A few years ago the coatings world was ‘nano’ crazy. The term nano was everywhere. I didn’t know what it really meant since there wasn’t an agreed-upon definition of nano. Mostly it meant adding a little of something tiny to paint. It didn’t matter if was a 5-micron particle. If it was small – it was nano. “Sustainability” has replaced nano as the hot topic.

A few years ago the coatings world was ‘nano’ crazy. The term nano was everywhere. I didn’t know what it really meant since there wasn’t an agreed-upon definition of nano. Mostly it meant adding a little of something tiny to paint. It didn’t matter if was a 5-micron particle. If it was small – it was nano. “Sustainability” has replaced nano as the hot topic. I don’t really understand what “sustainability” means either.

Experts refer to a 1987 paper titled “Our Common Future,” more commonly called the Brundtland Report, for a definition. “Development is sustainable when it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Pretty fuzzy stuff and, like nano, it has come to mean different things to different people. From recyclable to reusable, from low VOC to BACT to MACT, or just plain old eco-friendly, ”sustainable” means whatever its purveyors want it to mean.

Everybody knows that the nano movement was driven by good old corporate greed. Companies wanted to be first to market with a “smart coating” that performed a feat not possible with humongous molecules.

But “sustainable” products… Who could be so Grinchy as to question the altruism of companies investing in our kids’ future? One of the greatest economists, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, said, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”

Milton lines up pretty well with my experience. I have yet to see a corporation spend significant resources on stuff that won’t produce profits. I am not talking about a United Way food drive, but spending millions in R&D for the good of mankind.

Example - The Oil Industry

Case in point – the oil industry. It’s no secret that oil companies love to make money. Shell’s principal focus remains on its core business activities. Capital investments in 2006 totaled $24.896 billion, of which just $418 million (less than 2%) was in businesses including renewables other than the core oil, gas and chemicals sectors. “Corporate Social Responsibility is not cosmetic,” says Phil Watts, Group Managing Director for Royal Dutch/Shell Group. “It must be rooted in our values. It must make a difference in the way we do our business.”

But in Sao Paulo, Shell did business by polluting the water table. In 2005 Shell was ordered by a judge to stop dumping chemical waste and to decontaminate drinking water sources, and they were fined. Shell protested.

Skeptical of Shell’s claims that their emissions were not causing the damages claimed, an environmental watchdog group, Friends of the Earth, commissioned an independent research study. The study documented health problems of employees and those living nearby, who were found to have high concentrations of heavy metals and pesticides in their blood. But Shell disagreed with the test method, claiming that the methodology was flawed.

Sarah-Jayne Clifton of Friends of the Earth said, “We cannot rely on voluntary action by companies to operate in a responsible manner. Stronger, binding rules are needed to guarantee that companies adhere to basic minimum standards concerning environmental protection.”

Shell is one of the founding members of a new organization called The World Business Council on Sustainable Development. “Replacing part of the fossil-derived transportation fuel with biomass-derived products can be an effective way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, thus contributing significantly to sustainable solutions,” says Shell on its corporate website.

Shell President John Hofmeister, appearing on the NBC Today Show, touted his company’s development of eco-friendly alternatives to oil. (Oil that created all-time record profits of $23 billion in 2006).


Hofmeister extolled the virtues of ethanol. But not your garden variety of ethanol. “Corn ethanol competes with food,” observed Hofmeister. “We prefer second-generation ethanol – cellulosic ethanol,” he explained. Is Shell worried I won’t have enough corn to eat?

While cellulosic ethanol production has not yet started on a commercial scale, economic models show that it costs about $2.50 a gallon to make. Cellulosic ethanol is not cost-competitive with corn-based ethanol, which is produced for about $1.60 per gallon.

Not coincidently, Graem Sweeney, Executive Vice President of Future Fuels and CO2 at Shell, said the company has spent over $1 billion on cellulosic ethanol research and is hoping that its partnership with other firms will result in so-called “super enzymes” capable of breaking down multiple feed stocks into usable sugars for ethanol production. The company entered into their R&D partnerships, but is not willing to disclose exactly what has been accomplished. “We see a significant competitive advantage in keeping secret the advancements,” Sweeney said.

The website, running_on_alcohol.tripod.com, comments warily on Shell’s R&D efforts: “Apparently, Iogen, Shell and Petro-Canada are playing their cards close to the vest. The market for fuel ethanol is established beyond any doubt: it is presently a $3 billion/year industry. By keeping this technology to themselves, a new bio-technology industry promises to be the new Middle East in terms of fuel supply.” Milton Friedman would be proud.

Motivated by Profit?

