I am sitting at my desk soon after the recent U.S. presidential election, reflecting on the implications of the result and the stated goal of President-Elect Donald Trump to revoke U.S. support for last year’s Paris agreement to combat climate change. This result echoes a growing feeling of national self-interest and independence, exemplified by Brexit in the UK, which points to a loosening of cooperative ties around the world and a reducing priority, at least at the U.S. Federal level, to environmental issues. I also note that some of the global coatings companies reported Q3 earnings that were below the expectations of the stock market due principally to weakening demand. It is against this background that one has to ask what further investment should the coatings industry make to progress sustainable development and reduce environmental impact in the coming years?

I recently attended the annual conference of the European Coatings Federation (CEPE) and was impressed that, having addressed the topic of sustainable development at many conferences in the past, continued priority was given again this year to life cycle thinking and the building of the circular economy. The language of the circular economy has been taken on board by the European Union. Studies endorsed by the EU are progressing and could lead to directives and national legislation some time beyond 2019. There is undoubtedly a strong determination within Europe to make changes to the processes of formulation, manufacture, packaging, delivery, recycle and disposal, and at the same time develop ways of objectively monitoring sustainable improvements.

In the USA, it has been encouraging to see architectural paint companies do what they can to assist architects and the construction industry meet the targets of various green building codes, ECO labels and U.S. government procurement requirements. Leading paint producers have put together Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to assist users and specifiers in their verification of the various environmental properties of selected paint formulations including, but not solely, measures of carbon footprint. Additionally, over the past six years, the American Coatings Association has encouraged the recycling of waste paint through its PaintCare program, which I understand has so far recycled 17m gallons of paint. Eight states have been in the programme for some time and have been recently joined by the District of Columbia.

The keynote speaker at the recent American Chemical Society conference stated that “green is now mainstream; it is no longer a tactic that can be used to gain competitive advantage but a baseline expectation.” So, how will the U.S. coatings industry move forward?

A major study by the European Coatings Industry (PEFCR) is currently underway in coordination with the European Commission. This study has identified that for architectural paints, the sustainability hotspots are raw materials, paint manufacture and transportation.

A recent survey has identified the following key elements of sustainability in the eyes of the consumer and the professional paint applicator. They are:

  • Low toxicity to the environment and health
  • Increased durability/long life
  • Low impact on climate change
  • Recycled packaging
  • Low water consumption

The coatings industry can benefit significantly by pressing ahead with sustainable improvements in its products and services. Not only does this approach enhance company values, reputation and brand awareness, but it prompts coatings companies to co-operate with one another to lobby for a level playing field in terms of standards and, at the same time, work with suppliers and customers to create more streamlined ways of working to the benefit of all.

The difficulty is that technology and process change do not become commercialised realities until they lead to economic prosperity and are supported by legislation. For example, significant growth in demand is anticipated for biobased replacements for formulation raw materials such as paint resins, organic colours and solvents. However, their penetration into the coatings market depends more these days on legislative support and cost competitiveness with existing ingredients than it does on enhanced properties and functionality. The opportunity for significant growth is evident but there are some roadblocks in the way.

This blog argues that those roadblocks have to be tackled or circumvented because sustainable development happens to be the right thing to do!! The fundamentals have not changed. The global population continues to increase. The world’s resources are finite and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have broken the 400 ppm level permanently this year. Against a long-term limit of no more than a 2 °C increase in the temperature of the oceans as agreed in Paris, we are already up to 1.2 °C. Water is already rationed in several parts of the world.

To address these trends, industry and governments everywhere need to move progressively towards a more sustainable future. The alternative is to be prompted into action by some global or regional environmental crisis, although by then it would probably be too late to achieve anything substantive.

Returning to the U.S. coatings industry, while the incoming government may reduce the priority given to the management of environmental issues, nearly half the voters in the recent election favoured the losing presidential candidate. They are equally likely to buy paints and coatings in the future so, from a pragmatic perspective, my advice to the industry is to carry on delivering against those long-term sustainable development plans.