Taking "Green" Seriously

When it comes to so-called “green printing,” a subject near and dear to his heart, “perception is not reality,” asserted Don Carli, senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC) in New York, who has tracked print-related green advancements for more than a decade. After all, the print and paper industries are not what tree-hugging conservationists would have us believe (think dark, dirty visions of desecrated virgin forests and overfilling landfills). But here’s a marketing tip for wide-format shops: Save your breath. That was the conclusion of some highly animated dialog at a pre-drupa PrintCity Alliance event near Munich in February.

Explaining how paper is a crop that is farmed and highly sustainable falls on so many deaf ears. For those who might be listening, arguments against anti-environmental accusations sound so defensive. It reminds me of a wise Chicago football coach who advised his young, emotive high-school quarterback (me) that the only time you can objectively complain about poor officiating is when you win the game. “If you’ve lost, no one will listen to your ‘sour grapes,’” Mike Hughes explained.

An interesting question, though: What’s the use of our highly fragmented printing industry trying to fight the powerful tech/IT lobby in Washington? It’s not like we can match dollar for dollar the deep-pocket combination of the Big 8: Amazon, Apple, Dell, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Yahoo! (Apple Inc. alone spent $1.3 million on lobbying efforts earlier this year, according to First Street. Last spring, it opened a $1 billion, 500,000-square-foot iData Center in rural North Carolina and is planning another in central Oregon, the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting.)

Incidentally, IBM ranked #1 and Dell came in at #5 among US firms in Newsweek’s annual Green Rankings last fall. Weyerhaeuser cracked the top 200 (#165), categorized under “real estate” (not paper), while “materials” companies Domtar, International Paper, and MeadWestvaco were #331, #333, and #416, respectively. RR Donnelley, the only printing firm represented on the list of 500, placed at #299. Much higher up, HP (#2), Adobe (#14), and Xerox (#46) help to bridge the tech-print gap somewhat. Rather than dwelling on muddy green statistics, however, our marketing focus should be on what print is, not on what it is not, recommended the PrintCity dinner crowd. Tout the features and benefits of what print can do—and does, quite well.


Much More Than Product Innovation

So, what is new in environmentally sustainable, wide-format printing? For one, pressure is mounting to eliminate polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic from packaging and, now, billboards, noted Carli. 3M’s Commercial Graphics division, for example, is one of several large-format suppliers now offering non-PVC film options. We are beginning to see substrate developments such as woven and bio-based materials that extend far beyond FSC paper certifications and recycling initiatives now commonplace among US print firms, Carli added.

He also points to a new company called Novus Imaging. Founded by two former EFI heads, Mike Mills (engineering) and Kevin Sykes (sales), Novus has developed the Synergia H, a 3.2-meter hybrid printer that produces true grayscale at speeds up to 1,000 square feet per hour. Its technology is based on binary epoxy ink (AquEpoxy), explained Carli, who first saw the equipment demonstrated at the SGIA show in New Orleans last October.

“It’s water-based, so the photo initiators cure without UV,” he said. “They just need a little IR [infrared] kick. Getting rid of energy and solvent issues is a pretty big deal,” he added. (MyPrintResource.com agreed, proclaiming Novus Imaging as one of our Top Three Things of Interest at SGIA) But innovative products like the Synergia H UV-alternative printer are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, according to Carli, who also has guest lectured in the M.A. program in Graphic Communications Management and Technology at NYU-SCPS. Print/media buyers are the key to increasing the demand for greener print, he contends.


Red, White, and Blue—But Not So Green

While leaders in Europe, India, and other parts of the world are genuinely concerned about energy flows, waste, and social issues as they relate to the manufacture of products, do the vast majority of American consumers really care about iPad factory worker’s rights in China or how much energy the search-engine servers in massive data centers consume? (Energy consumption in these facilities amounts to an astonishing 1.5 to two percent of global energy demand (three percent in the US) and is growing some 12 percent per year, according to Greenpeace.) Yet in the US, since the economic collapse in 2007, surveys show that the vast majority of Americans really could care less about the environment: “They [now] are apathetic about sustainability,” Carli pointed out at GRAPH EXPO’s Executive Outlook Conference last September. “Most people in the US think there’s a big over-reaction to the environment.”

Carli pointed to the “raft of [US] political candidates who don’t believe that climate change exists.” Citing the televised presidential debates as a prime example, he wondered if most Americans even are aware of the subliminal advertising sponsorships. “‘Clean coal’ and natural gas – the latter of which now is a relatively inexpensive energy source—are spending hundreds of millions of dollars” to get their pro-fossil fuel messages heard and seen, he said.

Many print firms seem oblivious, too, or at least indifferent. At GRAPH EXPO 2011, Carli discussed the digital-vs.-print debate, including some blatant false claims about the print medium not being eco-friendly. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is revising its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly known as the Green Guides, which provide guidance on specific green claims, such as biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content, and ozone safe. Carli said he knows of no print firm challenging any deceptive advertising or marketing claims. “It doesn’t cost anything,” he added, “and the burden of proof falls on the company making the [allegedly unsubstantiated] claims.” But still, there has been no action, no challenges from the ink-on-paper side.

