In conversation with AkzoNobel’s Chris Cook

AkzoNobel's Chris Cook tells edie how the difficult economic climate is actually driving better use of resources and that innovation on its own isn't enough to revolutionise the economy "we also need to create a mindset change".

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

We’ve just refocused our strategy at AkzoNobel around radical efficiency in the supply chain, focused on delivering more value from fewer resources and underpinned by capable and engaged people at all stages. In the Decorative business this very much means that we are continuing to look at ways of reducing the footprints of our products without compromising quality for our end users. We can do a lot of this through formulation work through our R&D teams but increasingly we’re working together with suppliers and even their suppliers to identify opportunities.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

Sustainability is becoming more part of business as usual which is good to see, although there is still a long way to go. New buildings are being specified as much more energy efficient and the use of colour and light can help this as well as specific exterior paints that can help keep buildings cool. Also retrofitting of existing housing stock is a major challenge and again the coatings can play a part. Lastly I see a greater recognition that waste is a useful resource across the construction industry and this is where we see an increasing focus, both in terms of minimising the waste further but also in utilising better the waste that is created. The tough economic situation is actually helping here – being more efficient means saving money.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

Gaining action through influence can be really tough, day after day. As a sustainability director my role is to get others to do what I want bringing together people from different parts of the business. You’ve got to have a thick skin to do that continually particularly when there is still scepticism as to the benefit in some areas. The trick is to find the right levers so that you talk in the language of the person you are trying to influence and show how it will help with their objectives as well as your own.

What motivates you?

I want to help change the thinking in our business so that doing the right thing from a sustainability perspective becomes the right thing from a business perspective and that it becomes second nature. It’s that desire to create lasting change that keeps me going.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Having the chance to talk to all areas of the business and finding such enthusiasm and creative ideas for change.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

I don’t think innovation on its own is sufficient, we also need to create a mindset change, helping people to see waste as a resource for instance is vital otherwise some great innovations for dealing with the waste will never be picked up. But innovation is critical and I think big brands have a role to play in driving this innovation even if it is only to support the message that consumers can trust us to work on these things without them having to be concerned about product choice.

What’s the big focus in 2013 for the environment?

Carbon remains top of the list. We are making progress globally but too slowly. We have to keep the pressure up on this. I think waste is also becoming a bigger issue too partly driven by the economic situation – people are seeing more that waste equals money. Both issues are really about being significantly more resource efficient.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

Enjoy the freedom to operate across the business with all functions and get used to frustration as coming with the territory – you will always want to move the organisation faster; if you don’t you are not pushing hard enough! I’d also say to work with a coalition of the willing, find those people who want to get involved and get things going with them. You can worry about the rest of the organisation later. Lastly, you need some hard data to base your arguments around, and find ways of presenting the challenges in normal business language – risk, revenue opportunity, cost savings etc.

What do you like most about your job?

Working with people across the world who have a common aim and such enthusiasm to deliver it.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

Internal politics! Also spending most of my life in telepresence video conf rooms – sometimes you just don’t see the light of day, but at least it saves flying.

What do you think 2013 has in store for the green economy?

I hope the realisation that the green economy is mainstream. It can create significant job opportunities for individuals and growth opportunities for business. I wish that governments would really take this to heart and demonstrate this through policy change, sadly there are little signs of that this year.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

The 1960s so I could tell Dr Beaching what a damn silly idea it would be to close down all those train lines that we wish we still had in the UK! I’d also like to go forward a 100 years and see how we dealt with the challenges we see today.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Bringing up two lovely girls!

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, “England’s Greatest Gardener”. He was a landscape architect in the 18th century, instrumental in changing many of the landscapes around our stately homes, undertaking enormous land works to create lakes and vistas. Many of these grand visions could only be fully appreciated when trees had matured, a 100 years or more after he was creating them. Keeping a vision in mind for future generations has a lot of parallels with the sustainability agenda, plus I’m a keen gardener!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Be true to yourself and your values.

Worst advice?

If you can’t put an economic value to it, you’ll never change anything.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Make it easy and fun for people to get involved, and make it two way – get ideas from employees, don’t be too prescriptive. Then act on those ideas.

What state do you see the planet in 30 years?

The planet will survive, it’s the quality of life that we will have as a human race that we should be worried about and the impact on other species. I’m not optimistic that we will move quick enough to make the changes we need.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

I don’t waste my breath on them

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

We’ve made some really significant breakthroughs in some of our paint formulations that dramatically lower the carbon footprint whilst keeping the quality the same. It’s really clever chemistry!

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?


Books or kindle?

Both – my kindle’s just broken down again!

Chris Cook is AkzoNobel’s global sustainability director for Decorative Paints

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