Sustainability & Print: What Today’s Consumer Expects and How to Deliver
We live in the age of climate change — and this has implications for our industry and the consumer perceptions around it.
Consider that, according to Nielsen research, (“The Evolution of the Sustainability Mindset” published Nov. 2018) 81% of global consumers surveyed “feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. This passion for corporate responsibility is shared “across gender lines and generations,” the research reveals, with “Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen X” leading the charge.
Nielsen research also shows that consumers will spend upwards of $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021. So, what do environmentally-conscious consumers — and the brands they love — expect from print today, and how can PSPs successfully prepare for what is certain to be an even more sustainable-oriented future?
Quality Comes First
“The overarching concern of our print buyers is to make sure they get their pieces produced in the right equation in terms of quality and price point,” says Erik Norman, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Minneapolis-based Bolger, a full-service digital and offset printing company offering marketing automation, multi-channel marketing, and asset management services. “But there is also a strong focus on sustainability. A big chunk of our revenues is directly related to consumers who hold sustainability in high regard.”
Trevi Frazier is a business process analyst for Miller Zell, an Atlanta-based PSP specializing in redesigning — and printing materials for — retailers and other brick-and-mortar businesses to create a better consumer experience. She sees demand for eco-friendly printing processes rising as well.
“A lot of our clients are involved in their own initiatives,” says Frazier. “Walmart is really big on it. We have different projects underway to improve our sustainability, and we keep our employees educated on what they need to do.”
According to Lane Hickey-Wiggins, president and CEO of DPRINT, a screen and digital printing company headquartered in Lakeland, Fla., more large companies are incorporating sustainability requirements into their RFPs, which she calls, “a great step in the right direction toward evolving the sustainability of printing.”
Consumer perceptions are changing rapidly, adds Natalie Sabin, national account director for Clearwater, Fla.-based GSP Companies, a technology company offering both software solutions and print production capabilities worldwide. “If you are not doing something in this day and age, you are being irresponsible,” she says. “That is a clear perception that is out there.”
All four companies are part of the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP), and have received SGP’s coveted certification by completing the organization’s “whole-facility” program.
“Certifications are important today,” emphasizes Norman. “We really like what SGP is practicing and promoting.” He adds that other certifications, such as those from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and ISO 14001, are also valuable credentials for PSPs to have.
“Having certifications makes the buyer feel good, and creates a situation in which no one is going to challenge that choice in a vendor,” he says. “We believe that if you don’t have documented policies around sustainability, measuring, tracking, and putting key metrics around it, it’s not at the heart of who you are as a company. At Bolger, it is part of our key performance indicators.”
Benchmark — Don’t Greenwash
Frazier also sees an increasing demand among clients to see measurable proof when it comes to sustainability claims.
“When we have RFPs, there are questions about our environmental practices,” she says. “We are finding that more and more so. Sometimes they want to know what kinds of inks we use, or they want proof of some of our initiatives. They are asking for data on it, and looking for an overall view of how sustainable our operations are.”
GSP Companies’ clients, adds Sabin, have expectations — and requirements — that vary broadly. “Some of our customers are just talking about sustainable materials; others are much further along,” she says. “We have a customer that will only work with SGP-certified print facilities. Another customer has a goal for themselves to be climate-positive in the not-too-distant future. It can range from recycling clients to customers that have very strict climate and material goals for themselves and for us. California customers are further along in the sustainability conversation.”
For Bolger, success is continuously measured in several ways. For example, company documentation shows that Bolger recycles, “98% of its materials, and saves 20% as a result.” In 2019, yearly continuous improvement projects, “led Bolger to become an impressive facility in which zero product waste is sent to a landfill. Anything used to create a printed product is either environmentally friendly or recyclable. For example, paper and aluminum plates get recycled, ink is vegetable-based, and press washes are non-hazardous.”
Some of DPRINT’s more notable sustainability initiatives, says Hickey-Wiggins, include implementing LED bulbs and using metrics to monitor the company’s electricity, gas, and water usage.
She adds that DPRINT has made significant improvements in the reduction of paper waste. “We used to purchase paper towels to assist in cleaning up screens/ink waste, and switched over to using reusable cloth rags through Cintas,” Hickey-Wiggins notes. In fact, the company’s reduction of ink waste and efforts to recycle “everything possible from our operation and anything consumable” are enhancements that now define the company’s business model, she says.
“It is important to be aware of the little changes that can be made and, in turn, end up having a significant impact on our business — and even better — our planet,” says Hickey-Wiggins.
Miller Zell’s sustainable business practices are also a successful model for the industry. “One of the most impactful things we have done is to be able to recycle substrates,” says Frazier. “We invested in an intensifier that condenses substrates into material that can then be recycled and reused for another manufacturing purpose.”
