Industry Insights: The State of Green Business—and Beyond

The environmental movement survived—even thrived—in this recent economic downturn, proving that it is here to stay. But a number of significant trends have emerged which present opportunities and challenges for the digital imaging industry.

Let’s start by looking at how business in general is greening. According to the 2011 “State of Green Business” report from the GreenBiz Group, 2010 was the year that many manufacturers of consumer products fully embraced environmentally friendly practices. Procter & Gamble set a goal for 100 percent recyclable product packaging; Walmart’s Zero Carbon Footprint initiative has forced all their vendors, including sign suppliers, to reduce waste and institute renewable energy use. Companies such as Azko Nobel have even linked employee bonuses to individual sustainability efforts and issue yearly Sustainability Reports.

So where does this leave the sign industry? With possibilities—and challenges.

What Consumers Want

Consumers want to do business with companies that are environmentally responsible, often saying they’re willing to pay more or drive further to do so. That presents opportunities for the sign industry to get onboard and implement real change. According to an ISA 2010 Survey, 72 percent of sign companies consider sustainability strategies “important” or “very important”; 65 percent consider buying green materials “important” or “very important”; and more than 50 percent of companies implement sustainable practices in manufacturing, product end-of-life, or energy conservation. But interest in sustainability isn’t translating into equal demand. A recent survey of 300 supply chain managers by Capgemini puts the disconnect between interest and action into perspective: From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of respondents who felt sustainability was an important business driver almost doubled. However, the percentage of efforts respondents planned to undertake in 2010 increased by only four percent.

Greenwashing & Waste Management

ISA has found several issues of environmental prominence to the digital print sector: “greenwashing,” waste management, and environmental regulations. “Greenwashing” means making false or disingenuous green marketing claims which do not translate to actual environmental business practices. This is most obvious when products use vague claims unsupported by tangible evidence, such as “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “recycled content.” The Federal Trade Commission and UL-Environment have both issued guidelines to help both consumers and manufacturers understand what constitutes a valid environmental claim. The best rule of thumb is specificity. If you are a buyer, ask what exactly makes the product “green.” For instance: How far is it shipped from the point of manufacturing? Can you recycle the material both as shop waste and post-consumer? Where can you recycle it in your area?

This brings up the dilemma with waste management. It often is difficult to recycle some of the material that is common in our industry, such as inks, vinyl, banner scraps, cartridges, gator board, and other substrates. Though the materials may be recyclable, it can be hard to find a company in the area that handles that particular type of product. This should change rapidly as more and more companies—especially manufacturers—begin to recycle aggressively. A good resource for finding local recyclers is or your State Department of Environmental Quality. Many printer manufacturers also have programs in place to pick up used inks and cartridges. In addition, good training in efficient color management can reduce material and ink waste, and subsequently costs, by considerable margins.

Add Regulations to the Mix

Environmental regulations, both at federal and local levels, play a significant role in sign shop operations. The EPA and state Departments of Environmental Quality have issued a number of regulations governing the release of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These regulations, though occasionally onerous, contribute to the health and safety of workers and often require only minor modifications. Since these regulations target manufacturing, they have shone a spotlight on one area of sustainability that can reduce costs. Reducing waste, using environmentally friendly inks and paints, and engaging employees in sustainability can raise a company’s profile, invest workers in success, and decrease costs. In fact, there are also numerous federal and state incentives to help businesses implement renewable and efficient energy alternatives which can be found at

Another type of regulation is the prevalence of green building codes such as the LEED standard and the International Green Construction Code. Signage can contribute to certification under both these codes. Requirements such as using low VOC paints, environmentally friendly adhesives, energy efficient lighting, FSC-certified wood, and recycled/ recyclable materials are included in both codes.

The Environmental Protection Agency offers tips on reducing waste through its WasteWise program, which includes case studies on how other companies have achieved this. It also includes tips on how to plan your program, measure results, and then let the world know about it.

Why Green Matters

At a time when many business owners are working longer hours to keep their companies afloat, the added demands that come with being environmentally responsible may seem like wasted time—or the easiest to drop off of a long to-do list.

But it is vitally important that sign and printing businesses take the time to determine how to serve their clients who are demanding environmentally friendly products, as well as ensure that they deliver what they promise. And remember, the most innovative ideas can come out of a difficult situation. Take the IKEA 20th birthday building wrap project completed by The Big Print. After wrapping 21 stores to look like birthday cakes, they were left with more than six miles of banner material, 10 miles of webbing, 19 miles of cable, and 1 mile of stitching. No recycler would take that amount of material, so the wide-format graphic producer became its own recycler. They made tarps, custom bags for future Big Print pallets, and even handbags to sell on eBay.

In short, environmental responsibility makes sense. It not only appeals to others who have committed to responsible practices, but it also can sometimes generate additional savings.

Green practices make good business. While the sign industry has a distance to go and obstacles to overcome, the shrewd business owner should be paying attention.


Sapna Budev is the director of industry programs for the International Sign Association. Since joining ISA in 2005, Budev has directed the association’s international growth and tradeshow operations. For more information, please visit