus on corporate irresponsibility and the damage that their growth and manufacturing practices cause. But thanks to the persistence of consumers calling for greater responsibility and accountability, some of the largest corporations are taking notice and doing something about it, implementing a significant seed change to get to zero waste that is completely altering their business.
The amount of waste in our culture is staggering. All you have to do is walk into one of these mega stores, big box, or department stores and look at the rows and rows of goods. Each item comes packaged to within an inch of its life. Multiple sizes and colours and styles.
An amount of inventory that will never sell because it will quickly reach it’s sell by date or go out of style, the package may have a blemish, or will be replaced by a “new and improved” model that may just mean a slight design change. Inventory that will end up first in discount stores, then bargain basement outlets, finally either being donated or sold off in bulk. Even the Pope has referred to it as a “throwaway culture” (and no matter your religious bend, you’ve gotta’ admit, the guy’s got a valid point).
Often the target of our rants are the big manufacturing conglomerates, where the bottom line is the driver for all decisions. Slowly but surely, we’re starting to see some of these Goliath’s change their way of doing business, committing to being more responsible and accountable for their environmental and societal impact by aiming for zero waste. Two companies in particular are Sears Holding Corp. and Proctor & Gamble.
Before we turn to Sears and P&G, we need to understand the concept of zero waste. Zero waste goes beyond reducing waste and recycling. It’s obtaining zero waste to landfills. Nothing ends up in a landfill. Waste is either reused, repurposed, used for fuel or recycled. Think about that for a second. It’s a noble effort, but think how challenging it can be sometimes in your own life when you try to be as sustainable as possible. There are hurdles at every turn, and it requires effort, a shift in mindset to live with as minimal a footprint as possible. Multiply that times how many thousands and that’s what has to happen in big businesses. It has to be a shift in thinking, mindset, perspective and actions. There has to be a willingness to take, often drastic, measures to go against what’s easy and cheaper and do what’s right.
A tale of two corporate giants
Getting back to the two companies in our spotlight, Sears Holding Corp. and P&G. Sears Holding owns 1,700 Sears and K-Mart stores, 34 distribution centres and 410 warehouses and call centres. It employs nearly 200,000 and has an annual revenue of $31 billion. Paul Campbell is the director of sustainability and green leadership. When looking at their efforts overall, Campbell explains, “We are very early on our journey [to zero waste]. Retail in general is under tremendous strain to modify the business model, to change and adapt. As we find ways to appeal to the next generation of customers, they are demanding transparency not only in waste but a lot things having to do with sustainability.”
For years, Sears claims they have been making changes in waste management and sustainability, but haven’t necessarily shared those efforts with the public. That changed last year when his team released their first ever corporate responsibility and sustainability report. Campbell recognizes that they have a long way to go, but are making conscious and continual efforts to improve and be a better steward to the environment.
Proctor & Gamble is an undeniable corporate giant. As in, $83 billion in annual sales with operations in 70 countries. Their brands are in households around the world and are names we’ve most likely all used and grown up with—Gillette, Crest, Charmin, Bounty, Always, Luvs, Puffs, and Old Spice, to name just a few. Their commitment to sustainability is a long-term one, and is something they as a company are very transparent about. They have a zero waste to landfill goal, meaning by 2020, less than .05% of manufacturing waste is disposed of without being reused, recycled, or renewed. As of right now, more than 60 percent of their facilities are zero waste.
P&G has and continues to examine every facet of their manufacturing and business model for ways to improve. From employee programs in their office buildings to supply chain and manufacturing and distribution changes. Everyone is getting involved. They realize it’s not an effort they can do in isolation; every member of the team needs to take an active role to meet their goals of corporate responsibility.
P&G has a Global Asset Recovery Purchases team who has the weighty responsibility of looking at everything not as waste, but as potential. It’s their job to find ways to turn waste either into something that is recycled, repurposed, used for fuel, or reused in the manufacturing process. This team identifies ways to keep that (less than) 1 percent out of the landfills, and at the same time they’re often creating new revenue streams for the company. Where it makes sense, P&G is changing their manufacturing process and systems to accommodate the changes, which results in a fundamental change in their overall business process.
P&G’s commitment reaches beyond their corporate walls to the consumer. A staggering 4.6 billion people around the world use P&G products (check your own cabinets). Their overall sustainability goal is zero waste on the consumer end, too. That commitment is to eventually use 100 percent recyclable or renewable materials in all their products and packaging. To date, their efforts have saved the company $2 billion since 2008.
P&G admits there’s a long way to go. There is still that 40 percent or so that are not achieving zero waste, but they’re making good strides. Sure, their efforts can be picked apart, and sure there are still going to be those problems and cannibalizing of resources that come with huge conglomerates. But they’re making the effort, seeing positive results and recognizing the impact their efforts have on the environment. They’re looking harder to work in ways that will provide an ultimate benefit.
We all have a long way to go. In our own lives, in our own habits. But we’re the ones who can make the difference in our actions. It’s up to each of us to hold businesses accountable, whether a big shot like P&G or your neighbourhood retailer.
Share your thoughts about corporate sustainability efforts and impact with us in the Comments.