AkzoNobel: looking for paints without hazardous substances

Sustainability? Klaas Kruithof (66), outgoing chief technology officer at paint manufacturer AkzoNobel, grabs his laptop. He checked something and it shows: the word sustainability first appeared in Akzo’s annual report in 1990 (then without Nobel). Not in 2000 either. But in 2010 it did: 181 times. And in 2021 even 370 times.

“Sustainability has received more attention over the years,” notes Kruithof, who started his career more than 38 years ago at paint manufacturer Sikkens’ factory in Sassenheim. “But”, he continues, “that doesn’t mean that we didn’t do anything about sustainability when I started working at Sikkens. In fact, an important part of our work has not changed. We are still looking for ways to use fewer solvents and less hazardous raw materials in paint.”

When Kruithof started working for Akzo in 1984, most wall paints were already water-based. But there were still few water-based varnishes, for example for doors and window frames. Paint shops often discouraged the use of these paints because they were less workable than traditional paint-with-solvents. “They were actually right,” says Kruithof afterwards.

By 2022, these types of water-based paints will be the rule, although not in all countries. In terms of processing and properties, according to Kruithof, they are no longer inferior to ‘old-fashioned’ solvent-based lacquers. The fact that water-based paint dries faster and almost does not smell are additional advantages.

The same for 38 years

The latex that serves as the basis for classic wall paint has not changed much in terms of composition in the 38 years. However, the modern paints are easier to apply than their predecessors and painters are less bothered by splashes. The last vestiges of volatiles that were still there in the mid-1980s have now disappeared.

According to Kruithof, much more has changed in paints for ships, aircraft, buildings, installations and repair paints for cars. These are products that are often more complicated in composition than the paints for the house, garden and kitchen, because they have to meet strict requirements. Kruithof sees two trends: one against the use of water-based paints, the other against high dry matter content, paints with more solids and fewer solvents. Sometimes no solvents at all.

Kruithof: “Take car paints. 40 years ago they consisted of solvents, now they are mostly water-based products. These high solids are more common in shipyards. Ships are often built in China and South Korea, countries where it can be quite cold winter. Then water hardly evaporates or even freezes. Then solvents are still needed for processing paint.”

At the AkzoNobel office near the artwork ‘Victoria Regia’ by Keith Emier.Statue Martijn Gijsbertsen

“Consumers are a little aware of sustainability”

How does a company become more sustainable? Kruithof has learned a few lessons from his career. The average consumer, in his experience, mainly looks at the price of a can of paint and that is it. Industrial customers look further, but usually only buy more sustainable paints and varnishes if they also have other benefits: if they are better, last longer, are cheaper or have pleasant side effects, such as marine paints that prevent algae and plants from sticking to hulls. Or paint that dries faster, so companies can (start) production faster.

Kruithof has seen a turnaround in recent years: more customers need sustainable products because they can then achieve their own sustainability goals.

Governments, including European legislation, are important, Kruithof has found: they can impose requirements on emissions from factories and on products. They can also even ban products and certain raw materials. For example, the use of paint-with-solvents indoors is prohibited in the Netherlands. Also in many other countries.

The management has influence, Kruithof continues. Sustainability became more and more of a topic after 2000, and board chairman Hans Wijers saw this, as evidenced by the 181 mentions of the word. sustainability in the 2010 annual report. It was Wijers who signed AkzoNobel up around that time for inclusion in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, a list of companies rated for their sustainability. Dow Jones named AkzoNobel the most sustainable in its industry several times.

Judged on financial results

Kruithof expects a lot from the next step. AkzoNobel rates business leaders based on their company’s financial performance. Kruithof: “It greatly benefits the performances”. AkzoNobel also wants to apply the same principle to sustainability. “We want to halve our and our suppliers’ and customers’ CO2 emissions by 2030, and we are now examining each business unit’s emissions. It is not easy, by the way. But if it succeeds, we will have a yardstick by which we can assess these leaders on their performance in terms of sustainability.”

Ultimately, sustainability must become part of a company’s genes. Kruithof: “In the 1990s, every large company had one quality manager, an important figure who often fell directly under the chairman of the board. He monitored the quality of the products. The quality managers are no longer there: A product must ‘just’ be good, otherwise you won’t sell it. That idea has now penetrated deeply.”

“Many companies still have one sustainability officer on a high level. It will also disappear. Without sustainable products, no sale will become a habit. At AkzoNobel, it has been the rule for many years that a new product must be more sustainable than the previous one. It wasn’t like that in the 1980s. Then a new product would be better or cheaper, but it didn’t necessarily have to be more sustainable.”

Tensions between money and the environment

Kruithof knows that there can be a tension between sustainability and financial requirements. A sustainable product that is expensive does not sell. A company that makes such products has no future, he says. But economic benefits do not always have to win over sustainability. “Lead is toxic. We were the first to stop using lead-containing pigments in industrial paints.”

The chief technology officer remembers that some customers didn’t like it. “Because lead gave such good coverage. That decision cost us customers at the time. The competition followed us later. AkzoNobel has also removed chromates from its paints – except for some aircraft paints, because there are customers who demand chromates in paints. “It sometimes hits us in the wallet, but ultimately the competition has to follow suit.”

Also when downsizing overspray the wallet seemed to be on the line. When spraying large plates or storage tanks in the open, a lot of paint is lost, paint for which the customer has to pay. A new spraying technique, developed by a start-up company, prevents this overspray. A financial loss for AkzoNobel? Kruithof: “The paint developed for that sprayer is a little more expensive. But because much less is needed, we and the customer benefit from it.”

Will the future bring sustainable discoveries? Kruithof sees a few. A drone that can inspect and repair the coating of wind turbines at sea. Paint that absorbs or reflects heat. Powder paint that can be applied not only to metal, but also to wood or even plastic. And a varnish that detects movement. If the car drives over the paint, the garage door opens. And if an elderly person falls in a nursing home, the lacquered floor gives a signal.

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