Overview

For almost two decades The Natural Step has been helping industry and key stakeholders understand the sustainability challenges and attributes of PVC. This page gives a summary of our views, activities and historical background for interested stakeholders. We welcome your feedback and invite you to contact us for further information. 

OUR ACTIVITIES ON PVC AND SUSTAINABILITY INCLUDE:

Sustainability advocacy on chemical and material management

The Natural Step seeks to build competence, stimulate progress and challenge underlying assumptions about all materials and the conditions for sustainable material management, including PVC. We advocate for:

  • Robust sustainability principles to guide policy and innovation.
  • Sustainable chemical/material flows in a circular economy.
  • Trust-building through meaningful dialogue between stakeholders
  • Industry accountability and collaboration around guiding principles, targets and voluntary commitments beyond regulation.
  • Capacity-building and improved communication about PVC.
  • Appropriate applications for PVC where it stands the best chance to provide functional value while being sustainably managed.
  • Assessment of alternatives through the same holistic lens to avoid today’s solutions becoming tomorrow’s problems.

Learn more: Our views on PVC and Sustainability

Sustainability analysis of PVC

The Natural Step offers a holistic lens to evaluate material and product sustainability. The science-based principles and framework promoted by The Natural Step are being used within the PVC industry to create a shared understanding of sustainability and what it will ultimately take for PVC products to play their part in a sustainable society.

Learn more: Our approach

Learn more: PVC analysis using The Natural Step Framework 

Partnership with VinylPlus and industry's voluntary commitment in Europe

Through a business-NGO partnership The Natural Step acts as a “crticial friend”, advisor and stakeholder intermediary to VinylPlus, the European PVC industry’s voluntary commitment to sustainable development. The focus of the partnership is to help the industry to apply The Natural Step’s framework and principles to advance sustainable development in the sector. The partnership is governed at board level between The Natural Step International and VinylPlus, with work led by The Natural Step’s office in Stockholm.

Learn more: VinylPlus website 

VinylPlus Press Release: Voluntary commitment by industry: how successful can it be?

Commentary: Our views on industry progress in Europe

Lessons for plastics in the circular economy

The management of plastics in the circular economy is high on the agenda of many stakeholders, especially in Europe. PVC is one of the most widely used plastics, and despite clear differences between plastics and their range of applications, there are common lessons. The European PVC industry is beginning to be recognized as a front-runner in tackling complex issues in the transition toward controlled-loop material management. A clear vision and a multi-pronged roadmap are shining the light for industry. The Natural Step’s robust methodology is helping making the connection between the objectives of the circular economy and global sustainability.

Learn more: What others are saying about VinylPlus

Read our analysis: Legacy additives in rigid PVC and progress toward sustainability (.pdf)

Capacity-building to future-proof industry
Deep knowledge of sustainability, familiarity with the industry and practical experience of engaging the business sector. The Natural Step’s accredited advisors and representatives are helping leading players in the chemical industry integrate sustainability principles into core business operations, develop in-house expertise and put it in service of sustainability.

Learn more: Sustainable chemical management

Shifting complex systems
Building trust, meeting people where they are, meaningful dialogue and collaboration around shared visions and principles that all can agree on…these are some of The Natural Step’s insights on the social processes of sustainability-driven innovation. Our work with PVC and sustainability is just one example of The Natural Step’s approach to systems change involving multi-stakeholder collaboration. With a global outlook and primary focus on expanding on the progress in the European industry, the work is coordinated from Stockholm with support from personnel across Europe.

Contact us at chemicals@thenaturalstep.org

Learn more:  Sustainability Transition Labs

Dive Deeper
If you want to dive deeper into the world of PVC, you are welcome to follow the links below to further reading.

VIEWS ON PVC AND SUSTAINABILITY

The Natural Step’s methodology has helped many actors select and substitute materials in their products, including PVC. The same approach is being used to help the PVC industry understand and address its challenges. Some examples of this can be found here: PVC analysis using The Natural Step Framework

We recognize that PVC has been heavily opposed by many who regard it as inherently harmful to the environment and / or to human health. Industry often speaks about the high functional performance of PVC allowing it to be widely used in a range of applications that benefit society and directly contribute to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. How can these perspectives be reconciled?