One veteran print buyer at a large ad agency’s Chicago office concurred: “Most of my out-of-home clients are honestly not even aware of the ‘green’ movement,” he offered under condition of anonymity. US media buyers purchase what their clients demand, and the lion’s share is not demanding green, which does not surprise Carli in the least. “It’s just not seen as a critical issue here [in the US],” he said, blaming the North American media in part for giving environmental issues a “light touch” and giving not-so-green companies a “free pass.”

There are exceptions, of course. Some companies like Nike, Puma, and Wal-Mart are taking a broad, hard look at their entire supply chains—everything from toxins in products to worker’s rights in emerging countries and progressive recycling/recovery initiatives. Sustainable supply chain scorecards are being developed by Ford, General Mills, IKEA, Procter & Gamble (P&G), and others. “Their approach has more of a lifecycle perspective,” Carli suggested. “It’s far more substantive, systemic, and quantitative, like what I see in Europe.”

The aforementioned 3M says it has completed some 8,600 projects that have resulted in the elimination of more than three billion pounds of pollution and saved the company nearly $1.4 billion. The firm concentrates on environmentally preferred packaging, including a boxless packaging initiative (which reduces waste such as boxes and end plugs) and a recycled resin end-plug initiative. It also has many highly durable and flexible UV-curable inkjet inks with low VOC content.

3M’s sustainability work is guided by three strategic principles: economic success, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. The company uses lifecycle management tools to evaluate a product’s environmental impact prior to launch, and it continuously improves on products and processes through both innovation and Six Sigma principles. In February, 3M Commercial Graphics joined the non-profit Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) as a Platinum Patron of the non-profit certification organization. “We recognize that what’s good for the environment can also be good for business,” stated Jean Sweeney, VP of 3M’s Environmental, Health, and Safety Operations. “Our sustainability efforts are focused both on reducing our environmental footprint and growing 3M through the creation of products that help our customers address their sustainability challenges.”

A sampling of SGP-certified LF print firms includes POP producer GFX International (Grayslake, IL), Infinity Images (Portland, OR), and Image Options (Foothill Ranch, CA), whose 11 printers include an Epson GS6000 Eco-Solvent and an Epson 11880 Aqueous, both up to 64 inches wide. In-store graphics provider Great Big Pictures (Madison, WI) uses low-VOC UV printing with a fleet of Durst wide-format, roll-to-roll, and continuous board-fed machines as well as VOC-free, aqueous inkjet technology from HP. Meisel (Carrollton, TX) features an e:Graphics line of environmentally conscious products (e:CoreBoard, e:DuraBoard, e:Poplin, e:Vinyl). The SPG-certified firm employs 100 percent VOC-free UV flatbed, roll-to-roll, and dye-sublimation printing processes.

In Maine, SGP-certified Designtex Digital Surfacing Imaging (formerly Portland Color) uses latex inkjet technology in the HP DesignJet L65500. The new aqueous ink eliminates VOCs and is designed to replace traditional solvent printing, yielding high resolution and color accuracy. The firm also can print direct-to-substrate (DTS) on its HP FB6100?UV curable flatbed and roll-to-roll printer, which is compatible with a range of substrates and media made from recycled and recyclable materials.


A “Wicked” Problem

When it comes to demanding greener solutions and alternatives, however, the media supply chain is different. “There’s not a comparable concentration of demand as in Wal-Mart’s case,” Carli noted. Even large retailers and wholesalers have the same fragmentation problem as printers: There are so many of them that it is difficult to make an environmental dent in the supply chain. Carli pointed to the example of consumer goods giant P&G, the world’s largest advertiser, which spends more than $9 billion per year on paid media. But with nearly half a trillion dollars spent globally on advertising in 2011, “even P&G doesn’t buy enough to implement truly sustainable practices,” he said. Carli calls it “a wicked problem…that’s not going away.”

In a greenish glint of hope, Carli mentioned that the non-profit organization Two Sides started up in the US last year. Begun in Europe in 2008 to promote the responsible production and use of printing and paper, Two Sides encourages the use of print as an attractive, practical, and sustainable communications medium. Its more than 1,000 members represent the entire print media supply chain, including major pulp and paper producers, merchants, brokers, ink and chemical manufacturers, prepress, press, printing, finishing, and publishing. Two Sides is now present in 12 countries with links to similar projects in Australia and Japan.

Carli sees evidence that such coalition is the answer, but the thrust needs to come from marketers, not from printers. We’re seeing the power of strength in numbers in Europe. Mundo Media (see sidebar), for instance, is not driven by printing or paper companies. “It is an organization of media buyers,” he explained. And PrintCity works cooperatively with Print Power, a European initiative dedicated to promoting print media through marketing and advertising.

One US green highlight, according to Carli, comes from the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), which is continuing its commitment to sustainability through a “Better Practices, Better Planet 2020” campaign. AF&PA is establishing the most extensive set of quantifiable sustainability goals for a major U.S. manufacturing industry. “We have an active dairy board and a meat board in this country,” Carli added, “so it’s about time we have an engaged paper/print board.”

AF&PA has set specific goals for increasing recovery of paper for recycling, increasing energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting sustainable forestry practices, while continuing to strive for the safest workplaces possible for employees. The organization will provide transparent updates on its progress through a biennial Sustainability Report.