2022-02-23 12:00 Share:  Facebook Instagram

“Žalvaris” experience: the road to sustainability is not just a straight highway

“Žalvaris” experience: the road to sustainability is not just a straight highway

Vitoldas Sapožnikovas, Chief Executive Officer of Žalvaris

A few years ago, sustainability was perceived as a tool to improve business reputation or as an additional topic for corporate communication, but today the situation has fundamentally changed. Sustainability is not only being discussed in company boards and at management meetings, it is also becoming important to customers, shareholders and business partners. It is not only green communication that is being monitored, but also real corporate action. But, as Žalvaris' experience shows, the road to sustainability is not just a straight highway to the destination, there are also crossroads. 

Sustainability is not a declaration

Every year, we collect and manage more than 40,000 tonnes of waste in Lithuania, of which as much as two thirds is hazardous waste. We have been specialising in this field for more than 50 years, and we provide services to 4,000 local and international businesses operating in Lithuania, so the desire to develop our activities beyond the day-to-day perspective, protecting and, most importantly, not harming nature, is encoded in our DNA. That is why the principles of sustainable business have always been close to our hearts – environmental protection is one of the company's core values and a meaningful goal of our activities.

The company's business risks are specific due to the hazardous nature of the waste it manages, the complexity of some of the processes, and who carries them out and how. Waste entering our warehouses is sorted, dismantled, shredded and otherwise treated by our employees and prepared for transport to our recycling and recovery partners. It is therefore no coincidence that the management and recycling of hazardous waste is subject to extremely high standards of occupational safety and environmental protection. Some of these are implemented by law, others we choose to implement ourselves.

For example, every year we manage around 10,000 tonnes of automotive waste, including 6,000 tonnes of lead-acid batteries, a particularly hazardous waste. The amount of lead-acid batteries recycled by our employees is the highest on the market – on average, one employee recycles 115 tonnes of batteries per month, from which an average of 80 tonnes of lead is extracted.

For such specific activities, the premises must be adapted to meet strict environmental requirements, and attention to occupational health and safety becomes a top priority. That's why we are focusing on high-quality occupational safety measures and occupational health prevention: we measure the effects of lead on the body of every employee working in the battery division once a year, initiate a full health check-up twice a year in winter and summer, and fund the purchase of nutritional supplements. 

So sustainability in action is not just a declaration for us, it is our reality. The main challenge today is to ensure that waste management processes, which are still very much man-made, are above all safe.

A new twist is a sustainable business strategy

Thoughts on deeper – strategic sustainability in the company appeared in 2019. As Žalvaris' business grew, we found ourselves at a crossroads where we had to decide which direction we would take – do what we have been doing, or take on bigger challenges.

This was prompted by structural changes within the company, the strengthening of the management team and, of course, by the fact that we have significantly expanded our services to manufacturing companies in business terms. And here we had to face the obvious truth: some of them were already well advanced in environmental protection, and for some of them the environment was not really a top priority yet. This was one of the key drivers behind our choice to pursue a road of strategic sustainability – to seek long-term business partnerships, to share our expertise, to grow the company and, at the same time, to help our customers grow.

Today, we collect 17,000 tonnes of various types of industrial waste per year from industrial companies alone. We regularly advise our customers on how to identify waste and its hazardous nature, how to sort and store it, as well as we provide environmental documentation, training and waste accounting services.

Years of experience in environmental protection and occupational health and safety made our first steps towards sustainability easier, as many of the company's management, social and environmental procedures have already been implemented. On the other hand, we desired to strengthen our organisational culture, increase our sustainability knowledge, and become even more attentive to employee welfare, gender equality, non-discrimination and anti-corruption practices.

For the development of the sustainability strategy, we have decided to set up a sustainability team of 5 senior managers 5 managers in charge of important business functions and to involve external advisors. Working together since June last year, they have carried out sustainability audit, data analysis, and identified long-term sustainability indicators, which are the basis for building long-term change and seeking innovation in waste management. We are focusing on dialogue with and development of our employees, looking for ways to work more efficiently and sustainably. Looking at the new challenges, there are certainly some. The biggest one is the application of sustainable business principles to the work of each of the company's 150 employees.

It is only halfway

It should be acknowledged that until a few years ago, sustainability orientation was perceived by many businesses as more of a "trendy" activity, alongside important financial and other objectives. Today, the situation is fundamentally changing, as companies are beginning to understand not only the benefits of sustainable business or the opportunities it presents, but also take on clear commitments and responsibilities.

Global change is happening all over the world, and it is no coincidence that the European Union is striving to become the first climate-neutral continent. The Green Deal's commitments related thereto should help to ensure that in future all businesses, especially those in the business-to-business sector, will have to make sustainability one of its strategic directions. In the long term, therefore, it will be necessary to meet not only formal or self-imposed sustainability requirements, but also sustainability requirements of customers.  

The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are one of the most important sustainability indicators. Following the road to sustainability and increasing our commitment in this field, we applied to the UN Global Compact last December and became a member in January this year. Membership means that we declare our commitment to doing business in line with the international sustainability principles in four directions, to implementing the five UN Sustainable Development Goals, and we will be required to submit an annual sustainability report. So far, only 34 companies in Lithuania have become members of this organisation.

In our strategic choice to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it was important to us that they were directly relevant to the company's activities, reflected what we truly believe in and were realistic in achieving change. Three of the selected UN Sustainable Development Goals – Good Health and Well-being of employees, Gender Equality and Sustainable Consumption and Production – have been and will continue to be the fundamental fields of focus in the company's business, and which we wish to develop further. Meanwhile, the use of renewable energy and adaptation to the challenges of climate change, including the continuous monitoring of greenhouse gases, must become part of our daily routine.

With the integrated implementation of sustainability in the company, we can clearly see that the Green Deal's commitments are not just empty words – they are becoming as commonplace as financial targets for forward-thinking businesses. We are seeing that the sustainability crossroads where we stand are becoming relevant to our customers. Responsible businesses do not need formal sustainability declarations and green communications. Change and dialogue on sustainability is already taking place, with customers and partners making each other aware of their own corporate sustainability procedures, increasingly offering to include sustainability clauses in service contracts and even initiating sustainability audits.

And while we have done a lot, Žalvaris is far from halfway on its sustainability journey. We will strive not only to be a role model for our customers, but also to share best practices with our partners. It is very likely that a business without a sustainability strategy in place will become impossible in the future.