Our methodology has helped bring new insights to many engaged in the PVC and sustainability debate:

  • A set of science-based principles helps to build shared understanding of sustainability and surface underlying assumptions behind opinions and conflicting pieces of evidence.
  • With this awareness, it becomes possible to perform a sustainability gap analysis and build consensus on challenges and long-term objectives.  
  • Finally, recognizing we are all on the sustainability journey together, once industry knows where to aim, roadmaps and innovation pathways can be developed. It is then up to markets and stakeholders to  judge performance on the quality of action plans and the actual results achieved. 

Ultimately we believe that sustainable management of materials and products is a more useful and scientifically grounded framing than specific judgements on sustainable vs un-sustainable materials or products. The overarching questions we ask are: in which applications and under what life cycle conditions can material x, y or z be managed sustainably? Then, how do we get there? 

On the following link we have provided some general comments on the controversy about PVC, its potential sustainability benefits, the complexity of the challenges that need to be addressed and the need for action.

Dive deeper: Why “PVC and Sustainability” matters. 

SUSTAINABILITY ANALYSIS OF PVC

PVC: An Evaluation using The Natural Step Framework (2000)

In 2000, together with the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom, The Natural Step published a report on the challenges the PVC industry must address to align its activities with the 4 system conditions for a sustainable society (sustainability principles promoted by The Natural Step). The report highlighted five key sustainability challenges and followed an extensive study of PVC including consensus-building workshops with industry, NGO’s, retailers and regulators. Over the years these challenges have provided a reference point for the industry, initially in the UK and subsequently across Europe. The most proactive organisations in the sector have been working to address them.

Report Citation: Everard, M. Monagham, M. and Ray, D. (2000), PVC, An Evaluation Using The Natural Step Framework; The Natural Step UK. Cheltenham. (Download.pdf):

The Natural Step for Business – taking up the challenge

Hydro Polymers was one of the first of many companies in the PVC industry to take up the challenges formulated by The Natural Step. Through in-house education programmes, analysis of material components, investment in innovation projects and supply chain engagement, Hydro Polymers built internal capacity to work with The Natural Step Framework. In 2002, Hydro Polymers Sustainability Manager Dr Jason Leadbitter, an expert in Polymer Science, published a research paper describing how his company used The Natural Step Framework and set out to tackle the five key challenges previously identified. INSEAD Business School first published a case about Hydro Polymers strategic business focus on sustainability in 2008. The case was updated in 2016, following developments in the industry, including the acquisition by INEOS ChlorVinyl.

Journal: Leadbitter, J., 2002, PVC and Sustainability. Progress in Polymer Science 27(10): 2197-2226.

Case study: Smith, C. & Jarisch D., 2016. INEOS ChlorVinyls: A Positive Vision for PVC. INSEAD Business School.

Leading Change for a Sustainable Chemical Industry

Between 2008-2010, The Natural Step hosted a professional development programme to build the sustainability competence of professionals in the PVC value chain. The programme was offered together with Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden and emerged as a direct result of The Natural Step’s  engagement with Hydro Polymers and its supply chain. In the course of the programme, CEO’s, sustainabiltiy managers and specialists from a range of companies were trained using The Natural Step framework to perform sustainability analyses of activities in their company.

PVC: Reaching for Sustainability

In 2008, Dr Mark Everard, former Director of Science for The Natural Step in the UK, published his book, PVC: Reaching for Sustainability. This provides a first-hand account of his involvement in leading The Natural Step’s initial study and covers the early PVC debate in Europe, further analysis of PVC and derivation of the five challenges identified using The Natural Step Framework. It also touches on subsequent voluntary action by industry and the lead up to a more robust commitment from the industry to take up the challenges.

Everard, M., (2008)., PVC: Reaching for Sustainability. IOM3 and The Natural Step. 

Review: Table of contents (.pdf)

Purchase: Publication available through the British Plastics Federation bookshop.

VinylPlus® Voluntary Commitment (2011-2020)

In 2010, The Natural Step was engaged by the Board of Vinyl 2010 to advise on new sustainability targets for the whole European industry up to 2020. That work included industry workshops and an extensive stakeholder participation activities to review the key challenges and priorities for the industry to address. A set of commitments were confirmed and these now form the basis of VinylPlus®, the European industry’s voluntary commitment to sustainable development (2011-2020).

