Standard matters

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The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has warned local cement producers to rein in their more outlandish claims. In a letter reported upon by the Economic Times newspaper this week, the government department has accused some manufacturers of making both objective and subjective claims about their products that strained credulity and didn’t fit the corresponding official standards. One industry source from the newspaper blamed the crackdown on some producers claiming that their cement products helped protect people from Covid-19! In their view the bureau was now over-enforcing its rules in retaliation. Given the severity of the outbreak in India - it has the second highest number of reported cases in the world this week - the response of the authorities is understandable to say the least.

The distinction between objective and subjective exaggeration that the BIS makes it worth looking at in more detail. For example, objective or supposedly fact-based claims the BIS cited included: ‘Protect Steel in Concrete’; ‘Protect Concrete from Corrosion’; ‘Corrosion Resistant’; ‘Weather Proof’; and ‘Damp Proof.’ Then, there were subjective, or more emotionally evocative, claims along the lines of ‘strong’ or ‘high performance.’ The BIS then outlines the specific ways in which objective and subjective assertions can be used. Objective claims should be avoided on marketing and packaging material. Subjective claims should, “explicitly indicate that such claims are not covered under the scope of BIS licence granted to them and the responsibility of such claims lies with them.”

Marketing is a big part of standing out in the crowded Indian cement market with producers sponsoring major sports teams. This might seem odd to readers elsewhere in the world but it demonstrates the target market, the importance of cement as a commodity to the general public and the power of brand awareness. Amubja Cement’s logo of a man with a Charles Atlas style physique cuddling a building sums up the message they want to convey: strength. No wonder producers are wary of the BIS wading in.

Standards also appeared in another news story this week with the announcement that Taiwan Cement Corporation (TCC) had obtained the first cement product carbon footprint label issued by the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) in the country. Its products will be marked with carbon footprint labels from the fourth quarter of 2020.

This shows a general trend in cement products towards showing sustainability credentials from putting environmental footprint data in front of specifiers for large projects towards making it a more basic retail selling point. Lots of other cement producers around the world have done and/or are doing similar things, from the dedicated slag cement manufacturers to the larger producers routinely releasing and promoting new low-CO2 products. To pick one example from many, in July 2020 LafargeHolcim France introduced ‘360Score CO2 emissions reduction ratings’ to its bagged cement range. The score, between ’A’ and ’D,’ corresponds to the factor of CO2 compared to CEM-I Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC), with ‘A’ products producing less CO2 than ‘D’ products in their overall creation.

To look at an older example of the need for standards generally, building collapses in Nigeria appeared to increase post-2000, with the misuse of lower-grade cements blamed for the situation. The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) took action in 2014, local producers introduced higher strength cements and the problem was reduced. Given the intangible nature of measuring sustainability in cement products there is a need for reliable standards. Unlike performance metrics, such as a strength or durability, the CO2 footprint of a cement product will generally remain utterly intangible for most end-users. The effects of CO2 emissions are continually analysed and debated, but the negative climate effects of cement products are more akin to someone else’s house flooding on the other side of the world 50 years later, than one’s own house falling down a decade later due to using the wrong strength cement. So, some form of trustworthy enforcement for sustainability standards is crucial. Standards may represent ‘boring’ bureaucratic red tape at its most officious but we need them. In India and elsewhere though, the debate on enforcement continues.

Last modified on 09 September 2020


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