A few years ago, the coatings world was nano- crazy. Nano- everywhere. I didn’t know what it really meant since there wasn’t an agreed-on 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-. Now “sustainability” has replaced nano- as the hot topic. But what does sustainability really mean?

A few years ago, the coatings world was nano- crazy. Nano- everywhere. I didn’t know what it really meant since there wasn’t an agreed-on 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’s 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.

A Motivating Issue

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 anything 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.

Case in point: the oil industry. It’s no secret that oil companies love to make money.

For example, 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 chemical sectors. Shell President John Hofmeister recently appeared on the NBC Today Show, touting his company’s development of eco-friendly alternatives to oil (oil that created all-time record profits of $23 billion for the company 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, Graeme 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 has entered into its R&D partnerships, but it is not willing to disclose exactly what has been accomplished.

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 their vests. 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.

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

Sustainability and Business

One leading paint supplier has put together a presentation titled “Sustainable Development and the Business Value Chain: The Business Case for Sustainable Development,” which 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,” the report concludes.

Investors, once in lust with nano-, are now being drawn to companies ready to dive headlong into a world of sustainable coatings.

ICI Paints announced that it has 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 Paints and Forum for the Future, a leading sustainable development charity in the UK,” said ICI in a statement.

The full project is valued at £2 million, with ICI Paints 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.”

I am not knocking this kind of effort. Quite to the contrary - these guys are doing great work for their shareholders and our industry. There's nothing wrong with making better paint and getting paid to do it.

The ability to garner research grant dollars is only part of the potential payoff in the sustainability arena. According to one of the world’s 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 one-component UV primer to a two-component urethane and epoxy, each of which costs less than one-fourth that of the UV coating. 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, University of California-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 quickly. It has great properties. But we need to get the analysis right or we speak with no real authority.

The Real Driver for Change

I don’t mean to be cynical about sustainability. Was it Graucho 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 president John Hofmeister of Shell Oil 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.”

The paint industry will doubtless flourish from “sustainability.” But the definition of this term 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 physical vapor deposition (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.” Sustainability under the banner of regulation will help sustain the coatings industry.

What do you think? E-mail your opinion on this topic to editor@finishingtodaymag.com.