Sun, Sep

Is the penny dropping?

Going green is not an option - it's a priority if you want a sustainable business. But is that message getting through to enough PSPs?

Everybody knows that ‘going green’ - a term that can cover a multitude of virtues - is good for a PSP’s image. It’s something nice to tell the customers and makes you feel like you’re doing good. But does it really make a difference when it comes to the bottom line?

It’s an awkward question to ask: should we need a financial incentive to help save the world? And yet, even though the wide-format print sector seems to be outperforming the economy as a whole, few printers are in the mood to incur unnecessary costs. America’s pioneering group, the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, did look into this question, publishing a report a year ago, which concluded that its members did enjoy a significant financial benefit from, for want of a better shorthand term, ‘going green’. Oddly, they took the report off their website a few months later, but they did identify five broad areas where sustainability had made the difference.

They were:

  • Reducing operational costs through improved efficiency
  • Increasing revenue, productivity, quality, and profitability through product and process improvements and access to new markets.
  • Strengthening employee engagement which had increase productivity and profitability.
  • Minimising environmental risks, social risks and likelihood of bad publicity by consistent commitment to sustainable practices.
  • Establishing reliable supply chains and increasing levels of trust with customers, suppliers and your community.

These all sound tangible enough but to achieve them you need, in the opinion of Jonathan Graham from TE Connectivity in Germany, to give honest answers to five key questions:

  • How does your sustainability profile compare to other companies in your area (ie not necessarily in the print sector)?
  • What are your environmental, social and economic strengths?
  • What are your sustainability challenges?
  • What are you doing to address those?
  • How does your sustainability profile compare to your competitors?

The first basic point that Graham made in an SGP webinar was that one simple way for print service providers to raise their sustainability profile is to use whatever certifications they have - or will have - on their own website and as part of their brand. As Gabriel Grant, of Authentic Sustainability, says, achieving sustainability can be difficult, take a lot of work, and require a company’s culture to change, so if you’re going to go through all of that you might as well let the marketplace know. And nobody can accuse you of greenwash if you’re sticking to the facts: this is the certification and this is what we did to achieve it.

Grant has an intriguing take on the three traps many company sustainability drives fall into. The first is that the conversation is all about what “others should do…” So we say things like “Employees should recycle at work because we all need to do our best to help the environment”. As he says: “That language never works – ask anyone who’s told their kids to eat their vegetables.”

A more inclusive approach, building on something good and asking staff: “What’ else do you think we could do?” would be more effective. What you don’t want to be, as Grant notes, is the person who makes everyone around you wrong.

The second trap is that sustainability drives often fixate on solving problems rather than creating possibilities. It’s easier, as George Bernard Shaw observed, to see things as they are and ask: why?, than to dream of things that have never been and ask: why not? This approach also gets around the blame culture – if we’re only solving problems that inevitably means someone is doing something wrong – and encourages employees to engage and think innovatively.

The third trap is to oversimplify the challenge. There will be times when the health of our business will conflict with the health of our society. The key here is not to be dogmatic, but to admit ambivalence and uncertainty – these decisions are not always easy, are they? – to encourage others to admit their doubts. A candid discussion may help staff to realise that such contradictions are normal and can inspire creativity.

Grant could have added a fourth trap: to regard sustainability as a tactical issue, rather than a strategic one. Using eco-friendly ink, cutting your paper waste by 2%, buying two electric cars and announcing that you are ‘green’ is only going to encourage cynicism about staff, suppliers and customers. Once you’ve over-hyped, it’s very hard to regain trust on this issue. To be credible – and to generate the cost savings that will make your business more competitive – sustainability needs to be considered throughout the whole process.

If you do that then the SGP says you can save money with all kinds of efficiencies. Notable savings achieved by its members include a 10% reduction in energy use by putting thermostats on timers and setting the temperatures slightly lower; saving 1.2mlbs of waste in three years; using 145,000 gallons less water, and saving $16,000 a year by recycling 76% more solvent. If you multiply those kind of savings across the business, it’s easy to get a sense of what can be achieved.

That said, being sustainable isn’t just about saving money. One way a growing band of printers are differentiating themselves is by doing their own R&D to develop things that help their clients. So New Jersey printer EarthColour has developed Earth Ever Lit, an eco-friendly alternative to PVC petroleum-based signage material, and, in partnership with Prairie Pulp & Paper, developed a 60% wheat and straw-based paper. With such offerings, Earth Colour is providing a customer service that few of its rivals can match.

In Burnaby, near Vancouver in Canada,, Hemlock Printers began experimenting in 1988 with ways of eliminating the harmful isopropyl alcohol from press damping systems. It wasn’t illegal but it was volatile and flammable and, after two years research, they installed a reverse osmosis water purification system and became ‘alcohol free’. The company’s commitment to the environment is detailed and formidable: the plant is 100% carbon neutral, its local delivery truck runs entirely on biodiesel and the office carpet tiles are rearranged until evenly worn before being recycled. Such dedication dates back to the 1970s and, because no print service provider can ever become sustainable enough, progress is maintained by a committee of 14 staff that meet quarterly. No wonder it was named the most sustainable North American printer in a report by not-for-profit body Canopy. Such initiatives foster a culture of learning that wins Hemlock many accolades but it encourages a mindset that inspires innovative thinking in other aspects of the business.

So is the effort to become a truly sustainable printer easy? No. Can it be done quickly? Not really. Is it worth it? The answer for that has to be yes for two reasons – it can make a difference to a print service provider’s bottom line and market profile and, in the not so long run, most customers are going to require it anyway. The time when sustainability in the workplace could boil down to a few recycling bins, an email sign off asking staff if they really need to print an email, and hand-dryers in the urinals are, thankfully, long over. It’s just that in some parts of the industry, the penny hasn’t dropped yet.

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