Is it possible that the buzz over sustainability is motivated – even a little bit – by profit?

One leading paint supplier has put together a presentation titled “Sustainable Development and the Business Value Chain: The Business Case for Sustainable Development,” and proposes that “sustainable development is the balance of economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.” A little closer to Friedman’s view.

“Business in accordance with sustainable development is attractive to investors because it aims to increase long-term shareholder value,” they conclude. Investors, once in lust with nano, are now being drawn to companies ready to dive headlong into a world of sustainable coatings.

ICI Paints (Akzo) announced that they have been awarded a major grant from the Technology Program of the Department of Trade and Industry in the UK to develop decorative paints that generate demonstrably less waste in their production, use and end of life. “The project builds on a feasibility study carried out with a major trade customer of ICI, and Forum for the Future, a leading sustainable development charity in the UK,” says ICI. The full project is valued at £2 million, with ICI receiving a grant of £750,000 for its part.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy invests in energy technologies and has funded Rohm & Haas’s efforts to “offer a paradigm shift in coating technology” by “developing new, non-volatile, biomass-derived coalescing agents (that) will deliver architectural coatings possessing a new level of performance, environmental friendliness, and cost efficiency.”

The ability to garner research grant dollars is only part of the potential payoff in the sustainability arena. According to one of the worlds largest paint suppliers, a “value driver” for sustainability is “value-based pricing.”

In a case study on “How to value sustainable development activity,” the company compares a new UV-curable primer paint priced at $485.40/gallon to the existing technologies: a 2K urethane at $113.22/gallon and an epoxy paint costing $100.64/gallon. After analyzing the labor, energy, waste and material required, the conclusion is that the UV-cure material is competitive with other technologies, (even slightly cheaper in the 2K system).

Energy Balancing Act

The analysis points to several issues that may warrant further investigation. For example, how much energy is needed to produce a gallon of the UV material?

Referring back to ethanol, U. of C. Berkeley professor Tad Patzek argued that up to six times more energy is used to make ethanol than the finished fuel actually contains. “The fossil energy expended during production alone,” he concluded, “easily outweighs the consumable energy in the end product.” As a result, Patzek believes that those who think using the “green” fuel will reduce fossil fuel consumption are “deluding themselves.”

Trying to quantify the “total carbon footprint” leads to a seemingly never-ending set of questions. Don’t get me wrong, UV is fantastic. It saves energy. It cures fast. It has great properties. But we need to get the analysis right or we speak with no real authority.

An online blog, not surprisingly from California, presents the problem pretty clearly:

Paint Dilemma, Part II
Thank you very much to all who responded to my previous post. The advice is overwhelmingly in favor of using the paint that I presently have, with the reasoning being that energy has already been expended in manufacturing the paint and getting it to my house; putting forth additional energy and money to transport the old paint to the hazardous waste facility AND purchase and take home new paint would likely not offset the benefits of “recycling” the old paint and using a low-VOC product. (http://www.norcalblogs.com)


I don’t mean to be cynical about sustainability. Was it Groucho Marx who asked, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” But my take on the topic is that government, and not industry alone, will create the real environmental change.

The Clean Air Act paved the way for the powder coating industry. Mandates to eliminate lead and reduce isocyanates changed their use in our industry. We have been reminded by inferior goods coming from China that, left to its own, industry will seek to maximize profits and sell lead-coated Thomas the Tank Engines to our little tots.

Shell Oil President John Hofmeister seems to agree. “There should be laws setting caps on carbon emissions,” because without “a regulatory framework, the movement away from fossil fuels is not going to happen.”

U.S. technology is the best in the world at solving problems. We went to the moon first. Sure the Chinese or the Japanese will get there cheaper. If we want to help the U.S. auto industry we should raise CAFÉ standards and challenge automakers to develop innovative technology. That’s contrary to popular opinion, which holds that more regulation is bad for business. But in fact, when your competitive advantage is your ability to innovate – change is a friend.

The paint industry will doubtless flourish from “sustainability.” But the definition of what that means must come in the form of new emission standards, restrictions on hazardous waste, effluents and similar environmental regulations.

When the auto industry set out to eliminate chrome it spurred the development of dozens of new technologies. Today’s efforts in PVD and other metallization techniques owe themselves to the move away from dangerous heavy metals.

There’s truth to the maxim, “the only thing constant – is change itself.” And sustainability under the banner of regulation will help sustain the coatings industry.

Editor comment: I welcome other features or comments on sustainability. I happen to agree with Paul Mills that the term is used a lot these days, and I also don’t know what it really means. Perhaps we need a good, sound definition or clarification from some of our leading suppliers and manufacturers.