Learn more: VinylPlus website; Our views on the European Industry’s Progress

Download: VinylPlus Voluntary Commitment (.pdf)

VinylPlus® Product Labelling and Third Party auditing of PVC articles

The VinylPlus® Product Label is a labelling scheme which makes it easy for customers and markets to identify the most sustainable and high-performance PVC products. Currently, the scheme covers the building and construction sectors. The Label has been developed by VinylPlus®, in collaboration with Building Research Establishment (BRE Global) and The Natural Step (TNS).  BRE Global is responsible for independently verifying company and product performance. Progress is assessed against a range of criteria that are designed to encourage responsible sourcing and stimulate progress against each of the key sustainability challenges identified in The Natural Step’s analysis and later incorporated within the VinylPlus Voluntary Commitment.

Learn more: VinylPlus® Product Label

Additive Sustainability Footprint 

Within the scope of the partnership with VinylPlus, The Natural Step has been helping the European PVC industry to apply sustainability principles to formulate robust criteria for the sustainable use of additives. Beginning in 2014, this work has involved stakeholder consultation to understand the foundations and gaps in existing assessment tools when viewed through a whole-systems approach to sustainability. It has also involved examining how to use and build upon industry investments in REACH compliance and use of Environmental Product Declarations etc. The Natural Step’s work merging sustainability and life cycle assessment is serving as the foundation for a customized assessment tool for PVC additives, known as Additive Sustainability Footprint.

Learn more: Sustainability life cycle assessment (SLCA)

Circular Economy and responsibly dealing with Legacy Additives

In 2018, The Natural Step published a sustainability analysis of post-use management options for rigid PVC articles. The analysis was requested by the European PVC industry’s Controlled-Loop Management taskforce to help develop science-based proposals for tackling the question of legacy additives. These are substances such as lead-based stabilizers that were allowed onto the market previously but have since been restricted in new products. In the case of rigid PVC, controlled-loop material management with appropriate safeguards, delivers the greatest potential to align with sustainability principles in comparison to the alternative options of landfill and incineration. This analysis also highlights the importance of a clear long-term set of sustainability criteria to guide policy and inform thinking about responsible transition roadmaps that ‘take the bad with the good’ to optimize the overall system outcome over time.

Read our analysis: Legacy additives in rigid PVC and progress toward sustainability (.pdf)

OUR VIEW: PROGRESS BY THE EUROPEAN PVC INDUSTRY

Introduction

The Natural Step has been monitoring the European PVC industry’s overall approach to sustainable development since 2010. Through a partnership with VinylPlus, The Natural Step was commissioned to help the industry establish guiding principles, gather stakeholder input and set out the scope for a renewed and more ambitious commitment building on the industry’s earlier charter, Vinyl2010. Since then we have played the role of a ‘critical friend’ – an advisor, stakeholder intermediary and capacity builder, helping the industry to stay on target. 

Applying The Natural Step Framework – Backcasting from Success

When the VinylPlus voluntary commitment was being defined, The Natural Step’s ABCD ‘backcasting’ process was used to create a shared and positive vision for the PVC industry in Europe – one that is ultimately aligned with the ‘system conditions for a sustainable society’. Standing in a desired future is a creative process that encourages one to think about the future we all want to be part of, then look back at the present baseline and consider what needs to be achieved in sequential steps to achieve success. Through The Natural Step’s earlier analysis of PVC, five key challenges had already established the baseline. These challenges were reviewed to define priorities and commitments for VinylPlus in the period 2011-2020. Following feedback from stakeholders, the priorities and concerns were reformulated into a set of commitments and targets for the European PVC industry up to the year 2020.

The Voluntary Commitment up to 2020  

While the TNS analysis outlines the full gap to be bridged in the longer term, VinylPlus is a commitment to making progress up to the period 2020. The correlation is presented below:

PVC Evaluation using The Natural Step Framework. Everard et al. (2000) VinylPlus® Voluntary Commitment (challenges re-numbered by stakeholder priority within the roadmap)
1. The industry should commit itself long term to becoming carbon-neutral Challenge 4. Sustainable energy and climate stability – We will help minimise climate impacts through reducing energy and raw material use, potentially endeavouring to switch to renewable sources and promoting sustainable innovation.
2. The industry should commit itself long term to a controlled-loop system of PVC waste Challenge 1. Controlled loop management – We will work towards the more efficient use and control of PVC throughout its life cycle.
3. The industry should commit itself long term to ensuring that releases of persistent organic compounds from the whole life cycle do not result in systemic increases in concentration in nature Challenge 2. Organochlorine emissions – We will help to ensure that persistent organic compounds do not accumulate in nature and that other emissions are reduced.
4. The industry should review the use of all additives consistent with attaining full sustainability, and especially commit to phasing out long term substances that can accumulate in nature or where there is reasonable doubt regarding toxic effects Challenge 3. Sustainable use of additives – We will review the use of PVC additives and move towards more sustainable additives systems.
5. The industry should commit to the raising of awareness about sustainable development across the industry, and the inclusion of all participants in its achievement Challenge 5. Sustainability awareness – We will continue to build sustainability awareness across the value chain – including stakeholders inside and outside the industry – to accelerate progress towards resolving our sustainability challenges.

