Leadership: Steering The Journey to Zero Waste

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Welcome to the third blog in the series about zero waste and circularity for Newfoundland and Labrador. Previous blogs illustrated the difference between *zero waste and waste management* and *between linear and circular economy;* and showed why zero waste is important and how it can help businesses turn waste into savings and contribute to a better planet and society.

This blog looks at the role of leadership in steering the zero-waste journey.

In This Blog


Three Interconnected Ways Others Have Led the Journey

Let’s dive right into examples of what actions have increased leadership and promoted a cultural change in companies that have achieved and maintained their zero-waste goals.

Creating Green Teams

Green Teams are a group of employees, often from all departments, who are engaged in advancing sustainability within an organization. In zero-waste certified facilities, Green Teams have helped:

  • Change the company culture and create awareness as well as increase employee participation (*Piazza Produce* Wholesale foodservice produce and specialty foods distributor)
  • Root out and solve waste issues across the entire supply chain in a holistic way (*Colgate-Palmolive* Manufacturing) 
  • Create accountability, engagement, and commitment that helped the facility reach and maintain its goal of Zero-Waste certification (*Taylor Farms Retail Salinas* Manufacturing – Agricultural)

Engaging employees at work and home

  • Zero-waste training and updates on goals and new best practices (*Colgate-Palmolive* Manufacturing)
  • Employee Sustainability Agreements that outline employee commitments and also encourage them to contribute their own ideas (*The Bailey Company* Forklift Dealership)
  • Reuse and recycling programs that allow employees to bring materials from home and also take home unused materials for repurposed projects (*Posty Cards* Printing).
  • Celebration of environmental events such as Earth Day, during which employees pledge to further zero-waste goals at work and home (*HP* Office – R&D)

Communicating Beyond the Walls

  • Internal communication with staff directly involved with waste management, which actively provides feedback on zero-waste practices (*150 California Street* Office)
  • External communication with suppliers and partners to encourage them to embrace zero-waste principles (*Riverside Natural Foods* Food Manufacturing).

The Role of Leadership

There is one essential piece that glues these initiatives together and makes the zero-waste journey sustainable over time: leadership from upper management. 

This means that those who are responsible for making the primary decisions within an organization embrace the zero-waste goals and commit to motivating action across the organization—inside and outside their walls.

As part of their zero-waste facility certification, the tech company *Raytheon* highlights the “high level of engagement from site leadership and other upper management” in line with other activities that allowed them to divert waste, reduce costs and reinforce a culture of zero waste and sustainability.


Progress towards zero waste will depend on how often zero-waste actions are executed, how cohesive they are, how much employees are engaged, and how data and insights are shared with and used by upper management.


What if upper management is not leading the way?

Leadership might not always come from upper management. It could come from the green teams or individual employees with a strong willingness to move their organizations towards sustainability. 

Green teams or willing employees won’t automatically convince upper management to embrace zero waste either. But they can become zero-waste leaders by showing how zero waste can improve both the environmental and financial performance of the organization.  

Learning from what others have done to lead the journey, here is a shortlist of zero-waste initiatives that can provide data while engaging employees from all departments—including upper management—and promoting cultural change:

  • Waste audits of employees’ desk bins. Engaging as many employees as possible from as many departments as possible—starting with upper management. Gathering data and discussing the findings. 
  • A “Rethink” campaign that encourages employees to see waste as resources and contribute ideas about resource recovery, closing loops, and its contribution to reducing environmental impact and creating revenue opportunities. Always recognizing their contributions. 
  • Framing zero-waste activities within annual national and international environmental dates to boost employees’ engagement. Key dates include *Earth Day* (April 22), *Ocean Day* (June 8), or *Waste Reduction Week,* (starts on the third Monday of October) which has been celebrated in Canada for 20 years. 
  • Learning what other companies are doing regarding waste prevention and circular economy—may also reveal how it strengthens their brand.
  • A review of what the organization is already doing to reduce and divert waste and close loops. Recycling? Composting? Reusing? Refurbishing? Assessing how this is already contributing to reducing environmental footprint and waste costs.
  • Communication! Making sure data and insights are always shared and discussed at all levels. This will reinforce the sustainability message and empower everyone in the organization.

Progress towards zero waste will depend on how often these actions are executed, how cohesive they are, how much employees are engaged, and how data and insights are shared with and discussed and used by upper management. Ultimately, their involvement determines how zero waste can become an integral part of the organization. This, in turn, will impact how the organization operates, how cultural change happens, and how much the organization benefits environmentally and financially from zero-waste initiatives.

In my next blog, I’ll provide an overview of zero-waste certifications, which provide the tools to transform organizations by helping them engage employees across the organization, set specific goals, track their progress, and become recognized for their zero-waste achievements.


SUMMARY 

The zero-waste journey, like any sustainability enterprise, is a process that requires continuous collaboration, data sharing, and engagement. Organizations that have gone through the zero-waste certification, highlight the commitment of upper management, which has contributed to cultural change and made zero waste sustainable over time. 

Leadership might not come from upper management but employees with a strong willingness to move their organization towards sustainability. And there are zero-waste initiatives that they can undertake to show how zero waste can improve the organization’s environmental and financial performance while engaging people from across the organization and sharing key findings and insights with upper management, whose involvement will ultimately determine the pace of the zero-waste journey. 

Have you undertaken any zero-waste initiatives? If not why not? If so, what data and insights have you gathered and how involved has upper management been?

Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Contact me and let’s talk about how you can get started!

<strong>Viviana Ramírez-Luna</strong>
Viviana Ramírez-Luna

Viviana is an Environmental Scientist (MSc) from Memorial University of NL, a Zero Waste Advisor with TRUE (Green Business Certification Inc.), and an Associate of Zero Waste Canada.

She’s the founder of Planeet Consulting, a St. John’s-based firm whose mission is to move Newfoundland and Labrador towards the circular economy and society.

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