What's in a name? A heck of a lot

Comments Email Print

I don’t think the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. needed to change its name. But I understand why it did, and I think the new name makes sense.

I’m not exactly excited about it, but that’s OK. It’s good enough at this point to say I’m a fan.

The new name, the Plastics Industry Association, is on point. That’s great. When you re-brand something, whether it’s an association, a company or a product, you don’t want to confuse people.

The old name, SPI, was a little confusing, and the new one is more specific. SPI sounds a bit like a club that people join to learn about plastics. PIA — and let’s deal with that acronym in a minute — is more like what someone would call a modern plastics industry trade association.

People in the plastics industry will have to get used to not calling it “SPI.” But the new name isn’t really aimed at them. They’ll adapt.

President and CEO Bill Carteaux says on Capital Hill, he wants the group to be referred to as “plastics.” That makes sense — congressional staffers just need to know that this group represents the plastics industry. Hopefully that means it’s an important group — representing the third-largest U.S. manufacturing sector, behind automotive and chemicals. Maybe the new name can help reinforce that message.

This is an important time for manufacturing. I don’t say that lightly. I’m skeptical when others make claims like “this is a critical time in the country’s history,” or “this is the most important election in our lifetime.” But for manufacturing, it’s really true.

We’ve been through decades of upheaval as a result of globalization, automation and advanced manufacturing. A few decades ago, a lot of people in Washington had the attitude that America was becoming a service economy. We didn’t need to make things anymore. It was fine if those jobs all went to lower-cost places. And our country’s economic policy reflected that. There was no manufacturing policy. Because our leaders, and all the experts, thought it was inevitable that everything — plastics, cars, steel — would be made somewhere else.

But coming out of the Great Recession, manufacturing companies have won new respect. They’re job creators. They’re worth fighting for. Donald Trump won blue-collar votes in part because he wants to cut taxes and regulations on businesses. It’s an opportunity for trade associations like the Plastics Industry Association.

But plastics, in particular, still face big challenges. Don’t forget, a majority of California voters just approved a ban on single-use plastic bags. What other products may be banned? What other states will follow California’s lead? Bags were an easy target for a lot of reasons I’ve written about before. But the vote is still a symptom of the plastics industry’s persistent image problem.

A new name won’t make people love plastics. But if it was that easy, it would have happened a long time ago.

The industry still has a lot of work to do to help solve issues like marine litter. And even though “fracking” hasn’t been a major topic of debate in Washington — remember what I said about the country being more manufacturing-friendly since the Great Recession — it’s still lurking in the shadows. The U.S. plastics industry may be on the verge of an era of unprecedented growth, thanks to plentiful shale-gas feedstocks. But I expect all the plastics trade groups, including PIA and the American Chemistry Council, will face a battle sometime down the road to keep that momentum.

OK, I wrote it again, PIA. I tried to avoid it, but I couldn’t. So let’s cover that.

Carteaux was very specific that the group won’t use that acronym. He prefers PLASTICS, in all capital letters, or the full name, Plastics Industry Association.

That’s a good idea. Washington is an alphabet soup of trade groups. There are dozens in the big shiny office buildings on and around K Street. PIA would be an ineffective identity for the plastics industry in Washington, just like SPI has been.

But it won’t mean that others won’t write and say “PIA.” People will use the acronym anyway. I couldn’t have written this column without it. It would have become awkward (always spelling out Plastics Industry Association) or weird (having PLASTICS in all caps scattered throughout the column).

No one asked me, but I think U.S. Plastics Industry Association would have been an even better name. Although the U.S. Private Investigators Association may have been unhappy with the plastics industry trying to hijack its acronym.

And I suspect that we don’t want a bunch of angry private investigators on our case.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.