Success and Sustainability

Five print providers who have plotted out a green course.

Let’s face it: Sustainability in graphics has not been on the smoothest of flight paths. Generally, “going green” is in vogue as long as the budget can accommodate it. How green a customer goes is typically dependent on the marketing plan’s purse strings and the economy in general: Big surplus in the budget? Think emerald. So-so economy? Think lime green. Nearly depleted budget? Olive drab comes to mind.

But if the economy’s needle is ready to make a shift toward the “full” vs “empty” side of the budgetary gas tank, then isn’t it likely that your clients will, once again, be willing to invest in sustainable options for their graphics? And shouldn’t you then be ready to take on those types of jobs?

This month, we introduce you to five print providers whose sustainability efforts are worth noting – they’re putting their own unique stamp on what it means to be a green graphics company in 2012.

Methodical research: Premier Press
Sustainability is as ingrained in the business culture at Premier Press (premierpress.com) in Portland, Oregon, as it is in the community the company calls home.

“Being from Portland, our culture here has a pretty strong focus on operating sustainably. Our state was the first to introduce a bottle bill so that we didn’t have garbage along the roadsides, and it started the recycling mentality for us,” says CEO Jodi Krohn.

“About 15 years ago, we were the first printer in our area that operated with solely soy-based inks in our presses. That was a challenge to switch from what was then the traditional inks to soy-based inks or vegetable-based inks, but our pressmen were very personally invested in making that sustainability work, and that was a pretty big first step.”

Krohn, who runs the company with her sisters and parents, says Premier Press prides itself on being a family business that welcomes and encourages input from its 125 employees.

“Several years ago, we set up an in-house team that includes people from different departments. We call it our ‘green team.’ We meet once a month and they bring in recommendations or issues from each department – things they see that they don’t think are operating as sustainably as they think they could,” explains Krohn. “That way, we try to facilitate more communication. We also set up suggestion boxes throughout our plant so any employee walking through can drop a suggestion in the box or even a problem that they see as it pertains to our sustainability efforts.”

At the suggestion of its “green team,” Premier Press began purchasing carbon offsets and today is “100-percent wind-power operated.” Four years ago, the company also was certified through the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP).

“One of the things we learned going through the SGP process and really questioning all the departments, is making sure our vendors know what our goals are and making sure they let us know if there are new materials out there,” says Krohn. “We often have the vendors come in and present to every department and, in that way, we do a lot of samples and testing. When we get new material samples in, we’ll test them and see how they work with our equipment. And we’ll take samples out to the clients. We spend a lot of money and time on research and development on that end of it.”

Such methodical, evidence-based research helps the company make the wisest investments in substrates, media, and equipment, she says. And it also helps them offer their clients sustainable options – without sacrificing print quality or driving up the cost of production.

“In our wide-format department, whenever possible, we recommend materials that are environmentally friendly, like a corrugated board or an eco-board. In that way, we drive our customers away from some of the traditional, less environmentally friendly materials,” she says.

The company also has upgraded its wide-format equipment to incorporate more sustainable processes.

“On that side of the industry, we’ve seen that the equipment has changed substantially in terms of being more sustainable,” Krohn says, noting the company recently installed a Durst Rho 800 Presto press. “It’s a perfecting press, so we can print both sides at the same time, and it also runs UV ink. Because of the setup system, the technology of this press creates five- to 10-percent less waste, and it runs faster too, so we have less time on press, which helps cut costs for the client. The UV inks have almost no VOCs, so that’s a benefit for our production team and for the client when they install a product that doesn’t smell like the old inks.”

Other equipment on their wide-format roster: a 63-inch Agfa Anapurna M with UV-curable inks and a Mutoh Toucan LT eco-solvent machine, as well as a Gerber M Flatbed Cutter and a GBC 2064 WF 64-inch laminator.

Krohn admits “going green” can be an intimidating proposition for smaller print providers, particularly in today’s economy, when it’s more difficult than ever to justify large capital investments in the latest eco-friendly printers and substrates.

“It’s like a million little steps: There might be a few big steps working toward being more sustainable – but really it is just a multitude of little steps all over the place tweaking how you work,” she says. “Of course, it takes a financial commitment, but as other companies do it, too, the costs will come down for everyone.”

