Sustainability is not a new concept. People have been practicing sustainability for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. You only have to look at a ruined castle or ancient city wall in Europe to know that most of the stones that are now missing have since been recycled as part of the fabric of more modest residences elsewhere.

In Kenya, they have a proverb that captures the very essence of the Sustainability concept: "The world was not given to you by your parents; it was lent to you by your children." The concept was given fresh impetus by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 at which a definition of sustainability was agreed that has stood the test of time very well. The British Coatings Federation led the way forward by interpreting this definition for the coatings industry as follows:

‘We believe in producing our paints, coatings, wallcoverings and printing inks in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.’

Since then, it has become generally accepted that sustainability can be divided into economic, environmental and social elements or pillars. Companies endeavour to address all three aspects in their improvement plans. Some companies will recognize this as another version of the Triple Bottom Line, which it is. Whatever term is used, you can be sure that, these days, every corporation in North America will address the topic each year in its Annual Report and in its published goals for the future.

Like many industries, the coatings industry has made a good start. There has been a massive switch by all coatings companies over the last 10 years from solventborne to waterborne coatings for the Architectural/Decorative Coatings sector. In 2011, Sherwin-Williams’ water-based paint made from recycled bottles and soybeans received the EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Award. AkzoNobel is a corporation that has made a very public commitment to sustainability and in 2012 topped the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for the Chemicals supersector. The new CEO, Ton Büchner recently stated that his business ‘IS Sustainability’.

The worldwide shortages of raw materials in 2008-2010 were a wake-up call for many, emphasised the finite nature of the world’s resources, and forced all companies in the coatings industry to review their raw material purchasing strategies to consider renewable sources. Several very large downstream customers, particularly in the architectural coatings sector, have insisted that the products they purchase in the future demonstrate improved sustainable properties and characteristics. Across the world, we are now seeing a proliferation of standards particularly in the building sector that embody the principles of sustainable development. In some countries, reporting along sustainable lines is already mandated.

The current economic challenges all round the world may well have taken some pressure off corporations to move forward with sustainable development initiatives. However, you only have to consider the world population forecast of 9 billion people on the Earth by 2050 compared with 7 billion today, and to understand the finite capacity of the world’s resources, to recognize that we can’t go on as we are and something has to give.

Over the next few months, this Blog intends to track the progress of the coatings industry on its sustainability journey, share best practice, raise issues for debate, and recognize success in delivering practical improvements and innovations that move the industry forward.

The Blog is also keen to encourage suppliers to the coatings industry to focus their R&D on product innovations and manufacturing processes that reduce the environmental footprint for the entire product life cycle, from cradle to grave, while also enhancing the functionality of coatings products.

Amongst other topics, the Blog will discuss the level of importance and accuracy ascribed to life cycle analysis and to seek ways of handling and avoiding ‘Greenwash’. The Blog will not focus solely on the environmental pillar of sustainability but will also address economic and social issues as well.

Most importantly, the Blog will need you! You are welcome to comment on the views expressed. Given the broad scope of sustainability and the essentiality of managing change to cope with future demands of customers, consumers, regulators and ourselves, there is little doubt that there is going to be plenty to talk about!

– Tony Mash, President, TMA Consulting Inc.