Sustainability remains a major objective of Europe’s coatings sector despite the slow economic recovery in the region. In fact, the recession and its aftermath have bolstered the momentum behind sustainability initiatives in the sector rather than hamper them.
A lot of the environmental measures taken by coatings producers over the last few years, such as the formulation of paints with lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), have been driven by legislation.
There had been predictions than once regulations like the EU’s directive limiting the VOC content of decorative paints came fully into effect early this year sustainability would be given a lower profile in the industry.
Coatings companies, however, particularly large ones with prominent brands in the decorative sector, are taking a variety of steps like streamlining packaging, reducing waste, preventing paint residue from contaminating water and, above all, cutting their carbon footprints.
Also they have been introducing coatings products, equipment and services, which help reduce energy consumption down the supply chain.
A lot of the impetus is coming from the need to protect the environment but also to reduce costs at a time when most European countries seem to be struggling to expand their economies after the financial meltdown of 2008.
“Companies in the coatings supply chain are seeing sustainability as an opportunity during a time of slow economic growth because it is a way of cutting costs while also being innovative,” said Chris Sherwin, head of innovation at Forum for the Future, a UK-based sustainability organization which has been doing advisory work for AkzoNobel’s decorative paints business.
“It is a way of improving efficiency,” he said. “Some companies argue that because of current economic conditions they cannot afford to introduce sustainability measures, but they are making a big mistake.”
The recession has shown how much sustainability has become a core part of the strategies of many companies in the coatings and other supply chains.
“There have been at least three periods since the 1960s when companies took a lot of interest in sustainability issues which then fell away during an economic downturn,” said Sherwin. “But this has not happened during the latest recession because sustainability has become embedded in corporate strategies. It is not a public relations exercise any more. It is seen as a better way of doing business in the long term.”
Despite a fall in sales and profits last year, AkzoNobel, which has used sustainability measures to cut costs, increased its net cash flow almost 14 fold to €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) in 2009.
“Sustainability is integrated into everything we do,” Andre Veneman, the company’s sustainability director, told a recent investors’ conference in Amsterdam. “By 2015 our ambition is that eco-premium products—those with a higher eco-efficiency than main competitive products—will make up 30 percent of sales and that our cradle-to-gate carbon footprint will be reduced by 10 percent.”
In March the company launched in the UK under its leading Dulux decorative brand the Ecosense range which because of zero solvent content has no lingering odor, has a 35-50 percent lower carbon footprint and 25 percent recycled packaging.
“One of our global goals is the reduction of waste from the use of products such as left-over paint and used packaging,” said David Brunt, global environment and sustainability manager at AkzoNobel Decorative Paints.
In the UK professional decorators can take their empty or part-empty cans to the company’s paint stores so that they can be recycled and the left-over paint composted or used as an energy source.
On construction sites in the country, AkzoNobel has been providing an environmentally responsible means for washing out brushes, rollers and other paint application equipment. “Our wash system converts waterborne paint washings into clear water and solid waste allowing for easier and safer disposal,” said Brunt.
Crown Paints, Darwen, England, AkzoNobel’s former decorative paints subsidiary in the UK, which for competition reasons it had to divest two years ago after acquiring ICI, has been continuing the sustainability policies of its former parent. It has recently introduced into the UK market its earthbalance range, which is 99 percent solvent-free, has a 22 percent lower carbon footprint and a 100 percent recyclable pack.
The company is planning to calculate the carbon footprint of all its products. This is based on a system developed by the British Standard Institute (BSI) that covers the method of disposal of unused paint and of empty containers. In addition to waste generation, Crown is also measuring other key elements during paint’s life cycle, such as demand for water, energy and other resources.
In the UK and other European countries, customers using or distributing coatings are increasingly looking to paint producers to help them improve their own sustainability performance, particularly in the reduction of waste.
They are looking, for example, to coatings companies or distributors to deliver paint to construction sites in larger containers and less frequently in order to cut transport fuel consumption.
“On some of our sites we can use over 25,000 liters of paint,” said Jas Dhami, design manager at Carillion plc, an international construction company at Wolverhampton, England. “Instead of having large amounts of single cans delivered, we have been employing a system for storing the paint in 1,000 liter tanks, which provide coatings for the paint contractors’ own single refillable containers. We also run workshops for contractors to train them in sustainability skills. We have reduced waste by as much as 97 percent on some sites.”
Retail chains in Europe want their suppliers to meet stricter sustainability criteria, especially compliance with lower carbon footprints and a higher level of recyclable packaging.
London-based Kingfisher Group, which runs DIY chains across Western and Eastern Europe, increased in 2009/10 its range of eco-efficiency products to almost 10,000 in its major UK and French chain. It is also building up its own eco-brand label range. The company has also set up a system for carrying out audits of its suppliers.