Powered by the sun: BarkerBlue
BarkerBlue (barkerblue.com) doesn’t just say it’s “green” – the company shouts its sustainability credentials from the rooftops. Its 17,000-square-foot facility in San Mateo, California– once a roller-skating rink – features more than 650 rooftop solar panels that provide nearly 80 percent of the company’s power needs over the course of a year.

“On our website we have a live solar monitor that shows how many cars we’ve taken off the road, how many houses would this have powered in the same amount of time – it’s just kind of a fun thing – and it has real-time stats,” explains BarkerBlue’s general manager John Roach. “In California, when you get a solar system, there needs to be a third-party monitoring service between Pacific Gas and Electric and your building to verify that what you’re producing is actually legit. We get an incentive rebate check from PG&E every month on the power that we generate based on a fixed kilowatt-hour rate.”

The solar panels have been in place for about four years and, while Roach admits it was a huge up-front investment, installing its own power grid was par for the course for BarkerBlue – and part of the natural evolution of the company’s mission.

“In addition to display graphics, we’re also in the construction-blueprints and construction-management business,” says Roach. “As we found more and more of our customers working on buildings that were getting LEED certified and contractors that were looking for greener solutions, it just seemed like the thing we should do. Since we owned the building, we were able to put the panels up pretty easily.”

The investment in solar may have been inspired by the architects, engineers, and construction clients, but it has proven over time to be a competitive advantage on the digital graphics side of the business.

“When they’re buying large-format color graphics, some of our larger clients come to us with core company green initiatives that trickle all the way down to the purchase of their substrates and their graphics,” says sales consultant Mike Turnbull. “Where that is in their priority list is sort of the struggle sometimes in terms of how heavily we market ourselves as a ‘green’ print provider. Product and service and quality still probably beat out ‘green’ in terms of what our customers are demanding – but if you can offer the ‘green’ option as your third selling point, it can sometimes be the differentiator. More and more companies are seeking us out for that reason alone.”

The solar-powered facility is just one way the company has embraced ‘green.’

“We’ve got a whole bunch of different print technology at our disposal, including some old solvent and some pigment-based aqueous, but all of the newest technology we use is HP Latex, the L26500,” says Turbull. “It’s clean for our production environment because there’s no off-gassing. There’s also no off-gassing once the graphics are installed in stores, restaurants, and museums, and that’s critical to many of our customers.

“We’re also printing on recycled and recyclable materials as often as possible – such as ‘bamboo’ papers and fabrics, and rigid boards such as Neschen/Seal Eco Board, SGP Substrates EcoPlast, Neschen Enviroboard [aka Converd Board by Converd], and Boise Hexacomb Falconboard. Also, there are new magnetic products such as VisualMagnetics’ system made from recycled soda bottles, and the Drytac Ferro magnet-compatible paper, which allows for rollable, lightweight, and easy-to-install graphics change-outs. And our waste here is recycled as well. On the client side, when the graphics come down from an install, they also can go into the recycle bin.”

By Roach’s measure, diving head-long into sustainable printing has given the company a competitive edge.

“Our competition might be able to sell something a little bit cheaper, but it’s not as environmentally friendly so we can at times get a little bit more for what we’re doing simply because it’s more environmentally conscious,” Roach says. “It’s given us an advantage to be thought of a little bit differently than just a printing company. We’re thought of as kind of a leader in the green aspect and the technology aspect – so we get a premium when we print something.”

DIY design: The Wide Format Company
“Green” is big business for The Wide Format Company, a Bellevue, Washington-area provider of large-format display graphics. Last year, the company launched an interactive website – www.buygreensigns.com – entirely dedicated to sustainable wide-format printing.

“Our customers are able to actually go into the website and create their own design with an embedded design tool that’s a Flash application,” explains Neil Johnston, the company’s marketing and IT director. “You can upload your own graphics or logos into it, you can even add a Facebook photo right from our tool. Everything you see on the website is recyclable or biodegradable or sometimes both; all the materials, inks and substrates you have to choose from on the website are ‘green.’ You basically can’t make a mistake in terms of creating a sustainable product.”

The all-green interactive website was the culmination of years of R&D and research into the best products and processes for providing quality, sustainable work, Johnston reports.

“When we first began thinking about ‘green,’ we started to look into other materials besides PVC vinyls and the traditional foam boards that are typical of the graphics industry,” says Johnston. “For a long time, it was very expensive and it was difficult to get customers to even acknowledge the idea to do something green. But in the last three years or so, the pricing has come down into a reasonable range where we can take a little bit less of profit margin and offer the customer the green alternative for what they were paying before.”

