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Special Report

Pathways to Green: An Introduction for the Print Finishing Industry

by Reneé Varella

August-September, 2008
When a room full of attendees at the Foil Stamping & Embossing Association’s national convention last spring were asked whether they believe the environmental message of, say, Al Gore and terms like ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change,’ about half raised their hand, said Jeff Morrow, vice president of sales and sustainability for Label Impressions, Inc., a flexographic print house in Orange, Calif. The other half considered such messages a scam, he said. And therein lies the delicate balance that finishers and printers – all companies, really – face in today’s business climate.

“Our customers are divided 50/50, too,” Morrow said. “If you take the ‘global warming’ stance, for instance, you’ve just alienated half of your audience. At Label Impressions, we go middle-of-the-road – we don’t believe it’s our job to take an environmental stance either way.”

That said, Morrow believes it would be foolish for a finisher, printer, or vendor to take a wait-and-see attitude on sustainability issues. “If you look at the Fortune 500 or even Fortune 100 companies, you’re going to see a huge number that are already far down the road on the green path,” he said. “If that’s not an indicator of where we’re headed, I don’t know what is. Companies that miss the train will fall so far behind the competition.”

Another industry colleague agreed: “The motivating factor for going green is the fact that it’s a customer-driven phenomenon,” said Gary Jones, director of environmental, health, and safety affairs for the Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF) in Sewickley, Pa. “For many customers, if you’re not going to be printing green for them, you will not be printing for them.”

For print finisher MCD, Inc. of Madison, Wis., market share is what drove the company’s decision to become environmentally friendly. “More and more sophisticated customers, from Apple to Wal-Mart, are asking for suppliers to learn how to supply products and services in a green way,” said Dave Boyer, CEO and co-owner of MCD. “This issue has been percolating for a number of years, but we may have reached a tipping point where the requests will become mainstream. In the not-too-distant future, being green will be a base requirement – like quality and delivery. Why not start now and build market share?”

Understanding the Lingo
For companies interested in learning more about going green, Label Impressions’ Morrow encourages businesses to get comfortable with widely used environmental terms. Below are several definitions from the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership, a verification organization that provides direction on what constitutes a sustainable green printing facility:

Carbon footprint: The measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide. It is meant to be a useful metric for individuals and organizations as they conceptualize their personal (or organizational) impact on global warming.

Carbon neutral/Carbon neutrality: Refers to a net zero carbon release, brought about by balancing the amount of carbon released with the amount prevented, sequestered, or offset.

Carbon offset: The mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions by offsetting emissions generated in one location with emissions reductions or displacements in another where it is technically and/or economically more feasible to achieve those reductions. Carbon offsets are measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e). One carbon offset represents the reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases. Carbon offsets can be purchased and traded through financial instruments representing greenhouse gas emission reductions. 

Cradle-to-cradle: A system by which materials are maintained in closed loops to maximize material value without damaging ecosystems. Cradle-to-cradle protocols minimize waste through recycling and reuse, rather than disposal.

Greenwashing: The unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, industry, government, politician, or even non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image or sell a product or a policy (definition attributed to Sourcewatch).

Sustainability: Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (definition attributed to World Commission on Environment and Development).

Study Your Audience
Morrow, Jones, and Boyer conceded that going green is not necessarily appropriate for every finisher or printer. The key, they said, is to assess your customer base to determine how important an environmental focus is to the people and companies you serve.

A good clue to what your market is doing is to look at the web sites of your top customers and see if they’re making environmental statements and commitments, or engage them in conversations to get their thoughts on the issue, said Jones of PIA/GATF. However, he noted that since an environmental focus requires a business to undergo a ‘culture change’ – where everyone in the workforce is involved in the process – some companies will determine, for a variety of reasons, that such change is not necessary. “The companies that are enjoying the greatest success from a business retention, business generation, and cost-savings perspective are those that have made or are in the process of making the transition,” Jones said. “The benefits compound themselves.”

Label Impressions started on the green path two years ago for two reasons: because the company cares about the ecosystem and future generations and because the label maker wanted to stay ahead of the competition. “We rolled the dice and said this is where we think we’re going,” Morrow said. Noting that there’s a steep learning curve to environmental issues, Morrow acknowledged that for the past year and a half he’s spent an average of three hours a day researching green information.

“Through my research I’ve found that consumers want companies to be specific about what they’re doing for the environment, they want identifiable symbols on products, and they want to see companies’ environmental information on their web site,” Morrow said. “Customers don’t want you to go from zero to 100 miles an hour, but they do want to know where you’re going and when you expect to get it done. An example might be, ‘Our company will be 100 percent carbon neutral by 2012.’ ”

MCD’s Boyer added that becoming an environmentally friendly company results in energy savings, additional income from recycling, and engaged employees, many of whom believe a green course of action is the appropriate one. “Employees read about the current environmental trends every day,” he said. “They want to work for a company that is doing the right thing and learning how to be green.”

