In the 10th year of this iconic surfactants conference series, the event, usually held in Jersey City, NJ, was produced, for the first time, online. The agenda contained some popular favorites as well as revolutionary new features, such as a meditation to start the day. The numbers, however, were very interesting. Well over 800 people registered for the event – this is four times the regular registration. We saw many new companies and people at the conference. Clearly surfactants continues to be a field which is interesting and popular with businesspeople around the world.
One clear theme arose across all discussions: Since COVID hit, the basic surfactant business has been very strong. This is, of course, to be expected as the demand for basic household and personal care cleaning products increased in order to combat the virus. However, other parts of the surfactant business suffered due to COVID. Luxury products and cosmetics in general saw a decrease overall and earnings of companies exposed to this sector took a negative impact. So, in a period where Stepan (NYSE: SCL) posted record earnings due to a boom in its basic surfactant business, Croda (LON:CRDA) took a hit in revenue and earnings due to weakness in its specialty surfactants businesses.
Another theme which emerged quite clearly is that the commitment to sustainability of the large producers and consumers of surfactants has not changed as a result of the pandemic. At a time when Unilever is announcing aggressive targets to decrease the use of fossil fuel feedstocks in its products (including surfactants used in everything from laundry detergent to shampoo), the winners of the ICIS Surfactants Awards at the conference illustrate a similar commitment to sustainability. Procter & Gamble won the Sustainability Award for their pioneering work on cold-water laundry detergent. The company also won the innovation for their introduction of a line of water-less products under the EC30 brand. The use and transportation of water, course, has a huge impact on the sustainability of our surfactants industry.
The sustainability role in the awards, however, did not stop there. The winner of the Partnership award was the USDA (United Stated Department of Agriculture) Biopreferred program which has been enormously successful in encouraging the use of sustainable products and ingredients. Finally, the winner of the Contribution award was Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation. Martin is well known to many in our industry as the face and voice of sustainability in consumer products. His influence and that of his company, Seventh Generation on the surfactant supply chain has been significant and beneficial. His calm manner and knowledgeable approach ensured a lasting impact for the sustainability initiatives which he pioneered.
Linked to sustainability, is the theme of transparency. There was much discussion of the increased consumer interest in ingredients in the products that they use every day. This was considered not to be a fad but a longer-term change in the way that consumers interact with products. This has implications for surfactants producers in that they need to think more carefully about how they communicate about their products so that ordinary consumers can understand. Knowledge of the consumer segments is no longer exclusively the province of the consumer products manufacturers.
One final theme that emerged was one that had been on the minds of the industry last year, however, its importance has been underscored by onset of the pandemic. That is supply chain security. Much discussion centered around supply chain design and the building in of redundancy. Many participants reported that they were working on localization initiatives to make sure that sources of supply are located closer to points of use. Supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic only served to accelerate a trend that had been underway as a result of the US-China trade war.
In summary, the conference reached a lot of people during a very unusual time for the industry, clearly demonstrating an interest in discussion and education opportunities when face to face contact was virtually absent. ICIS and Neil A Burns LLC have produced a follow-up event, November 10 – 11th for the European, Asian and Indian markets.
More details are on the event website here: https://eu.eventscloud.com/ehome/surfactants/european-asian-surfactants-virtual/