Today, the company views sustainable substrates as the only way to go – so much so that they don’t offer customers an alternative.

“We’re only using an Insite Biodegradable Foamboard from Gilman Brothers for anybody that requests foam board now – we don’t even tell them there’s an option – we’re just offering that as our standard traditional white foam board 3/16-inch thick,” he says.

Johnston says that eliminating the option of traditional materials is a necessary evil to combat ignorance and misinformation that runs rampant among his customers about the feasibility and affordability of sustainable printing. “We are constantly surprised by the perception that people have about being green with their graphics and how so many people just assume it’s too expensive. We say to them, ‘Well, have you ever just asked us?’ This way, we can show them the alternatives and that we can do all this for you in a ‘green’ way for the same price. They’re always shocked. People just don’t even know it’s an option. There’s a lack of understanding and knowledge there.”

Another way the company strives to make environmentally friendly print options more ubiquitous, Johnston says, is by investing in eco-friendly printing equipment.

“We work a lot with grocery stores, so it was really critical for us to find a UV device that didn’t put off any odors. The last thing that you want to smell when you’re in the fruit department or the bakery is a graphic that has a bad chemical smell coming off of it. That was a common complaint we got back in the day when we had a solvent-printing device,” he says.

“We’ve been working for years with Mutoh’s equipment as an equipment dealer, but we also use their printers, including the Mutoh ValueJet 1614 and ValueJet 1608 hybrid. We’ve seen that their eco-solvent inks are extremely durable and vibrant and they don’t put off any harmful odors and any VOCs that are put off are extremely low. We also use UV-curable aqueous-based ink on our Agfa Anapurna M2 – it allows us to print directly to the substrate so we don’t have to print a graphic and then mount it.”

Johnston has seen a lot of print providers embrace sustainable printing, only to abandon it soon after due to lack of customer demand, but his company is different.

“We really believe in it and we believe that in the future the trend is going to continue to move upward. We’re going to continue to push forward our research and bring in new products and test them and find new products that are inexpensive to offer people.”

A top-down approach: PhotoCraft
The embrace of sustainability as a business culture has been a methodical, thoughtful process for PhotoCraft (www.photocraft.com), a provider of large-format retail graphics based in Portland, Oregon.

“We started a few years back looking at green materials and it was really in vogue at the time. It’s not that we were using a lot of them, but we had them available. We knew what they were, we would test them, and were doing our due diligence on them. And every now and then we’d have something that was unique and new and different that we would use as a material,” explains general manager Tom Wittenberg. “Over time, it just became a natural extension of where we were going as a company.”

Part of the company’s motivation to be “green,” Wittenberg admits, is influenced by the overall culture of the Portland community. The “natural way of thinking is ingrained in everybody” and it created an awareness among his employees and customers of the importance of ‘green’ efforts at work and in their homes. The emphasis on environmental stewardship eventually led the company to pursue SGP Certification.

“Through that process, we learned that certification is a holistic approach to your business. It shows that you’re taking care of your employees, you’re making sure they understand it and that they carry it on to their home. You’re concerned about the environmental welfare of your whole community, so you’re not dumping a whole bunch of stuff in to the local waters, and you’re making sure that that your employees are taken care of ergonomically and they’re not hurting themselves. It’s way more than you would think of in terms of sustainable printing,” he says.

The company has also undertaken an extensive recycling program for one of its more popular substrates – a proprietary vinyl laminate on a rubber backing commonly used for magnetic walls.

“In the past we were not able to recycle it, but in conjunction with a third-party supplier, we are able to do so now. We just kicked off this recycling partnership in December, so instead of throwing the scrap and leftover materials in the garbage and having it end up in landfills, we’re now able to recycle it.”

Another natural extension of the company’s green initiatives was the acquisition early last year of a new wide-format UV printer.

“We bought a brand new HP Scitex FB7650 flatbed press with UV inks with a maximum print size that’s roughly 126 x 65 inches. In the way of VOCs, there’s almost nothing there,” says Wittenberg. “We can print edge-to-edge on it, so that means you have no ‘bleed’ and no need for a secondary step to cut all of that off. We’re able to eliminate all that scrap material going into the landfill, plus we save on electricity by eliminating that second step on the trim machine.”

The purchase was part of the company’s overall strategy to offer its customers more sustainable print options while also cutting production time.