Since November 2018, Miller Zell has generated more than 1.2 million kilowatt hours of its own energy using solar power, reduced greenhouse emissions equal to nearly 40,000 bags of recycled trash, and lowered its CO2 emissions by the equivalent of more than 100,000 gallons of consumed gasoline.
On the horizon for Miller Zell is a new initiative to go paperless. “We are talking about the shop floor, whereby in production you may find for each job a folder, sleeve, and up to eight pieces of paper today,” says Frazier. “We are hoping to very soon become one of the leading companies to go paperless.”
This will be achieved, she adds, through initiatives such as leveraging workflow automation technology and advancing the company’s MIS systems.
At GSP Companies, the organization’s Madison, Wis., print production facility has also implemented LED technology, replacing fluorescent lighting in the process.
“And a lot of print machines give off heat, and traditionally you would vent that heat outside,” says Sabin. “But we reroute the heat and have reclaimed it to heat our building interiors instead, filtering it to ensure the air quality.”
The company has also worked to reduce water consumption significantly and works with the local utility to buy all green power, based on wind and solar energy.
“One big initiative for the Madison facility is landfill diversion,” says Sabin. “The number one thing we have been doing over many years is to divert what we can from the landfill. For example, we recycle a lot of fabric and styrene. And excess banner vinyl is used to create pallets.”
Beyond Production Processes
While the production environment encompasses numerous processes PSPs can make greener, it is back-office operations that are often the trickiest to manage.
“The most challenging part of all this is in non-production facilities,” says Norman. “You have to insure employees are practicing sustainability with regards to the waste they generate in the office. You have to make sure employees become a consistent extension of what the company is striving to achieve.”
Hickey-Wiggins agrees. “Employees’ resistance to change is another hurdle we regularly work through,” she said.
This is often because employees find new, more sustainable business practices confusing to navigate, says Sabin. “When you announce a recycling program, everyone says, ‘Yes, great — let’s do it!’ Everyone has the right mindset. The specifics about what you can and can’t do, and all of the very detailed rules on what can and can’t be collected get in the way — and you can very quickly contaminate a bin of recyclables unwittingly.”
Plus, operating pressrooms sustainably can be costly. “We allocate constant R&D towards getting better materials, and toward finding out what’s new in machines that will support our goals — and printers are using less ink, power, and water today,” says Sabin. “All of this R&D takes a commitment of time and dollars.”
To move green initiatives forward, SGP advises companies to designate a sustainability champion when they first embark on the journey. And to obtain the organization’s environmental certification, a designated sustainability champion is required.
“This champion will become the subject matter expert and the touchpoint for the company’s sustainability initiatives, responsible for establishing the system driving certification,” the SGP website states. “To be successful, management recognizes that the champion will need to dedicate time each week towards this initiative so that sustainability becomes one part of their job responsibilities.”
Other SGP certification requirements posted on the organization’s website include showing “measurable improvement” in energy savings, waste reduction, emission reduction, and reduced resource consumption.
Choosing Like-Minded Suppliers
The quest for sustainability extends well beyond a PSP’s facility walls today. “For us, when we purchase products and services, we want to make sure our suppliers are aligned with our values,” says Norman. “We are going to partner with companies that share our values on sustainability.”
And once a PSP gets certified by SGP, says Norman, it is valuable for both the company — and the industry at large — for this news to be communicated to the marketplace.
“Our industry historically has had a bad rap,” he points out. “The misperception is that we can’t run environmentally-friendly businesses because of the inks we use, the electricity, etc. In fact, e-waste is more damaging than using renewable resources — and paper, for example, is a renewable resource. How we manage the waste streams and steer clients into choices that are a more ecologically sound can make a big difference. The printing industry can be a leading voice around sustainable practices.”
Hickey-Wiggins adds, “Individual printers can continue to take steps toward daily sustainable practices. Little things add up. Look at paper usage, look at waste — focus on how you, as the individual printer, can reduce those things. This industry has taken so many sustainable steps forward, and as technology continues to rapidly develop it will provide a platform for growth and continual evolution of the industry.”
Sabin emphasizes the importance of considering the entire lifecycle of each print. “There is a lot of speech out there that sounds like you are engaging in something or buying something that’s better for the environment,” she said. “For example, you are going to print something to be recycled at a store. But when it gets to the store, does the store know how to recycle it? Can it be done in their municipality? People are going through the motions because it sounds good. But we have to ensure the entire picture can really happen.”
Frazier also emphasizes the importance of industry-wide collaboration to truly embrace sustainability. “More companies need to pitch and share their ideas,” she notes. “For example, how did you become more efficient in terms of workflow? Sustainability isn’t achieved by one company or one person. It takes all of us working together.”