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Sustainable Printers Make a Choice

Do you go by the (rather expensive) book, or take responsibility into your own hands?

This is part one of a two-part series on sustainable digital printing. To read part two, click here, or visit our digital edition to read the piece in its entirety.

Take a walk through your local grocery store’s produce section. Notice anything different? Five to 10 years ago, organic produce prices were significantly higher than traditional fruits and veggies, and, on average, only the extremely health-conscious or those with a little more money in their pockets cared to buy. But today, more and more buyers – even those with lower cash flow – are thinking about the health aspects of “going green.” Prices are comparable to regular options with some organics even placed right next to conventional varieties.

“On the demand side, customers are buying more organics, opening up some new mass retail channels – Walmart actually sells more organics than Whole Foods – enabling some suppliers to produce/distribute enough that they start seeing economies of scale. Thus, costs go down and prices follow,” says Shel Horowitz, green business profitability expert and co-author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.” “Also, as direct-to-consumer marketing has proliferated – just compare the number of farmers markets today to 15 years ago – sellers and buyers can find a happy medium that pays the grower more while costing the consumer less than going through five layers of intermediaries.”

Sustainability within the wide-format print industry compares, as shops large and small seek sustainable alternatives for their clients, thereby driving lower prices through supply and demand.

Being a sustainable print shop in today’s industry is more than just offering environmentally friendly products, however. PSPs are becoming certified, learning to have educational conversations with their clients, thinking of unconventional ways to be sustainable, and seeking third-party verifications, all while saving money and increasing their return on investment. It’s become less of a PR move and more of a choice to do the right thing. And there are multiple routes to becoming a sustainable shop. It just depends on how much time and money you’re willing to spend.

So, to start, what does “sustainable” mean in the digital print industry? If we’re talking about sustainable products, it’s difficult to quantify, says Marci Kinter, board of directors and technical committee chair, Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP), and VP, government and business info, SGIA. So many products are deemed alternative substrates (as in, made from recycled content such as water bottles), and a certification program specifically for printed products just doesn’t exist. She says sustainability and sustainable businesses are more about embracing types of impact – environmental, social, and economic – than simply offering eco-friendly inks and sustainable substrates. “It’s becoming a much broader term. When looking at sustainability, how does whatever you’re talking about incorporate these three pillars? Are you leaving the world a better place?”

Sustainable Shop Certifications
Your options are limited when it comes to being a certified shop; SGP is the only whole-facility certification program for the entire graphic communication industry. It also provides third-party certification through a publicly vetted set of criteria – something customers take into high regard. The certification takes into account an entire print facility, including process, products, and even social areas. There are no prerequisites for commercial printing, packaging, screen, large-format, or related graphic communication facilities located in the US, Canada, and Australia, but shop owners must prepare for this time-intensive process; for example: dedicating one employee to lead the 12-month evaluation process. After the first year, the print shop submits its application to the SGP program and requests a certification audit that will take place 12 months later.

Who would undertake such a task?

“Initially there is a fair amount of work to do, but that’s one of the reasons that I think [SGP is] so great – because it’s not fluff,” says DeAnn Strenke, marketing manager of Stillwater, Minnesota-based Modernistic. In 2009, Modernistic became one of the first print shops to be SGP certified. “A lot of people were asking – and are still asking – for different green materials and ways to work in more of a sustainable environment.”

Because Modernistic works primarily with plastics, the Forest Stewardship Council certification wasn’t as applicable as the SGP program, which requires that printers are accountable for not only environmental health, but also that of their employees. “You’re not just looking at the materials that are being used in your plant, you’re looking at how you do things, exposure to your employees, exposure to the landscape on your facility grounds – it’s just everything,” Strenke says. And that process takes time.

Most of Modernistic’s labor time was spent documenting everyday procedures – a must for SGP certification. To date, the shop has 80 different procedures, including nearly 20 for its recycling efforts. For example, Strenke’s shop recently began saving liners from laminate materials to use as slip sheets, delaying their trip to the landfill.

“If we weren’t SGP certified, we’d all love to think these projects would happen, but we’re all busy,” Strenke says. Without the continuous push to meet SGP requirements, sustainability could easily be forgotten.

SGP also requires shops to be recertified every two years, a process both SGP and SGIA hope to facilitate. “Ultimately, it’s the choice of the facility whether or not they want to become recertified, but we help them,” says Kinter. “We work with them to provide tools on how to calculate their carbon footprint and how to determine what their different metrics are for waste, water, air, energy, etc. We provide them with documentation on how to integrate a management system, and we’ll walk them through the whole process.”

And Strenke says other certified printers are happy to help, too. “Once you get over the hurdle of time, it’s more of a maintenance thing where you’re working this system and there are criteria changes every few years,” she says. “SGP is always finessing things to be better, more streamlined. There’s a bigger community now than there ever was as far as other printers who are happy to come help you. Back when I did it, you were kind of cutting your own path to get through the certification.”

A Different Approach to Sustainability
For some shops, sustainability is extremely important, but becoming certified just, well, isn’t. Reed Silberman of Denver-based Ink Monstr says, “We’ve always done what we can to stay sustainable and eco-friendly. We recycle our ink cartridges properly, we reuse all the wasted material around here. If there are any misprints or reprints, we repurpose those for other things like promotional products, so we’re not wasting any materials.” The shop also purchases eco-friendly materials, such as media from the 3M Envision line, and uses eco-solvent printers.

So, what’s their reason for not getting certified? “Of course, I have an interest in it,” says Silberman. “It just costs a lot of money to go through those stages and we just haven’t been financially ready to do something like that.”

For members of the Printing Industries of America, SGIA, and the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers, the application fee is $325 and the audit base fee is $2000 with an annual renewal fee of $350 – plus auditor travel expenses. For non-members, the fees are $650, $3500, and $700, respectively.

“It costs a lot more money – a significant amount more – to stay green and to use the green materials and to have the green certifications. We do have to pass those costs on to our clients, so it’s hard to stay competitive with pricing and stay green at the same time,” Silberman says, noting that only about 10 percent of his clients are willing to pay substantially more for sustainable products.

And Ink Monstr printers see themselves as a small shop of artists, while Modernistic has 150 employees. Silberman says it’s easier for larger shops to spend more on going green, but it’s the small shops like his that are actually going for it: “I feel like it’s a lot of the smaller boutique shops making an effort like us and it’s really going to take an effort on the industry as a whole and really the manufacturers as well … making it more affordable for those shops to offer them to their client.”

Jeremy Petty, owner, SpeedPro Imaging of Fort Worth, and member of the Green Business Bureau, disagrees: “We like to say, ‘It doesn’t cost green to go green.’ In fact, most of the green products we offer are priced the same as their traditional equivalent, yet produce a much higher quality print and end product.” The company has four full-time staffers, along with a handful of part-time and contractor workers.

For More
Keep reading for part two of this article, "Sustainable Printing: Beyond Certification." Plus, we attended SGP's annual seminar this year and picked up some tips on marketing, procurement, and sharing your successes (without being annoying). And environmental responsibility isn't only drawing the attention of print providers; six big-name suppliers to the print industry were among 154 American companies to sign the American Business Act on Climate Pledge at the Conference of Parties 21 in Paris.

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