Now it is becoming, particularly among the larger players in the industry, a means of gaining a competitive edge. Sustainability is being used as a marketing tool against rivals.
Competitive claims have been extended to whole supply chains with producers maintaining that their procurement arrangements for raw materials does more to protect the environment that those of other coatings businesses.
Sustainability has become a key part of the growth and marketing strategies of some coatings companies with large amounts of space devoted to it in their annual and corporate responsibility reports.
Most of these companies are based in northern Europe, where ecological matters tend to be given more social, cultural and political importance. Scandinavian companies in particular are inclined to give top priority to sustainability issues.
These center around aspects like energy consumption, carbon footprints, waste reduction and disposal and emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants threatening human health as well as the environment.
In most cases this means introducing innovations and new products which go beyond what is demanded by regulations, even eco-label systems and, significantly, what the vast majority of other coatings companies are doing in the sustainability area.
Most of the major European-based coatings companies – such as AkzoNobel, Jotun, Hempel, Tikkurila. BASF Coatings and a growing number of small- and medium-sized ones – now have concepts of sustainability well embedded into their strategies.
A major pace-setter among the top group has been AkzoNobel, which is both a coatings and speciality chemicals manufacturer. It has just been ranked number one in the global materials sector for the third successive year on the influential Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI).
Its objective is to ensure that in as many areas a possible the sustainability levels it achieves are higher than those of its competitors.
“Our sustainability strategic targets are that 20 percent of revenue by 2020 will come from products that are more sustainable for our customers than the products of our customers,” Conrad Keijzer, AkzoNobel’s executive board member responsible for the company’s performance coatings operation, told a recent press briefing in London. “Also we have a target of a 25-30 percent more efficient resource and energy use across the entire value chain by 2020 – measured by carbon footprint reduction.”
An important part of the company’s sustainability activities is its eco-premium products and services scheme, for which it has a target share of 20 percent of revenue by 2020 against 18 percent last year.
The criteria for judging what qualifies as having an ‘eco-premium’ include toxicity, energy efficiency, use of natural resources, emissions and waste and land-use footprint. It has to be significantly better than other products or services on the market in at least one criteria and not significantly worse in any of them, according to the company.
As a result, when competitors improve their products, AkzoNobel has to ensure that it can upgrade its own existing eco-premium products to remain ahead of its rivals.
The eco-status of coatings is increasingly being assessed on the basis of the level of compliance among raw material and other suppliers with standards on the environment and human safety and well-being.
AkzoNobel has a policy under which all suppliers considered be ‘critical’ are subject to audits aimed at raising their capabilities and performances in sustainability areas.
Hempel runs a system under which suppliers are audited by questionnaire, which is followed up by on-site visits of those who scored poorly.
Jotun works with suppliers to ensure they comply with the United Nations Global Compact on environmentally sustainable and socially responsible policies. Its audit program had covered 430 suppliers by the end of last year.
The construction sector, including commercial, industrial and infrastructure projects, has been targeted by coatings companies which consider themselves to have sustainability advantages. This is mainly because the greening of the construction industry by schemes like Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED).
Coatings companies have, for example, been reducing the VOC content of their products below those demanded by regulation or even eco-label projects.
Hempel has recently introduced anti-corrosion coatings for storage tanks which contains only 22 grams of VOCs per liter compared with a level of 320 grams per liter in comparable products.
There have been a number of initiatives to provide low-emission interior coatings which safeguard indoor air quality (IAQ) from pollutants – an area which has not yet been covered by a specific European Union regulation. Some of these products have a low level of formaldehyde regarded as a possible threat to air quality. AkzoNobel has launched a coating for interior walls and ceilings with a bamboo charcoal ingredient which can purify air containing formaldehydes, benzenes and other low-level VOCs.
Marine coatings is a market with intense sustainability competition among its three European-based leaders – Jotun, AkzoNobel and Hempel. They have all recently introduced a range of anti-fouling paints which help ship owners cut their energy consumption and achieve the shipping industry’s voluntary CO2 reduction targets.
The coatings producers have been making various claims about the energy efficiency and CO2-decreasing capabilities of their products. These are often challenged by their competitors and users of other coatings, mainly because a uniform method for measuring their energy efficiency has not yet been drawn up.
Jotun has been working with Norway’s Bellona Foundation, an environmental NGO, on the creation by the Geneva-based International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) for gauging variations in the energy efficiencies of ship’s hulls and propellers.
Now all three of the leading marine coatings producers, together with ship owners and academic specialists, have become members of the working group drawing up the standard.
“The aim with the standard is to make available to the industry an open and transparent methodology for measuring changes in ship-specific hull and propeller performance,” said Geir Axel Oftedahl, Jotun’s business development director, hull performance solutions and a member of the working group, “The aim is not to prescribe what is an acceptable level of performance,” he stressed.
A draft standard is scheduled to be agreed by the working group committee in March next year, after which a final version should be published by the end of 2016. To come into operation it will have to be approved first by the ISO member countries.
Standards are a necessity if sustainability is to be moved forward. But they are also needed to increase competition among sustainability coatings.