The Learning Curve: Fostering Sustainable Printing is All About Education

The prevailing attitude toward environmentally sustainable printing has typically ebbed and flowed with economic conditions. In the past couple of years, though, even if the economy hasn’t been soaring, issues of sustainability have been on the upswing. Still, wherever you look in the industry, and whomever you talk to, the consensus is that there needs to be more education and communication—both within the industry to printers and print buyers, as well as outside the industry to the general public. What is sustainability and what are sustainable best practices? Does it entail a major investment? Does it pay off in the long run? Does “going paperless” mean “going green”? Why should I bother?

A lot of the impetus for sustainable print practices has come from large print buyers—the Sprints and the Starbucks—and it has typically been at events like the GreenBiz Forum, the Sustainable Packaging Forum, and special sessions at Graphics of the Americas, Graph Expo, and the SGIA Expo that green proponents and advocates share their stories and case studies. In a lot of these venues, it can be very much like preaching to the converted, and it’s clear that further outreach efforts are needed, and not just to those in the industry today, but to the next generation of print shop owners and managers.

One of the most vocal and visible advocates of green issues in the industry has been the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership which, since its founding in 2008, has developed what many see as the gold standard for certifying print facilities as environmentally sustainable and responsible. To date, the SGP has certified more than 50 facilities in North America, has forged alliances with a broad cross-section of manufacturers and suppliers to the industry, and has even extended its outreach to Australia.

“I think everybody is eager to learn more about what they can personally do to make a difference, but it’s confusing,” said Martine Padilla, SGP’s Executive Director. “SGP has the opportunity within the graphic communication industry to have information available to everybody about all the different aspects of sustainability.”

To that effort, SGP is in the process of developing a Web portal, one of the first fruits of its new Education Committee, that offers advice and guidance for print providers and print buyers who have specific questions or problems around sustainability. Take, for example, substrates. “We want to have a portal of information that would offer what, for their business, might be the good, better, and best products for them to use based on a sustainability positioning,” said Padilla. “We hear a lot, ‘We want to do something, we want to be more sustainable, can you just tell us what to use? Give us the answer!’” Recognizing that in an industry as diverse as graphic communication, there is no single answer, no one-size-fits-all solution, the goal will be to offer advice based on what an inquiring company’s specific objectives and processes are.

The Education Committee is also developing a Webinar series, as well as what it is calling “SGP Strategist Certification,” a curriculum that trains individuals on all the nuances of sustainability. “Now instead of having one person at an organization who is an advocate of sustainability practices, we can have two or three.” Or even more, if that’s what an organization wants. The goal is to foster more of a sense of community in which everyone supports each other in achieving sustainability goals, and a phalanx of subject matter experts (SMEs) is on hand to help offer guidance. Another initiative the SGP plans to roll out by the end of the year is a “brand challenge,” a kind of sustainability “stump the band” in which companies that have a specific sustainability objective they need to meet can throw out a challenge to the SGP’s network of SMEs and crowdsource a solution.

“We’re all on this path together,” said Padilla. “Let’s play in the same sandbox.”

Part of that sandbox play will take place in conjunction with the SGIA Expo in Las Vegas this October. On October 23, the SGP will be hosting a one-day event—details are still being hammered out—that will pull together everyone in the sustainable printing community “and have a really rich day of presentations, case studies, and conversations,” said Padilla. “We’ve never really gotten together as a community before, so that’s exciting.”

Sustainability: The Next Generation

Educational outreach efforts like the SGP’s are important, but raising the issues earlier is just as, if not more, vital. When we think of education, we naturally think of schools, and when we think of printing industry schools, we perhaps think of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Stephen Whittaker, a sustainability consultant for the printing industry and a veteran of Rochester, NY’s Monroe Litho, has been an adjunct professor at RIT for more than 20 years, and, for the past four years, has incorporated environmental sustainability into the curriculum of a course he teaches for the school’s Operations Management program. Attracting a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, the course studies the various aspects of sustainability, and uses as a reference the guidelines for SGP certification.

“My focus is to really teach these young people that they can have a high, high impact on this stuff in the near future,” said Whittaker.

The class’s final project requires the students to develop an SGP registration document for a printing company. The various components of the standard are divided among the students in the class, and they research their given topic, giving presentations and writing papers along the way. At the end of the course, all the elements are combined into a comprehensive mock registration document, which is then copied, wire-bound, and given to each student, who can then take it on job interviews.

Whittaker has found that environmental sustainability is very much a top-of-mind issue for college-age people. “It’s a very high priority in their lives, they’re very excited about it, and very inquisitive,” said Whittaker. “What I like most about working with them is that they ask me questions about things I never thought about before.” Whittaker had one student with a chemistry background who asked about alternate uses for used printing ink other than fuel. “‘Has anyone thought about using it for tar, or using it in paint?’” he said. “And we had a two-hour dialogue about the things you can do with used ink.”

Whittaker is pushing to include a class more specifically devoted to environmental sustainability. Last fall, he proposed a class to RIT’s Curriculum Committee called “Quality Sustainability Issues.” “I have a glimmer of hope,” he said. “They said it’s something they would like to consider doing.

“That would be exciting.” 

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