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In 1996, Greenpeace prompted a consumer boycott of products with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in their packaging. The campaign exposed possible dangers of PVC and put associated manufacturers under the public magnifying glass. Even retailers, concerned that consumers would go PVC-free, increased pressure on manufacturers to respond.

A public relations campaign to counter Greenpeace was tempting. Fortunately, senior staff at Hydro Polymers – the fourth largest PVC manufacturer in Europe – sought a long-term strategy.

Challenge

What began as a confrontational Greenpeace campaign sprouted into a collaboration that resulted in a positive, industry-wide effect. In 2001, Hydro Polymers and NGO The Natural Step (TNS) partnered to identify opportunities for “PVC for Tomorrow.” For Hydro Polymers, addressing sustainability in isolation was not an option. Stakeholders all along the supply chain needed to be involved in the solution.

Was it possible to manufacture PVC sustainably and remain commercially-viable?

Response

Using the TNS’s scientifically-based, whole-systems approach, Hydro Polymers – a company whose livelihood was based on PVC – began moving toward sustainable solutions.

After a year of examination and stakeholder engagement, TNS identified key actions needed for sustainable PVC. TNS called on the industry to reduce energy emissions, increase recycling, eliminate toxic additives and byproducts, and commit to transformation.

Result

Today, the European PVC industry’s sustainability plan, Vinylplus, explicitly incorporates TNS criteria. Participating companies commit to addressing the core challenges identified by TNS, with progress evaluated annually. Hydro Polymers reduced CO2 emissions by 12.5% in three years. External stakeholders continue to be involved in regular dialogue and monitoring.

Partnerships can begin with conflict. European PVC manufacturers have changed virtually every aspect of their operations. By 2012, lead stabiliser consumption had decreased by 76 per cent from 2007 levels. Innovative technologies now make it possible to recycle difficult-to-treat waste. The European PVC industry is also sharing best practices with other regional PVC associations.

For more on partnerships, see the "Sustainability Through Partnerships: A Guide for Executives." 

Sources

Leadbitter, J. 2002. PVC and sustainability. Progress in Polymer Science, 27 (10), 2197-2226. Vinylplus. 2013. Progress report
2013. Available from http://www.vinylplus.eu/publications/70/59/Progress-Report-2013.

Smith, N.C., & Brennan, J. 2008. Norsk Hydro ASA: Sustainable PVC at Hydro Polymers? INSEAD-EABIS.