Sustainability Efforts Measure Up

Metrics provide insights on opportunities and progress

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Operating companies such as BASF, Eastman Chemical, Amcor and Dow Chemical are benefiting from using sustainability metrics to meet the challenge of improving products and processes.

“Though a number of different measurement and valuation methods exist for sustainability, most of them are focused exclusively on ecological aspects, i.e., impact on climate, forest decline or water. However, methods developed on that basis reflect only a small part of what sustainability is all about: balancing environment, society and economics. The aim of BASF’s analysis methods is therefore to quantify corresponding aspects,” says a spokesman for the Ludwigshafen, Germany-based company.

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This was the driving force behind BASF’s new sustainable solution steering method that is used to systematically review and evaluate the sustainability aspects of its product portfolio.

Between 2011 and the end of 2014, the company used the method to conduct sustainability assessments and evaluations on 98.3% of its entire portfolio of more than 60,000 specific product applications — which together account for €66.3 billion ($71.8 billion) in annual sales.

The product applications analyzed were put into one of four categories: accelerator, performer, transitioner or challenged. Accelerators contribute particularly to sustainability in the value chain. Performers meet all the market’s standard sustainability requirements. Transitioners are products for which specific sustainability targets have been established, and plans of action have been set up and are actively underway. Challenged products don’t sufficiently fulfill sustainability criteria and, thus, require improvement, which can include research projects, reformulations or even replacement by an alternative product.

Of the analyzed products, 23% (by sales) turned out to be accelerators, around 74.1% fell into the performer category, approximately 2.6% were classified as transitioners, and 0.3% were judged challenged.

“We aim to increase the number of accelerator solutions in the long term in order to further improve the sustainability contribution made by BASF and its customers. This is why our product portfolio is constantly being reviewed,” notes the spokesman.

The company now offers a broad range of accelerators for the automotive industry, including lightweight plastic materials to minimize the weight of cars, improved catalysts to decrease harmful exhaust emissions, and integrated processes to speed the coating process by eliminating the primer and a baking step, thus providing clear savings in energy consumption as well as lower greenhouse gas (GHG) and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions (Figure 1). In the packaging sector, accelerators include polyamide films for flexible packaging, water-based resins for flexible printing, and bio-based or compostable materials.

The company also uses a range of other techniques to assess sustainability. One, eco-efficiency analysis, compares the lifecycles of products or manufacturing processes from cradle to grave and includes, for example, the environmental impact of products used by BASF, as well as starting materials manufactured by others. The evaluation also takes into account the consumption behavior of end-users, as well as various recycling and disposal options. Seven factors are considered: water consumption, abiotic resource depletion, cumulative energy consumption, land use, emissions, toxicity potential, and occupational illnesses and accidents.

BASF performed such an analysis on indigo, the dye that makes jeans blue. Here, the company compared its existing dye with a newly developed product to answer questions such as how much product is needed to dye 1,000 pairs of jeans, how much energy is necessary, what the emissions and waste products are, and how long the fabric holds its color. Based on the results, BASF was able to suggest the most eco-efficient solution to textile customers.

Another tool is socio-eco-efficiency (SEEBalance) analysis. This allows assessing not only environmental consequences and costs but also the societal impacts of products and processes. The aim is to quantify performance of all three pillars of sustainability with one integrated tool to direct — and measure — sustainable development in companies. SEEBalance is finding a major use for socio-economic analysis for REACH authorization, says the company.

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