Why is sustainability important for AkzoNobel?
Being sustainable is a huge part of who we are as a company – and it’s been that way for a long time. Sustainability became fundamental to the way we do business – part of our DNA – many years ago. We were one of the first in our industry to embed sustainability in our day-to-day activities, because we realized it would be essential to our own future, the future of our customers and the world around us. So it’s not something we’ve started to pay attention to all of a sudden because of regulations or industry trends. Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to the way we operate (it’s one of our core values) and we’ve set ourselves very clear ambitions in terms of what we want to achieve. For example, the ultimate aim we’re currently working towards is to become carbon neutral by 2050. We have a clear plan in place which will take us to 2030 – and we’re already taking action, in particular by driving innovation. It doesn’t make sense to plan further ahead than that.
In how much detail could you plan for 2030 to 2050?
When we announced our People. Planet. Paint. ambitions, we set the dot on the horizon for 2050. We were looking many years ahead and a lot can happen in that time. So we also set ambitious targets for 2030, backed up by plans on how we would try to realize those ambitions. Looking even further ahead and putting relevant plans in place simply wouldn’t be realistic, because we can’t predict the future. If we make concrete plans for 2050 based on the knowledge we have now, we’d be assuming there won’t be any further innovation for the next 20 years or so. This makes no sense, because innovation will be crucial in terms of tackling climate change, not just for our industry, but for all industries.
Think about it. We just can’t predict what innovation we’ll have available. In 2018, when we set our targets, 2050 was 32 years away. If we look back 32 years ago from today, it was 1990. Think about the world at that time. We didn’t have mobile phones yet, there was no worldwide web as we know it today and personal computers were rare. We could never have predicted working the way we do now, with augmented reality, digitized color and using quantum computing to develop more sustainable paints and coatings.
A good example of how difficult it is to predict the future is the second Back to the Future movie. It came out in 1989 and in the film they time traveled to 2015 (26 years into the future). They had drones, hover boards and video calling, which proved to be pretty much spot on. However, they also had fax machines in every room, clothes that auto-adjusted to fit any body type, lawyers were outlawed, and there were no mobile phones – instead, they had hyper-modern pay phones and mailboxes with fax machines. If we try to predict now what will happen between 2030 and 2050, that’s the kind of accuracy we’ll end up with.
AkzoNobel’s sustainability strategy has been validated by SBTi and scores high in ESG-ratings such as EcoVadis and Sustainalytics. What value does this have for you?
First of all, we believe it’s very important that we have our own vision and strategy for sustainability, and that we’re aligned with the Paris Agreement. However, we don’t want to stay within our own bubble, so to speak, so it’s extremely useful to understand how external parties are viewing our targets and progress. Being recognized and acknowledged for what we’re doing means we’re on the right track. In the most important ratings, we’re an industry leader, which underlines how committed we are to being the most sustainable paints and coatings company. For example, we were especially proud to be the first paints and coatings company to have our science-based sustainability targets officially validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
How do you contribute to tackling climate change beyond your own value chain?
We strongly believe that tackling climate change is a joint effort. We need to innovate and collaborate. Not just for the benefit of our own business, but for our whole value chain. So we look at our industry as a whole, while also joining forces with other leading companies outside of our industry, for example the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition. In order to be successful and make the necessary impact, we need to work closely with the whole value chain, including suppliers, customers and other partners. Our most recent initiative, the Paint the Future Collaborative Sustainability Challenge, is a great example of this. We invited key partners from across the value chain to take part, because you can’t tackle climate change in isolation. During the 24-hour event, the participants hacked four key challenge areas – energy transition, process efficiency, solvent emissions and circular solutions. As a next step, those involved have formed a series of exploration teams to help accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions in the paints and coatings industry.