Targets

The success of VinylPlus largely depents upon living up to the spirit of the voluntary commitment and achieving a specific set of targets. There are 35 targets in total. Take a look at the commitment here: VinylPlus Voluntary Commitment (.pdf)

VinylPlus is getting results and recognition. 

Each year VinylPlus reports publicly on its commitments and progress toward its targets in its annual report. The Natural Step is engaged to publicly comment on progress in the annual report and also provides advice and support in various ways to help the industry to keep up momentum through voluntary action.

We encourage stakeholders to take a closer look at VinylPlus’s achievements and judge the industry by both what it aims to accomplish and what it delivers in practice.

Learn more on VinylPlus Annual progress: VinylPlus Annual Reports

TNS statement on VinylPlus Annual progress – 20172016 | 2015 | 20142013 | 2012 |

A platform for longer-term change 

The Natural Step clearly acknowledges that the European PVC industry will have to continue its journey well beyond 2020 and that a common global approach is ultimately needed. We support VinylPlus as a stepping stone in a longer term journey and believe it has a number of features that make it a good example of how to organise and manage change at industry scale:

  • A clear and positive vision is needed to inspire and motivate industry to take up the sustainability challenge and work together on challenges shared in common.
  • The use of science-based principles clearly defines the long term requirements for sustainability and puts all efforts and celebration of progress in context of closing the full gap.
  • Following a set of guiding principles for the journey helps to foster the right mindset, overcome an historical trust deficit and hold industry accountable.
  • Clear and measurable targets with external monitoring can add credibility and foster continual improvement.
  • Leadership from Europe can have, and is having, a wider impact on the global PVC industry.

The rigour and structure of the approach sets it apart from many other voluntary initiatives by industry, and can also serve as a model for others.

SUMMARY OF RELATED RESEARCH AND CASES

The following publications give a good overview of publications and research articles related to The Natural Step’s methodology and in particular, our work with PVC:

  • Broman, G.I. and Robèrt, K.H., 2017. A framework for strategic sustainable development. Journal of Cleaner Production, 140, pp.17-31.
  • Smith, C. & Jarisch, D.,INSEAD Case Study, 2016. INEOS ChlorVinyls: A Positive Vision for PVC.
  • Lindahl, P., Robèrt, K., Ny, H., Broman, G., 2014. “Strategic sustainability considerations in materials management”, Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 64, no. feb 2014, pp. 98-103.
  • Schiller, M. and Everard, M., 2013. Metals in PVC stabilization considered under the aspect of sustainability – one vision. J Vinyl Addit Technol, 19: 73–85.
  • Everard, M., 2008, PVC: Reaching for Sustainability. IOM3 and The Natural Step.
  • P. Johnston, M. Everard, D. Santillo, and K-H Robèrt, 2007, “Commentaries: Reclaiming the definition of sustainability,” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 60–66.
  • Ny, H., MacDonald, J.P., Broman, G., Ryoichi, Y., and Robert, K-H, 2006, “Sustainability Constraints as System Boundaries: An Approach to Making Life-Cycle Management Strategic“, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 10,  Issue 1-2.
  • Leadbitter, J., 2002, PVC and Sustainability. Progress in Polymer Science 27(10): 2197-2226.
  • Robèrt, K-H. 2002. “Sustainable Management of Materials – Applying Backcasting from Principles of Sustainability“. Proceedings From: Materials Science for Future Sustainable Technologies, University of Augsburg, Institute of Physics, Germany. September 17-20, 2002
  • Everard, M. et al., 2000, 2020 Vision Series No. 2: PVC and Sustainability, The Natural Step UK
  • Everard, M. et al, 2000, PVC, An Evaluation Using The Natural Step Framework; The Natural Step UK.