“In the case of this new press, we ran a job for one of our customers that, instead of taking 14 days, we actually did it in two-and-a-half days. It didn’t even run 24 hours a day – that’s incredibly fast, and helps cut our energy costs,” says Wittenberg. “Not only does it help us be competitive in the marketplace, it also helps us provide the customers with the ability to lengthen their decision time and still allow us time to be able to respond.”

All told, Wittenberg believes the secret behind successfully implementing sustainable business practices is putting your money where your mouth is.

“It may be the simplest thing to say, ‘We’re environmentally friendly,’ but it’s making the commitment at the top and helping people understand why it’s important to the company and to the customers and to the environment, too, that ensures it is a philosophy that will last,” he says. “It has been worth the all the effort and the time for us.”

Practicing what’s preached: Banner Creations
Nora Norby, president of Banner Creations www.(bannercreations.com) in Minneapolis, has been “green” since before being green was cool.

“Hey, I clean with vinegar and peroxide at home, and I’ve been washing with cold water since Carter was in office. I set my thermostat down to 58 degrees at night and while I’m gone during the day,” says Norby. “I do try to practice what I preach.”

Her passion for sustainability carries over to Banner Creations, where Norby’s team uses the latest eco-friendly products and technologies to produce large-format fabric banners, cloth bags, flags, and other display products.

“We recycle our scrap and our paper products, we do duplex printing, and we donate paper that is left over from the rolls that we print on. We try to recycle or donate or reuse as much as we can in the paper part of our business, plus we recycle our cans and bottles,” Norby explains.

“We've been printing with water-based inks since 1993, and printing on fabrics made from 100-percent recycled soda bottles that can then be recycled again. We also make bags from our scrap recycled soda-bottle fabric that we then sell on our e-commerce site.”

In its early days, Banner Creations was a screen printer using solvent inks in a process that Norby calls “very, very stinky.” Since making the switch to water-based inks, the work environment has become much more pleasant for the company’s employees, who no longer have to wear masks in the printing area.

“We found that if you’re looking for short-term use – which I think most people are for advertising purposes – you can use the dye-sublimation process rather than screen. Once we discovered we could print water-based inks on just about any fabric, we made the switch for all our interior projects,” she says. “The product has a softer hand than our screenprinted products, so you can scrunch it in your hand and you won’t feel the ink, you can throw it in the washer and dryer if it’s the kind of product that will fit, and it can certainly be wiped off.”

Norby’s team was also an early adopter of “green” substrates. They began printing in the late 1990s on a Carolina Mills fabric that was made from recycled soda bottles. At the time, the company was one of just a handful in the country to venture into alternative fabrics.

“At the time, a lot of people were interested and thought it was great, but the fabric was a little more expensive. In those days, it was really hard to get people interested in the product. Just about the only customers we worked with using the material then were the Organic Growers Association and a few cooperative grocery stores,” says Norby.

Around 2006, however, the manufacturer discontinued the fabric – and, as luck would have it, this was about the same time that Banner Creations sold a large print job requiring sustainable fabric.

“Minnesota Pollution Control was putting together a venue at the Minnesota State Fair called EcoExperience, which focused on all the different ways people can save energy. We needed about 800 or 900 yards of the fabric for the job. We bought literally the last bolt of this fabric in the country. Finally, people had begun paying attention, and there was no more fabric.”

The solution: Norby and another print provider joined forces to lobby Carolina Mills to again begin manufacturing the recycled soda bottle fabric and, after about six months, the company finally agreed. It was perfect timing she says, because her team had just sold a job requiring 35,000 yards of the recycled fabric to Mohawk Carpet for an extensive point-of-purchase campaign promoting its new corn-based Smart Strand flooring. The company still uses the product, Ecophab, and dedicates a separate tab on its website to it.

Since then, the options for recycled materials have grown dramatically.

“There are so many different finishes now, some made from partially recycled soda bottles with other product mixed together, and a lot of different sustainable fabrics that just weren’t available five years ago,” says Norby.

She adds that she’s excited to see that sustainable substrates are catching on with her peers in the printing industry. “It’s good for the overall USA economy. The bottles’ contents are consumed in the USA and they’re converted in the USA. It might be slightly more expensive, but we’re providing money back to our economy instead of sending it overseas.”

Freelance writer Paula Yoho is a frequent contributor to The Big Picture magazine.

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