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Eliminating Your Products? The real meaning of zero waste

I have a new definition of waste, one that might surprise you. For any organization, waste is everything that isn't needed to deliver value to customers. Given this definition, achieving zero waste at a company or facility is a very high hurdle, but one that ultimately should be overcome.

It wasn't long ago that waste was considered a necessary byproduct of doing business. Generating large amounts of waste was a small price to pay for rapidly expanding production and sales. But those days are over. Now everyone knows the business value of reducing waste. Reducing waste saves money, lowers environmental liabilities and fines, and protects and enhances brand value. It’s also the right thing for a quality business to do.

Zero waste is a straightforward, achievable goal as long as waste is defined as scrap and other materials typically sent to landfill or contaminated effluent released into sewers. That’s the case right now for companies like General Motors, Xerox, and Procter & Gamble, who are pursuing zero waste at their facilities. Waste reduction is currently about cutting excess, reusing materials if possible, and recycling the excess you can’t re-use. This approach is a good first step, but it won't lead to the gains in resource performance needed to attain sustainable prosperity - either for an individual business or for society as a whole. It’s a tiny scratch on the surface of what we'll have to achieve in the coming years. (We also need to remember that while recycling is important, it isn't in itself a solution to environmental or resource problems. It can be fossil fuel intensive, expensive, and sometimes even wasteful.)

When waste is defined differently - as everything that isn't needed to deliver value to customers - achieving zero waste requires a lot more creative work. Eliminating waste is a continuous process of removing material resources (including fuels) from every part of your business, even – and perhaps most importantly now - from your product. It's about drastically improving resource performance by using strategies like dematerialization and lightweighting, while delivering more benefits to your customers. It involves a willingness to reorient your thinking.

Accepting the idea that your product is mostly waste might not be easy at first. After all, you have customers who buy your product. But remember that customers are not really paying you money because they love your product. They want the benefits they get from using your product. If they can get those benefits more cheaply, with less environmental impact, and with some cool but completely new delivery method, they will do it.

So where is this headed? Sooner or later, someone is going to find a way to deliver the same benefits that existing products do, but with much less resource mass. When they do, they’ll be able to serve customers in a more sustainable manner for less money. We know that will happen for two reasons:

  1. A shrinking resource base in the face of growing demand. Under such circumstances, innovation has direction - doing more with less. In the early phases of business and economic growth, the winners were the companies that succeeded in growing the fastest (making the most stuff to sell). In the new economy, winners will be those that deliver the most benefits to customers with the fewest resources.
  2. Rapidly advancing materials science, biology, and technology, which are revolutionizing our ability to work with nature and to rearrange energy at the level of individual atoms and molecules. New discoveries are making manufacturing and producing value possible without heavy machinery.

The convergence of these two trends is conspiring to redefine manufacturing, environmental management, and business in general. One is pushing the world toward higher levels of resource performance and the other opening up previously unimaginable opportunities for doing more with less.

Those who don't see these trends are likely to be broadsided. The competition that could undermine your products with game-changing innovations might come from an existing market player that sees the writing on the wall or it might come from a new company that isn't even on your industry’s radar screen. The way to avoid a crisis is to start now down the path of mass reduction without compromising value.

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