Sustainability Trends from NAEM: Zero Waste, Water Efficiency, and More


Sustainability conferences give attendees a valuable opportunity to learn about industry trends directly from the companies that are leading the way! It’s safe to say that attendees learned a lot last week in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the 2016 NAEM Sustainability Management Conference. From benchmarking best practices, to real-world case studies, to suggestions on how to engage with suppliers on common goals, this year’s line-up of speakers didn’t disappoint!

For those of you who missed out, or those who attended but would like a refresher, we’ve compiled our key takeaways from three of the most interesting topics of conversation at the conference.

The Zero Waste Journey

While some safety professionals share a “zero injuries” goal, sustainability professionals are talking more and more about a journey towards “zero waste” or “zero landfill.” The ultimate goal is to imitate sustainable cycles in nature, so that all resources involved in the creation of a product or service are reused, rather than ending up in a landfill or incinerator. This means looking at all discarded materials resulting from your products and processes, from the beginning of their lifecycle right through to the end.

While this is all still just a dream for many companies, one of the opening keynote speeches provided some practical suggestions for how to get started.

If you’re just at the beginning of your zero waste journey, Tom Easterday, Executive VP, Secretary & CLO at Subaru Indiana Automotive (SIA) recommended collaborating with waste experts as one way to better understand what your options are. Seek advice on opportunities to reuse byproducts of your product’s lifecycle, get started with waste collection and secondary waste sorting services, and try to connect with networks of recyclers in your area.

Wherever you start, sustainability professionals were reminded that measuring their progress should be an important aspect of any new initiative. SIA developed a system to measure the waste being generated and then made managers accountable by including these reports in their monthly meeting. They motivated employees by incorporating performance targets into bonus systems, and made sure to keep it attainable for everyone by leveling the playing field and measuring based on pounds of waste per unit, per capita. SIA has recognized an impressive reduction in waste as well as cost savings associated with its Zero Landfill program – proving that zero waste initiatives can be good for bottom lines as well as the environment.

Of course, looking at the impacts of your full lifecycle requires you to take your suppliers into account as well. This leads us right into our next conference takeaway – working with your supply chain and finding opportunities that are mutually beneficial.

Sustainability & Your Supply Chain

Collaborating with your supply chain on your sustainability goals was a theme shared by many of the conference presentations.Kelly Semrau, a Senior VP from S.C. Johnson, spoke about their initiative to voluntarily offer product-specific fragrance disclosure. This information allows consumers to make informed decisions about the products they purchase. However, this was something S.C. Johnson was only able to do because of agreements they negotiated with their fragrance suppliers, who consider the fragrance recipes to be proprietary information.

Often when we read about the supply chain sustainability programs that are making headlines, the companies driving these initiatives are large conglomerates that wield a lot of influence over their supply chain. But since very few organizations have the ability to dictate from the top down, it’s even more important that companies looking to leverage their supply chain find ways to work together towards their sustainability goals, in ways that prioritize the needs of all companies equally and benefit everyone.

By returning reusable byproducts back to your suppliers, for example, you can reduce waste, save money for your suppliers, and even strengthen your supplier relationships. Several attendees were already working with their suppliers to reuse packaging materials, and there may be additional opportunities available to you depending on the industry you operate in.

With this philosophy of cooperation and mutual benefit in mind, Rick Love, Environmental Sustainability manager of United Technologies Corporation (UTC), shared with attendees the “rules of development” that guided their strategy for supply chain sustainability. Notably, they wanted to avoid asking anything of their suppliers that they didn’t require of themselves. They also recognized the need to avoid imposing an unreasonable burden on suppliers. For this reason, defining a manageable scope of supplier requirements that could be easily tracked and reported on was also critical.

Water Efficiency as a Survival Tool

Programs that measure water usage and work to improve water efficiency are no longer the exception, and are increasingly expected. This is particularly true for companies that operate in industries that are unavoidably water-intensive, where reducing water usage or finding ways to recycle water can help them reduce one of their highest costs.

The food and beverage industry is a natural example. MillerCoors has made a public goal to improve water-to-beer ratio in their breweries to achieve an average of 3.0:1.0 by 2020, and one of their Environmental Engineers was at NAEM to talk about what that means for the company. Their initiatives include everything from educational meetings with growers, to championing more efficient nozzles. Again, conference attendees saw that collaborating with suppliers led to some of the best and most sustainable results.

Attendees were also encouraged to look at water usage from a global perspective. Water efficiency becomes even more important when it’s put into the context of increasing global scarcity. Even though water is currently inexpensive and abundant in some countries, in the future it may not be so readily available. Given this uncertainty, companies that depend on water are the most at risk; therefore, it’s in their best interest to proactively explore these opportunities.

Supporting Sustainability with Environmental Management Software

As a proud and longstanding member of NAEM, Intelex was excited to be at the conference exhibiting, in addition to participating in some great discussions around these topics. If you’d like to learn more about how Intelex Environmental Management Software can help your company track sustainability data, visit our website or reach out to us at

Did you attend the conference? Did you notice the same trends we did? Share your thoughts in the Comments section—we’d love to hear from you!

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