Doing things right or doing the right thing? That’s a question I have heard raised in the context of sustainability as people have sought to identify what exactly is the right path to make our world a truly better and more sustainable place for us and future generations.

Doing the right thing may involve identifying environmental ‘hotspots’ and banning materials that are in any way toxic either to the public or to the environment in general. Sounds eminently sensible, but some people warn that a problem solved in one part of a supply chain may lead to a worse situation elsewhere up or downstream. In the context of the paint industry, I have even heard of a challenge to the decision to switch from solventborne to waterborne coatings in architectural applications due to the persistence of additives in some waterborne paints that may get into the food chain via the waste stream and contaminate future generation’s food chains.      

Confused?  Me too! That’s why I attended the Second Product Environmental Footprint World Forum in Berlin recently. The European Union has set up a very significant pilot project to look at 27 different industry sectors and see how best to use Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) techniques and methodologies to frame the way supply chains should be analysed, monitored and optimised. The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) (originally set up by Walmart to look at sustainability from a retail perspective) was a partner in the conference and provided many of the speakers.

Apparently, there are currently 44 LCA methodologies available. The PEFCR programme has been designed as a learning experience to help in the quest for a single methodology that limits variability of conclusions and gives clear advice to businesses and consumers. Central to this process is the development of Product Category Rules (PCRs) that frame how sustainability is to be measured in any given application/supply chain in support of documents such as Environmental Product Declarations (ISO 14025), which are mandated in some European countries. PCRs are designed to enable transparency and comparability between different EPDs based on the same PCR.

The conference heard how some of the pilots were progressing now that they are one year into a three-year programme of analysis and recommendation. It became clear that developing PCRs that are balanced, fair and realistic is not that easy. One had only to listen to the presentation on the Paint Pilot to recognise that there are no single definitions of durability and weatherability, nor is there any consensus yet as to what are the right performance measures for longevity and opacity that satisfy all manufacturers and users for every application in every country!

Many pilots complained that there were gaps in the materials databases required to support this kind of analysis. The EU methodology had drawn the distinction between primary sourced data where raw material ingredient manufacturers share precise information on their own products, and secondary data that consists of less proprietary averaged data across industry sectors. Audits of existing databases demonstrated the urgent need for more primary data to meet the requirements of the EU methodology. Obtaining such information from suppliers was one of the key problems shared by all pilots.

To the paint industry’s credit, European manufacturers are working alongside their U.S. counterparts to see if a consistent trans-Atlantic approach can be found. They are not there yet, and different standards and definitions of measures in the two continents do not help matters. Did you know that Europe, the United States and China have different definitions of what constitutes a VOC?

Outside Europe and North America, there is plenty of activity in this area. At the forum, speakers from Taiwan and Japan described how local agreements have already been reached on PCRs for selected retail products. This blog has in the past referred to the leadership work on PCRs for decorative paint undertaken by Singapore. It is evident that LCAs and PCRs are not new to some Asian countries.

As I left the conference, I was struck by two main issues about this whole approach. Firstly, the concept of a PCR endeavours to put a framework in place with which to measure sustainability by product by application. One speaker argued that the imposition of such a framework forces certain kinds of solutions that may not be optimal overall. This limitation on freedom of action could also deter out-of-the-box R&D in novel areas that may provide the kinds of radical leaps forward in technology that will be needed to advance sustainable development at speed.      

The second issue concerned two excellent presentations from AkzoNobel and BASF. Both companies have been working on LCAs for many years and have developed their own databases to feed their internal LCA analyses. Separately, they made it clear that LCAs in themselves are not the final frontier, and that their incorporation in the decision making processes, including the integration with corporate values, strategic planning, long-term investment and performance reporting processes, is well advanced in both companies.

For too many corporations,  Life Cycle Analyses and the increasing amounts of environmental reporting that we see in Annual Reports are simply bolt-on business-as-usual activities that do not impact overall corporate thinking and culture, nor do they get to the heart of the issue. AkzoNobel and BASF are coatings companies in a higher league.

In a nutshell, work on LCAs, EPDs, PCRs and the like are doing a good job helping us all to increase our awareness of the fragility of our world and the need for radical thinking and new paradigms. Product Environmental Footprints are not an end in themselves. On current knowledge, the debate on the way forward is still wide open and has yet to provide a balanced, equitable and realistic platform for future legislation.

 The PEFCR World Forum helped me understand where we are, demonstrated that a lot of work is being focused on doing things right, and may eventually lead to ways in which society can do the right thing. As far as the latter approach is concerned, we are not there yet and may not be for some years to come. Still, we need to keep at it!!