Tue, Jul

2015: time to turn over a new leaf

Walter Hale looks at why wide-format print companies should reassess their environmental and sustainability strategies.

“You cannot do business on a dead planet.” That was the stark warning Hunter Lovins, author and president of a non-profit organisation called Natural Capitalism Solutions, gave at a recent United Nations symposium on sustainability.

He has a point. That conviction has prompted Lovins to argue that it is time for business to look beyond regulation and start making their own rules to solve what campaigner and author Naomi Klein has described as an “existential crisis for the human species”.

At the symposium, some delegates suggested that companies were not designed to take a leadership role on social and environmental issues. In response, Lovins asked them if they believed that governments could solve the problem of a global economy that, as he put it, “is based on unsustainable assumptions and business practices that are driving societies and ecosystems into successive collapses”. Nobody put their hand up.

So what is the answer? To the managing director of a wide-format printing company, the idea that their business can help save the world might sound absurdly overblown. Yet Lovins has a point: it might be better for the planet, governments and businesses, if companies were ahead of the curve on sustainability.

To be fair, the industry’s customers don’t always help. Many procurement departments don’t understand print at all, let alone its significance in the supply chain and its ability to improve their environmental footprint. Yet some larger buyers are getting the message. Take Adidas for example. The global sportswear giant has partnered with companies that have been certified by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership and encourages printers to recognise they are part of the supply chain and educate buyers about how to spend their budget in the most environmentally friendly fashion.

Adidas’s attitude is exceptional, but it is not unique. Starbucks and Top Value Fabrics are among the other companies to partner with SGP firms. The digital revolution – and the explosion in social media – has shown many companies that they are no longer in control of their own brands. If their products are being produced in such a way that it threatens orangutans, drills ugly holes in the Arctic Circle or uses gazillions of watts of non-renewable energy, they know they will be found out. (Even the mighty Amazon, named and shamed by Greenpeace, has made a long-term commitment to use only renewable energy for its internet infrastructure,)

This enforced transparency is forcing brands to show that their sustainability strategies go beyond the old greenwash. And the biggest difference they can make, when it comes to reducing their environmental footprint, is by reappraising and – if necessary – reinventing their supply chain. The need to work with sustainable partners is increasingly being recognised. This shift in attitude may not affect printers today, but it will in the short to medium term. As Mandy Hulke, regulatory supervisor, 3M Commercial Solutions, told the SGP: “By becoming a more sustainable print shop today, printers can set themselves apart and align themselves with their customers’ goals and expectations.”

The eternal challenge for many printers is to make the step up from suppliers of a commodity (even if it is a well crafted one) to strategic partners. If printers can draw on their expertise and knowledge to give their buyers the tangible metrics that show how they are helping the organisation fulfil their sustainability goals, they demonstrate their strategic value. By establishing the worth of their constructive, advance, they can create a broader, more rewarding relationship with the client.

Print companies can also – if they prove they are walking the talk – differentiate themselves from the competition. Thinking greener – which often means leaner – can also reduce the cost of energy, materials, water and waste. In a market where budgets remain tight, many printers may be tempted to wait and see. Yet putting sustainability at the heart of your business is not something that can be done overnight. Printers playing catch up may find they are behind the curve for years not months.

So Lovin is right. Partnerships between companies to design a greener way of working don’t have to wait for government regulation. Nor do they have to be instigated as a defensive reaction to campaigns by the likes of Greenpeace. Across the world, thousands of businesses are already striving to become, if you will, friends of the Earth. Wide-format printers can do their bottom line – and the environment – a lot of good if they take a more ambitious, proactive approach to sustainability.

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