If a finisher or printer decides not to follow the green path, Jones advises the company to still put an effective energy management system in place. With the increase in natural gas, oil, coal, and other fossil fuels and the emphasis by states and the federal government on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the price of electricity is going up rapidly and will continue to climb. He said efficiency ideas include buying Energy Star-compliant appliances, devices, and equipment when new models need to be purchased; installing motion detectors in low-traffic areas; eliminating screen savers on computers; and installing more energy-efficient lighting – or simply turning off lights and other equipment more often.

Taking the Next Steps
Morrow recommends a two-step approach to implementing green initiatives: 1) Do all the things you can to make your business more environmentally friendly – from replacing inefficient light bulbs to installing toilets that use less water to becoming carbon neutral; and 2) Learn everything you can about green materials in the printing industry – what materials are out there now, what materials are coming, and what consumers want from your company, environmental-wise. “The cheapest and quickest way to learn what you need to know is to have your vendors come in and talk about what green products and programs they offer,” Morrow said.

Both Morrow and Boyer like to use the Internet and Google search engine to stay current on environmental issues. Boyer said searching for something like ‘models of manufacturing green’ will offer a wide array of green frameworks in the printing industry and in general. Morrow also uses ‘Google Alerts’ to receive e-mail updates with the latest worldwide news and articles on the green topics he specifies.

As for creating a green company, Boyer encourages his industry colleagues to find a model or language that can bring people together in their work on sustainability issues and bring about consensus on what to do and how to measure progress. “What’s most important is not the perfect model but what’s comfortable and a good fit for your company,” he said. “When a company gets started on this issue, there are always plenty of results to discuss with customers.”

You can then start to map your company’s processes: Where are energy and materials used? Where are the by-products and waste? “This map becomes very valuable for finding the places bringing the greatest gain for the least effort,” Boyer said. “Form teams to focus on the low-hanging fruit – the projects with the greatest improvement for the least effort – from the process map. Every employee will want to play a role in some way, and what they learn from the projects will spill over into their everyday work.”

MCD participates in sustainability in several ways. The company generates 50 percent of its energy from wind power and has lowered its energy usage patterns in the last 12 months by, among other things, switching to low-usage light bulbs throughout the building and installing intermittent light sensors in rooms with random traffic. MCD also recycles its foil waste and plastic waste – eliminating the amount that ends up in a landfill by nearly half in the last 10 years.

Sustainability Certification for the Industry

Jones encourages finishers and printers to devise an environmental plan that’s systematic and systemic and that will serve as a continuous-improvement project. “Go through each department and think about how to reduce waste and cut costs,” he said. “Start with the easiest to implement – you don’t have to spend a lot of money.” He added that those companies adopting a green focus are finding tremendous opportunities for cost savings: “They’re harnessing the power of their workforce to reduce operating costs, cut energy consumption, cut waste, and find recycling opportunities.”

To meet the demands of companies looking for a formal recognition program, the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership was founded in June 2007 by PIA/GATF, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, and Flexographic Technical Association as an independent third-party verification organization. Jones said that within a month, printing and finishing facilities will be able submit an application and supporting documentation to start the process of becoming a verified ‘Sustainable Green Printer.’ Following a successful audit, the facility will be recognized on the SGP web site and be allowed to use the SGP logo.

“I am now in my 21st year of working at PIA/GATF and I’ve never spoken to more print buyers and designers than I have in the past year,” Jones said. He noted that many large, well-known manufacturing, food service, retail, and publishing companies have expressed interest in having their printing done at an SGP Printer. “We’re in the midst of a fundamental change – and I don’t think it’s going to go away, although it is hard to predict exactly where it’s going,” he added. “Business has always been about price, quality, and service, but now you have to add what you’re doing to protect the environment.”

On the Forefront
Morrow and the others acknowledged that keeping up with environmental issues and figuring out how to best respond to them given your market is no easy task. But they agree that taking the first few steps can make a big difference. “The only way we’re going to make change is to make it simple, get down to the common denominator – or we’ll get overwhelmed by all the information,” Morrow said.

“There’s nothing new here – we’ve heard about ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ since the ’70s,” added Jones. “The difference is that customers are driving the changes this time.” He noted that there’s an additional incentive for companies to learn all they can about going green: they can present their customers with environmentally friendly options and point out that by using this paper or that ink the customer will reduce emissions or waste – decisions customers can take credit for within their company’s annual report or web site. “Printers who’ve embraced green are becoming more valuable to their customers,” Jones said.

“Operating green is not a tradeoff with market share and meeting customer needs – it enhances both in many ways,” Boyer added. “When we are successful, we will no longer call it operating green but the way we do business.”

Want More Information?
For starters, check out these four resources on going green: