A former executive at Kimberly-Clark, Ken Strassner is principal of Strassner Consulting, LLC. His work involves development of sustainability strategy for consumer products and firms. Nonwovens Industry called upon Mr. Strassner to glean insights about the growing trend of sustainability in nonwovens.
NWI: Are customers driving sustainability? Do customers need or want sustainable products?
KS: In different markets in which nonwovens are used you'll have a different level of customer interest in using non petroleum based raw materials and being able to compete in the end product market by saying that they have an environmentally or sustainability improved kind of product. The rate at which that happens will be different in a medical application than it would be in a customer products application than it would be in an automotive or filtration market. You'd better listen to your customers and you'd better understand how important it is to them to be able to compete on sustainability and to be able to be ahead of their competitors in terms of using those improved materials. Nonwovens got their start because they were more cost effective in many applications than previously used materials. They get more expensive as petroleum gets more expensive and as energy gets more expensive. Frankly, if any of these new raw materials are more energy efficient, processes begin to catch on and they will give the nonwoven producers who use those materials a cost advantage. That will be an important factor in the competition.
NWI: In which sectors will the rate of acceptance or demand be the greatest?
KS: The consumer products markets is logically the area that will see these product pressures first. It's a broader market. There's more going on in terms of sustainability developments in consumer products than there is in the medical field. It seems to me likely that some of that pressure impacts particular product categories. Which ones and when? That's hard to say. My hunch is, consumer first and medical slowly. Auto is tough to predict because some of the car makers have started to say, our car is greener than your car. The point is the dynamics won't be the same everywhere. It will differentiate based on how the nonwovens are used. A nonwovens manufacturer has to understand those differences.
NWI: Who is more interested in sustainability, Europe or the U.S.?
KS: Most people would say Europe is more interested and is more ahead of the U.S. on some of these issues. Most people would say these trends seem to start in Europe and migrate over a couple of years to North America. The U.S. is still a couple of years behind Europe on most of these trends. There are indications that particular markets of the U.S. are catching up. I think some of the people who do consumer products marketing will tell you that the gap between Europe and North America is narrowing. There's more interest in North America than there was before. The sustainability issues have been mainstream in Europe for longer than the U.S. It's more a part of accepted business management and accepted government business interaction in Europe than it currently is in the U.S.
NWI: Are there any new sustainable materials that nonwovens producers can look at?
KS: I am part of the jury panel this year that will pick EDANA's most innovative new nonwoven materials and products in Europe. There have been a bunch of materials tried in the past that haven't worked as easily or been as cost effective as the traditional polypropylenes. Now a lot of those materials are getting a second look. There are some genuinely new materials—PLA—the polylactic acid plastics. The nonwovens people will look at that as well. It's not clear to me that there's any clearly advantaged alternative material. There's still a wide-open field for someone to innovate in a way that creates a real competitor to the materials that are most frequently used now.
NWI: Is there a material that can be created that we haven't ever seen?
KS: Absolutely. The smartest nonwoven operators will work pretty hard at this over the next few years because somebody will figure this out.
NWI: What is the greatest benefit they will be searching for?
KS: They'd be looking for materials that are as easy to use as polypropylene--that are as cost effective as pp but come from a non-petroleum based raw material. That would be the Holy Grail. If I were the research and development guy for a nonwovens firm, I'd be looking for materials with those characteristics.
NWI: Are there certain geographical areas that they could be looking in to find these resources?
KS: These developments can come from anywhere in the world-- not necessarily the U.S. or Europe. They could well come from China or India. It's not that hard to do. I think it can be done anyplace.
NWI: You have worked with Kimberly-Clark. Do you see the top multinational players being competitive as far as sustainability is concerned? Do you see companies banding together or collaborating together to help nonwovens become more sustainable?
KS: There's more activity and more collaboration on issues that relate to sustainability at EDANA than INDA and that may give the Europeans something of an edge. Rory Holmes of INDA has said that sustainability is a really big focus. INDA is moving in the direction of doing more on sustainability and that is a good thing.
NWI: Is disposability a problem with sustainability?
KS: It's hard to generalize. Disposable items that include nonwovens provide a lot of sustainability kind of benefits whether they are diapers or medical products or other kinds of materials. It's not so simple as to say disposable is good or bad. You have to look at the full life cycle of the product and you have to look at not only the environmental impacts of the product but also the social and economic impacts to get a good sustainability judgment about whether this product is better than that product.
NWI: Can you provide an example of a sustainability success story?
KS: The work done by Kimberly-Clark in Korea to develop a more biodegradable diaper and non-petroleum based materials for use in this product is one good example of sustainability success .A key here is that the product is not only environmentally improved, but performs betters. There are other good examples in almost every nonwovens product category. K-C was able to develop some of these new materials and they were able to do that in the context of producing a diaper that also performed better-provided more value to customers. That's always the key. You want to make progress on all three elements of sustainability –you want to do something that improves the product from the customer's perspective.
NWI: What advice do you have for companies regarding sustainability?
KS: Sustainability should be part of your strategic planning focus. A set of factors that if you want to be successful in the future you need to understand and input back into your business product development and planning process and the companies that do that will be the ones that are the most successful.
NWI: What is driving the growth in sustainability?
KS: Three principal trends are driving nonwovens firms toward sustainability—increasing energy costs, increasing concern about use of petroleum-based raw materials, and increasing customer interest in the environmental characteristics of nonwovens products.
The industry has a good record on improving energy efficiency, but it is clear much more needs to be done in the future to insure price competitiveness for nonwovens products and to meet customer demands for environmentally improved products. In the end, I believe it will be these two factors—cost and the interest of nonwovens customers in improved products which will be the principal drivers here.
NWI: What are the challenges of moving into new, innovative materials?
KS: The principal challenges are developing new, more energy and materials efficient nonwovens production technologies and developing non-petroleum based raw materials for use in making nonwovens. Another important challenge is understanding the rate at which customer demands for improved materials will actually impact purchasing decisions by users of nonwovens materials.
NWI: Where is sustainability headed in the future with regards to technology and raw materials?
KS: My view is that the "next big trend" is additional emphasis on the economic development and social aspects of sustainability. Here, the nonwovens industry faces issues such as how its materials will fare in key developing and emerging markets and the "social responsibility" that these countries want to develop. Put another way, it won't be good enough in the future to just be environmentally responsible.
It's hard to predict what the best future markets for nonwovens will be. There is clearly growth potential in many current applications, such as consumer products, health care and filtration. The key will be finding markets where nonwovens add extra value compared to current products and materials.
For a more detailed look at how the nonwovens industry is dealing with sustainability, see The Game Changer: Sustainability in the February 2011 issue.