Signs of Sustainability

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, one of the definitions of “sustainable” is “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged” and “of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.” But for an industry that uses chemicals and produces a high volume of disposable signage—some of which cannot enter the recycling stream—what does it really mean to “go green”?

For some it’s just a state of mind, offering some “feel good” points and some financial savings. Some know they need to recycle and they separate their waste into the appropriate recycling bins. They turn off their lights or use automatic timers and may have even changed the bulbs in their facilities. Some may even be using more recycled and biodegradable media and processes.

But for others, it’s a much more involved process. As difficult as it may be, many PSPs have the goal to make a zero impact on the environment and even produce a negative carbon footprint, leaving it better than they found it.

“Going green is commonly associated with ecological sustainability, more so than social and financial sustainability,” said Marco Perez, director of marketing, Point Imaging. “Recently, our industry has made great strides in developing eco-sustainable technology and media. To us, going green means evaluating our impact on the environment in every aspect of our business, then implementing measures to reduce those impacts.”

According to Stephen Goddard, environmental leadership program manager, HP, there are four key elements PSPs need to address when looking to go green—and it’s all based on a long-term view of the future.

First, PSPs need to build a long-term commitment to sustainability. “Management needs to decide—and begin communicating—that they’re in this for the long term,” said Goddard. “It will require new knowledge, committees, policies, procedures, analysis, programs, investments, and likely also certifications for the business. It also requires a long-term commitment. Only then can a sign shop demonstrate to customers that they can be a great partner in sustainability.”

Secondly, PSPs need to be sure they’re working with the right partners. “Moving to printing solutions and substrates with a better environmental profile can play an important role in both reducing the environmental impact of a print shop and being able to produce ‘greener’ wide-format graphics for customers,” said Goddard. “Although there are a host of options available, in the end it comes down to a few key issues: moving away from PVC printing materials towards recyclable alternatives, sourcing papers that bear responsible sourcing certifications—FSC in particular—and even trying to find substrates with recycled content.”

Next, PSPs need to take it to the people and engage their client base. “PSPs need to learn about their clients’ sustainability priorities, demonstrate suitability as a partner in sustainability, and help to educate their customers on the issues and options open to them,” said Goddard.

Lastly, PSPs need to be able to provide the solutions they’ve talked about. “Ultimately PSPs have to leverage the sustainability know-how that they have built up, the printing solutions and substrates that they have in their portfolio, and knowledge of the specific needs of the client to provide them with wide-format graphics that can best help them to meet their sustainability goals,” said Goddard.


Sustainability Challenges

While that four-element approach may seem like a no-brainer to some, I’m sure some owners are reading this and saying to themselves “it’s just not that easy”. And they’d be right.

Creating and maintaining a long-term focus on sustainability is not something that happens overnight. And it’s also not something that will happen on its own. If upper management it not committed to creating a sustainable business plan for their companies, by and large, it won’t ever happen.

“It’s that commitment over time that brings many of the benefits, but it also requires leadership and engagement from the top, the establishment of a sustainability committee with a clear mandate and time and effort from a group of individuals in the organization,” said Goddard. “Leadership and this committee will need to establish just what ‘going green’ will mean for the organization, putting in place policies and plans, tracking environmental impacts, and implementing strategies to reduce them over time. There may also be investments to be made and certifications to be attained. There also needs to be considerable time and effort invested in internal and external communications. Committing the organization to a sustainability program is not to be taken lightly, but I firmly believe that the rewards are well worth the effort.”

But even once there’s buy-in at the top, working with suppliers may prove to be challenging—and may even test their resolve. Sustainability involves more than just one or two key items—and in some cases, means different things to different people. Working to bridge those gaps and address specific issues, while also determining the validity of green product claims—and wade through the green-washing claims can test even the most resolute.

According to Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Océ North America, a Canon Group Company, one of the biggest challenges is defining what sustainability means and evaluating what represents the best solution. “For instance,” he said, “switching to a lightweight substrate might reduce shipping costs (carbon footprint), but the product might not be biodegradable once its useful life is over. Alternately, an all-natural product might be desirable, but at what price compared to conventional products? In difficult economic times, sustainability can become less important than simply getting your graphics printed. Add to that the varying expectations of the end-user and the solution becomes more complicated. What is a green solution to one may not be green to another. A PSP needs to educate its market about why its offering is more sustainable compared to anything else.”

Signs Now’s Sue Freihofer, product development manager, also touched on the pricing issue, which is especially important given the current state of the economy. “Our customers would like to purchase ‘green’ products, but the cost of the substrates is sometimes significantly higher than a comparable product,” said Freihofer. “When it comes to the bottom line, especially in this economic environment, the customer will usually purchase the lower cost sign.”

Her comments are also echoed by Perez. “We are very optimistic where sustainable printing is headed. For ‘going green,’ our biggest challenge remains profitability. Although shrinking, there remains a premium cost associated with green printing products,” said Perez. “Green products are typically not produced in large quantities, and for good reason. The idea is to not produce these substrates until the need is there. In our industry, sometimes the need is yesterday. How fast can we get the amount we need? How long is the shelf life of a naturally produced product? These are factors we must consider when proposing sustainable print.”


Worth It?

But given the difficulties, is it really worth it? Without a doubt, the resounding answer is “yes”. “Aside from going green being the right thing to do, it is our belief that sustainable business will become the more common and preferred method over time,” said Perez. “Although I mentioned we typically find higher costs associated with green products, going green doesn’t always mean spending more. In the case of our new lighting system, we both reduced our impact on the environment and cut our lighting related costs by 59 percent.”

HP’s Goddard pointed out that while it’s good for PSPs to reduce their impact on the environment, it’s also good business. He also points to three key reasons behind his statement.

Going green allows PSPs to differentiate themselves and win business. “Implementing sustainable practices helps to strengthen customer relationships, to retain and grow existing accounts, and even to win new business from elsewhere,” said Goddard. “Make no mistake, customers are taking a closer look at their own commitment to the environment, which links to what they are sourcing from suppliers and the production methods employed by those suppliers. If a PSP can prove that they’re utilizing printing technologies and substrates that reduce the impact on the environment, then they’re already meeting the requirements of many customers. At the same time, the PSP is well on the way to putting the right processes in place to suit the more exacting requirements of those larger—and perhaps more lucrative—accounts seeking official certification from what is ultimately a preferred list of suppliers.”

Sustainable practices help to reduce costs—even as noted by Perez above. “Time and again we hear from PSPs that have implemented sustainable practices in a serious and structured way in their business that they have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of money that they have saved,” said Goddard. “A key step is to put in place processes that track metrics such as energy and water use and the levels of waste of media and other consumables in the business. Once programs are established to focus on reducing these levels of consumption and waste, the savings that can be achieved often offer rapid payback on sustainability investments.”

Sustainability initiatives also need to involve a broad cross-section of the employee base. According to Goddard, there is widespread evidence that employees relish the opportunity to be involved in a sustainability initiative—“to try something a little different, to work on problems in cross-functional teams, to do their bit for the environment, and likely to contribute to improving their own working environment at the same time. Many print shops that have undertaken a sustainability program have seen a noticeable improvement in employee engagement,” said Goddard.

If your company doesn’t have a sustainability plan, is it time to develop one? Not only are more and more of the younger generation of print buyers looking for green solutions, but “going green” enables print service providers to give back to the environment and community—and even can help your bottom line in the long run.