One week ago an announcement was made by Unilever that it had achieved global zero waste to landfill. This massive goal has been hit across 600 sites in 70 countries. This is one of the biggest examples of “innovating to zero”, a phrase I first heard in December last year at the Sustainability Advantage’s 10th anniversary celebration in a presentation by Bob Willard. Innovating to zero is about operating in such a way that it puts back as much as it takes, or produces everything on its own. An advanced self-reliance and self-sufficiency only for the global corporations of the future. Net zero is applied to resources – waste, energy and water – and this article takes a look at some recent activities by organisations in this space. Unilever, Interface and Tesla are discussed, but it is important to acknowledge that Coca Cola, Nestlé (with water as covered in a previous post), many IT firms like Google, Apple and Facebook (see the renewable energy in IT post), Mars and Mirvac also have this ambition.

"solar two net-zero energy 2" by Engineering for Change on Flickr
“solar two net-zero energy 2” by Engineering for Change on Flickr

More on Unilever’s industry groundbreaking milestone 

Its press release is not detailed, instead focusing on the impact of the achievement, and does not give much insight into the how, why and business drivers, which I find most interesting. But it does say:

  • Site scope is all inclusive, including factories, warehouses, distribution centres and offices.
  • The 600 figure as of February 2016 is up from 240 in January 2015.
  • Logically, it all started with detailed waste audits to understand the different non-hazardous waste streams. The objective was to find alternate uses and prove that “waste can be seen as a resource with many alternative uses – from converting factory waste to building materials, to composting food waste from staff cafeterias”.
  • Economic benefits included €200 million cost savings and hundred of jobs created.
  • The next step for Unilever is a collaboration platform to encourage its suppliers and partners to follow its leadership.

Interface’s plan to double carpet recycling on the way to Zero Mission 

A fortnight ago in GreenBiz, an article came out on Interface and its plans to step up carpet recycling. As if they were not leaders already! Interface has a 2020 goal of making 100 percent of its products from renewable or recycled materials, called the “Zero Mission”.

"Metropolis" by Interface FLOR on Flickr
“Metropolis” by Interface FLOR on Flickr

But one of the challenges with this is securing the material supply. Interface is starting a partnership strategy, which it believes can increase the amount of carpet recycled by 40 to 50 percent per annum. Supply contractors will provide better logistics – a dedicated company with the relationships and know-how to talk to the contractors, interior designers and/or installers, whichever one has the responsibility of taking away the carpet, and getting the job done.

The material is to be used in its carpet products, including “GlasBac” which the source article lists as an example.

Tesla to reach net zero energy with its US Gigafactory

The plans broke last November of Tesla’s intention to go net zero energy for its major factory in Nevada. It is already well known that this factory is the cornerstone of its strategy, relying on economies of scale to drive up affordability for mainstream customers. It is not common knowledge though that it will become the biggest building on Earth. The potential for solar is very exciting.

JB Straubel, Chief Technical Officer, commenting on the influence of solar PV on its net zero energy goal:

The whole roof of the Gigafactory was designed from the beginning with solar in mind. We kept all of the mechanical equipment off the roof. We didn’t put extra, sorta, penetrations through the roof that we didn’t need to and it’s a very, very clean surface that we can completely cover in solar. But that’s not enough solar, though. So we have also gone to the 8 surrounding hillsides that we can’t use for other functions and we’re adding solar to those.

In fact, the engineers are not even grid-connecting gas!


In innovating to net zero energy, waste or water, these examples show that a strong intention and dedication is crucial. Each of these examples set this goal long in advance, and have had certainty that this goal is real and business-critical.

The certainty enabled all organisations to develop and implement a long-term plan, another point that emanates from each case. For Unilever, a major part of that was getting a “current state” or “current reality” of what was happening, before the kind of “blue sky thinking” that Tesla really demonstrated.

"ASR-Tesla-1430275" by Mark Dixon on Flickr
“ASR-Tesla-1430275” by Mark Dixon on Flickr

All three plans required significant technical advise and input. Resource efficiency projects and plans are hard to develop as often brand new process, methods of production or material engineering is required. Partnerships came across as particularly important to achieve this progression.

Finally, these organisations are communicating it proudly and confidently. So they should! It is a strong sign of leadership to pursue and achieve net zero, and the best way to prepare for a future of scarce and uncertainty of the supply of many resources we currently take for granted.

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