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Reputable industry

Posted 17/10/2012 by sevans

The chemical industry has not enjoyed the best reputation for a number of years but there are signs that things are changing, and the messages and signals that the industry has been sending out are beginning to be heard and understood by the general public and society at large.

A recent survey of public opinion conducted in Europe on behalf of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) shows that the chemical industry in the UK enjoys the most positive reputation across Europe. In a reputation index, the general population across Europe scored the industry at 56.5; however, in the UK the score was 63.8 – higher than any other country surveyed.

Even more striking was the reputation index of ‘opinion formers’, who gave the UK industry even stronger backing with a score of 65.8, compared with the European average of 58.6. 

Commenting on the results, Steve Elliott, chief executive of the UK Chemical Industry Association, said: ‘I am pleased that the chemical industry in Europe is seen as an increasing force for good and that the UK has scored well. Whilst there is no room for complacency, these results reflect a great deal of hard work by our member companies and I encourage all employees to continue to highlight the positive contribution they and their companies make to people’s quality of life.’

The survey, conducted by APCO, sought the opinions of 6,000 adults across ten European countries in two specific groups: the general public and opinion leaders, on 16 discrete dimensions including the safe use of chemicals, environment, plant safety, energy efficiency, competitiveness, emissions, economic impact and waste disposal. Four key reputation areas of safety, environment, engagement and innovation/competitiveness were used to assess the industry.

The survey was initiated by Cefic to provide a reputation benchmark to help guide future communications strategies, since as Françoise Humbert-Todd, Cefic’s executive director –communications, notes: ‘Many think the industry is opaque’.

Ben van Beurden, executive vp, Shell Chemicals, and chairman of Cefic’s communications programme council, said that he was ‘reasonably surprised by the scores’ that were recorded in the survey. ‘Starting above 50 is a good place to be,’ he said. He believes the results show that there is a clear opportunity to positively shape opinions of the industry, however, he admitted that waste disposal, emissions, the use of natural resources and pollution is still seen as the industry’s Achilles heel. 

On the positive side, van Beurden added that energy efficiency is seen as a top reputational strength across virtually all audiences, the exception being policy-makers in Brussels, who were, however, particularly impressed by the innovation performance of the sector in the Brussels stakeholder part of the survey.

As regards regulation, van Beurden reported that opinion appears divided on the need for ‘tougher regulation’, with Europe’s general public concerned that it might force companies to relocate and reduce their capacity to introduce new products. As he described it: ‘There is an appetite for more regulation but also ambivalence.’ 

The safe use of chemicals is also an area where most audiences are ‘on the fence’; being split evenly over the industry’s performance, however, the Responsible Care and Long Range Research initiatives ‘positively move the “reputation needle”. [These initiatives are] positive assets,’ added van Beurden.

Overall, the industry’s reputation is better than we have benn telling ourselves, concluded van Beurden. ‘But there is definitely room for improvement: there is a clear need to address key concerns more transparently…Starting from a position of strength is an incentive to communicate more positively.’

This communication is particularly important as ven Beurden pointed out that ‘the industry needs new talent to continue innovating…we need to communicate on our achievements and aspirations.’

One of those aspirations discussed at the recent Cefic Annual General Assembly is sustainable development, and the industry’s target, according to Carl van Camp, senior vp polyolefins, Total Petrochemicals, is to be fully sustainable by 2050. 

And as Janez Potočnik, European environment commissioner, pointed out: ‘Not thinking about sustainability is a luxury we cannot afford to ignore.’ Speaking on the first occasion that a Europan environment commissioner has attended this event, he added that resource efficiency goes well beyond environmental impact, just as competitiveness goes well beyond productivity. ‘Resource efficiency is at the heart of the EU sustainability target for 2020,’ he added. ‘Europe imports six times the resources it exports; therefore the transition to sustainable growth is not if, but when.

This transition will require a fundamental change in consumption. ‘It is about moving to the right kind of growth and sustainable jobs,’ Potočnik emphasised. ‘The industry will have to play an important role….It will need to move from Command, Control and Compliance to Innovation, Incentives and Integration.’

A key aspect that will enable the industry to pursue its sustainability target will be its reputation; whether it is trusted. As Roger Carr, president, Confederation of British Industry, said: ‘Every business is under review 24hr/day through the media, but also its customers, employees and all its stakeholders, therefore you need an honest conversation with everyone your business touches.’ 

But communication ‘is all about delivery,’ added Carr, ‘not just a PR campaign, which young people can see through very quickly today.’ And young people are a key audience, he emphasised, echoing the comments of Mark Du Ree at the recent World Economic Forum’s meeting in China (C&I, 2012, 10, 4). ‘Potential employees now ask about the ethical stances of the companies they might join,’ said Carr. 

‘We need to offer more than words, we need to do more than projecting an image…. Even students who live near chemical companies don’t necessarily know what is being done there. The industry needs to go out to graduates, but also into schools as well, especially companies that are not consumer-facing,’ Carr added.

While admitting that he was not at the Cefic meeting ‘to give you a comfortable time’, Tony Long, director of the WWF European Policy Office, emphasised that the industry’s reputation ‘is shaped by those chemicals that are hazardous…. Therefore this industry has a reputation risk and needs to seriously look at substituting or eliminating those chemicals.’

In response, Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, ceo, Solvay, highlighted that ‘we all want to develop better products that are less hazardous’. However, he added: ‘One of the difficulties is the large asset base [of the chemical industry]. We can’t start with a blank sheet of paper so we have to work with what we have – and we are making major improvements, and not just 2-3%.’

In working towards the goal of sustainability, Potocnik said that we all ‘need to wear the shoes of someone else’. He reminded his industrial audience that ‘we are all consumers as well as producers. We all need to work together. When we sit in our offices making decisions, we have to remember what we feel at home.’

As Carr emphasised:’[The chemical industry] has the imagination to set a vision of what it wants to achieve – setting milestones - and the ambition to achieve them’, while Clamadieu added that the industry  must make sure that sustainability is ‘part of our strategy and business model, and part of company culture’.

While Cefic’s reputation survey shows that for the first time in many years the general public once again is beginning to trust the chemical sector, the challenge of achieving sustainability, and even sustainable growth, will require an even greater effort to communicate clearly and transparently to maintain the improved reputation that it has worked hard to achieve.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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