Interview: Cognis CEO Antonio Trius pushes the boundaries

Being different

25 February 2010 13:34  [Source: ICB]

Cognis is constantly pushing the boundaries to drive sustainability deeper into its business model and approach to innovation


Sustainability is at the heart of Cognis's business. For CEO Antonio Trius, however, marketing and selling green products is not enough. "We have made sustainability an integral part of our business model right from the start, and we take a comprehensive approach that covers ecological, economic and social aspects. This is what makes Cognis different compared with other international manufacturers," he says.

The German specialty chemical company has put in place targets to ensure that all its innovations are greener and more sustainable than existing solutions. Trius says the company will cancel projects early in the development process if they do not fulfill this fundamental need. "We also do not go for innovation where we are taking a step back in efficiency and usage. Efficiency and performance are very important in defining whether a green product can be a success," he explains.

Cognis decided to follow the principles of green chemistry and green engineering to provide a framework for developing new sustainable products and processes. The 24 principles illustrated in the graphic were developed by green chemistry research pioneers Paul Anastas, John Warner and Julie Beth Zimmerman, and have become widely recognized criteria for assessing green processes, products and systems.

Cognis uses these principles at an early stage of development of a product or process to judge how they measure up. Trius says that they are very useful in assessing whether the company's innovations have the right balance between economic viability, environmental responsibility and product performance.

The principles will also help Cognis achieve its goals of raising its proportion of natural raw materials, as well as reducing waste and further cutting emissions.

At present, about half of the company's raw materials are renewable, and Trius says that Cognis will achieve renewable content of 65-70% in its new products within the next five to 10 years.

Cognis's specialty chemical business introduces more than 50 new products every year, all of which have been judged according to the green principles.

To nurture a company-wide spirit of sustainable innovation, Cognis presents annual awards for outstanding innovations or achievements that improve the sustainability and performance of its products and processes.

Trius presented the 2009 awards at the end of January and the winners included a fuel-efficient axle lubricant, Emgard FE; a new anionic surfactant, Plantapon LGC Sorb; and a customized Euperlan wax dispersion.

The next-generation axle lubricant is the first of its kind to offer proven fuel efficiency without compromising performance, says Cognis. It reduces fuel consumption by 1%, resulting in lower CO₂ emissions, and making significant cost savings for truck owners.

Plantapon LGC Sorb is mainly based on renewable raw materials and prepared at low temperatures using no organic solvents. Cognis says the product has been widely accepted by the personal care market for use as a primary surfactant in the latest green rinse-off formulations.

The wax dispersion was developed as a result of a complexity-reduction program that Cognis carried out in partnership with one of its key customers. The new dispersion can be used in low dosages and achieves an even particle size distribution.

Trius says similar products, mainly in personal care, synthetic lubricants and coating additives, are ready for launch in 2010, some in the first quarter.

Every year there is a significant improvement in the amount of products on the market that have green formulations, says Trius. But, he admits that the green alternative is not always as efficient as the original, or petrochemical-based, version. That is why, Cognis has several research partnerships, for example in areas such as biopolymers and hybrid polymers (a mix of biopolymers and synthetically modified polymers).

"Furthermore, just because a product is natural, it does not automatically mean that it is green from a usage perspective," Trius points out. "If you have to use more to get the same effect or efficiency, then that is not sustainable. The best way is to combine both environmental compatibility and efficiency."

Palm oil is a case in point. Global concerns on the extent of deforestation in Southeast Asia, where rainforest has been cut down to provide land for palm oil plantations, have forced major palm oil consumers, governments and environmental organizations to take action.

Cognis is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which was set up in 2004 to develop principles and criteria for the sustainable production of palm oil.

Trius says the amount of RSPO-certified palm oil in the world is still relatively low, but it shows that industry is treating the issue seriously. More than 1.4m tonnes/year of certified palm oil is now sold since it became commercially available in November 2008.

According to German oils forecasting service ISTA Mielke, world palm oil demand was about 43m tonnes in 2008.

Trius wants to make sure sustainability is deeply anchored throughout his company. He is adamant that sustainability is the responsibility of the whole organization, and not just the research and development (R&D) department.

In 2008, Cognis established a sustainability and innovation council that brings together all functions, and is advised by external experts, one of which is Anastas's Green Chemistry Institute.

The council coordinates and harmonizes every aspect of Cognis's operations and supply chain, ensuring that processes are in place, both internally and externally, to trade in a sustainable manner. Cognis's overall action plan, "25 by 2012" aims to achieve a 25% reduction of all major environmental performance indicators, including energy consumption, emissions and wastewater.

Trius says this has two advantages. It improves the company's sustainability footprint which, if it is done in the right way, optimizes cost. Secondly, and obviously, a company can only be sustainable if it is profitable and generating cash flow.

Trius does not see any conflict between controlling costs and innovation. "I do not see a contradiction. We apply cost efficiency, which is not the same thing as cost control."

To innovate, a company must invest, although he stresses that there is not a direct relationship between the degree of investment and quality of innovation. "You don't innovate just because you invest money," he says.

Cognis has increased its R&D budget in the past few years faster than its turnover, and spends 3.1% of sales on R&D.

Trius says Cognis is constantly improving its innovation process by analyzing the specific requirements of both markets and consumers and ensuring more effective cooperation both internally and externally with partners. "This means you get more and better ideas and, in the end, more successful innovations. That is what triggers the investment," he says.

Sustainability and innovation are very clearly the cornerstones of Cognis's business. For Trius, and for Cognis, green is definitely the color of choice.

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By: Elaine Burridge
+44 20 8652 3214

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