What to call a cement association?

What to call a cement association?

The Portland Cement Association (PCA) is currently considering changing its name as part of a wider rebranding exercise. As the PCA’s president and CEO Mike Ireland puts it, “Portland cement no longer adequately represents the products PCA member companies manufacture, as they increasingly produce blended cements in today’s environmentally conscious marketplace.” The exercise opens up a host of issues about the promotion of cement and concrete and the role of a trade association in the 21st century.

The reason the PCA holds its name is because ordinary Portland cement (OPC) became the most popular type of cement used to make concrete (and other building materials) in the second half of the 19th century. This continued in the 20th century without any issues. So naming a national cement association after the sector’s key product made sense at the time. The parent organisation that became the PCA was formed in 1902 and the PCA proper officially started in 1916 when cement producers met in Chicago and agreed to set up an expanded organisation.

One topic that was less of an issue in 1916, was considering a national cement association in an international context. Or in other words, should a national or regional cement association say where it is from in its name? Many associations do so elsewhere in the world but not all. Cembureau in Europe, the Cement Manufacturers’ Association in India and the Mineral Products Association in the UK for instance are three examples that do not. The PCA’s current name does not indicate where it is based and it has appeared to have coped for over 100 years. Curiously though, most of the suggestions that the PCA has put forward for its potential new name do include ‘America’ in some shape or form. Another connected problem is whether the general public in the US make the assumption that the PCA is a smaller group based in Portland, Oregon!

Mike Ireland points another dilemma facing the PCA today with the rise in popularity of blended cements. The PCA, for example, worked on supporting the use of Portland Limestone Cement in the 2010s before lots of US producers started making it in the 2020s. To illustrate the scale of the change that this and other initiatives have created, United States Geological Survey (USGS) data shows that shipments of blended cements doubled from 26Mt in 2022 to just under 55Mt 2023. At the same time, shipments of Portland Cement fell by 37% year-on-year to around 52Mt from 83Mt. More blended cements were shipped in the US than OPC in 2023. So the PCA finds itself named after a minority cement product.

The other issue that Ireland touches upon is the environmental perception of cement by the general public and the problems for marketing, branding and advocacy this presents to a trade association. Simply put, it is far easier for the environmental lobby in developed economies to portray cement as ‘bad’ than it is for the cement sector to publicise the many small but incremental changes it has made or the monumental effect that cement and concrete have made upon human society over the last 150 years. Although it may not mean much to the wider public, to whom ‘cement is cement,’ the rise of blended cements in the US has handed the PCA the opportunity to differentiate cement into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ offerings. In this case high CO2 emitting OPC becomes the old dirty product of the past and blended cements become clean shiny symbols of the future. It follows, therefore, that retaining the name of an old product for one of the biggest cement associations in the world might be considered unhelpful.

In some respects OPC and the PCA have become victims of their own success. Cement built the modern world and has become ubiquitous. So commonplace in most countries, in fact, that people outside of the building industry often fail to realise how crucial the stuff is. The tricky proposition for those marketing cement today is to somehow recognise the historical contribution that it has made to build our world whilst also conveying how it is changing to become more sustainable. Unfortunately for fans of OPC though this may mean dumping it from the name of the PCA.