Doing the Right Thing

How to balance your company’s needs with government regulations and customer demand for products that are environmentally friendly and cost effective.

At my company, our team continually struggles to find the best mix of materials and methods to complete each job in a responsible manner while remaining competitive in the marketplace. It isn’t always easy. If we’re honest with ourselves, large-format digital printing has a substantial impact on the environment. The raw materials we use (plastics, metals, inks, laminates, etc.) don’t always do well in landfills. These components are a huge part of our manufacturing process, and because we work in large formats, we produce a lot of them.

As printers, we tend to focus on substrates when we consider sustainability, although altering our work environment and encouraging our vendors and clients to practice sustainable business practices are other things we can do to make our little corner of the world a bit cleaner. Substrates would certainly seem to be low-hanging fruit for anyone in our industry, yet a recent ISA/InfoTrends study showed that printers and their clients aren’t enamored with eco-friendly media. Of 11 considerations that factor into the choice of media for a job, environmental impact ranked dead last in the study. Durability, quality, and price led the pack. That’s not too surprising, since providing a quality product at a competitive price would seem to be the primary objective for most manufacturers, and digital printing companies are no different.

The hurdles to making meaningful advancements in sustainability remain high. Our clients, mostly brand marketers and the agencies that work with them, often say they want environmentally friendly solutions. But few are willing to be eco-friendly if it means a higher cost, and by and large, digital printers view “green” substrates as being low performers. So how do you balance your company’s needs with government regulations and customer demand for products that are both environmentally friendly and cost effective?

Intelligent design
One answer might be to look upstream at how the prints you produce are engineered. Point-of-purchase designers, event producers and others who specify the jobs we produce have a great influence on the sustainability of the final product. Among other things, they choose the materials that will be used and can determine how the sign will be disposed of after the advertising campaign.
Recently, the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute (POPAI), a global association covering marketing at retail, has introduced a sustainability standard that takes a proactive approach to responsible display design. The fee-based accreditation program, currently offered in the UK, focuses on seven areas:
1. Corporate
2. Premises
3. Design
4. Plant, materials and processes
5. Supply-chain management
6. Logistics
7. End of life

POPAI’s program looks at the environmental impact of retail displays throughout their life cycle, from choice of vendors and raw materials to transportation and disposal. It stresses the importance of establishing company-wide policies that promote sustainable activities as a condition of accreditation. It also recognizes that the design process is where the majority of the decisions determining the environmental impact of a display are made, affecting such considerations as the materials that are specified, whether environmentally certified suppliers will be used, installation methods, disposal considerations, and more.

One goal of POPAI’s standard is to promote best practices and identify strategies that have been applied by designers to improve the environmental impact of their displays. Some specific examples they cite:

Design for disassembly/ deconstruction: By creating displays that can be easily dismantled, designers can make it easier for the components to be separated for recycling. If the display is made of one large part, disposal and recycling become arduous.

Weight of the display: Designers are striving to make displays as light as possible while taking into account other constraints such as durability and structural strength. Less weight often translates into less material content in the display, less energy used in manufacturing, and reduced fuel when transporting the units, all of which improve their environmental performance. A nice example is using a fabric and wire frame to create a retail sign instead of a rigid material. The graphic itself is not necessarily more environmentally friendly, but it will be much easier to ship.

Waste reduction: Increasingly, designers are conscious of over-packaging, inefficient use of materials, and other decisions that can create waste. If necessary, they redesign concepts to keep this to a minimum. They also consider energy efficiency, not just during manufacturing but also in the display itself if it is illuminated or has other energy requirements.

Product simplification: This strategy encourages designers to simplify designs and reduce the number of components, which, in turn, eases the manufacturing effort and saves on labor and material costs. Designers are also trying to keep the number of different materials used to a minimum to eliminate sorting that often impedes recycling.

Design for re-use and/or longevity: The best way to keep things out of landfills is to have them in the field longer. By purposefully engineering a display or component to be re-used, designers can reduce the number of replacement parts that have to be manufactured. To take this strategy even further, they can design units to be updated as new technologies, materials, or features are made available. Modular component design allows the external aesthetics and fasciae to be replaced to create a fresh, renovated look. This results in less waste and cost, as the internal modular components can be re-used time and again.

Similarly, designing more durable displays lessens the need to replace or repair them. Since there is a tradeoff between the weight and durability of a display, the designer may need to decide which will have the least environmental impact. A very simple example is the choice between a $25 banner stand that is cheap to ship but can only be used a couple of times versus a heavier one that costs $150 but comes with a lifetime warranty. (For what it’s worth, we sell a lot more of the $25 ones.)

Specification of alternate materials: Environmentally preferred materials may fall into a variety of categories—use of recycled content or natural fibers, biodegradable, organic, locally manufactured, lower hazardous-material content, sustainably sourced, higher strength/weight ratio, and more. As the InfoTrends study I cited earlier shows, weighing a substrate’s sustainability versus its performance and cost is always a balancing act. All other things being equal, the distance the substrate travels could de the determining factor, and providing a better environmental solution for the client could be as simple as that.

Closed-loop material cycle: The traditional manufacturing cycle involves extracting raw materials from the earth, forming them into the product, using them, and then disposing them in a landfill. This is known as the material line. With a closed loop, or cradle-to-cradle cycle, materials are extracted, formed into products, and recycled into other materials after the product’s useful life. This system reduces landfill waste as well as the harmful extraction of raw materials.

End of life: The ultimate destination of a P-O-P display, poster, or banner after it has served its purpose in-store is sometimes out of the hands of the producer or designer, but it’s important to recognize that an intelligent design can play a significant part in the outcome. Consider a display in which plastic and metal components are glued to one another instead of being bolted or clipped together. The first approach will be much more difficult to reuse or recycle than the second.

Sustainable graphics production
In 2008, four major trade associations—Printing Industries of America (PIA), Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), and National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers—started an initiative to encourage sustainable practices in the printing industry. The result was the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP, www.sgppartnership.org), a fantastic step towards changing the printing industry’s mindset toward environmental responsibility.


Similar to the POPAI program, SGP involves a certification process designed to warrant that sustainable practices are used throughout a printing company. Prior to SGP, no parameters existed that defined what a printing company actually does to be considered sustainable. “Green” products were marketed to printers, but they didn’t address the manufacturing process. As explained on the Partnership’s website, SGP evaluates three main criteria during the certification process to evaluate a company’s sustainability endeavors:

• The Product, including the materials used to produce products such as substrates, inks, and coatings.
• The Process used in the printing facility, including the printing equipment and supporting technology.
• The Envelope, meaning the facility in its entirety, including energy consumption, employees, and supporting activities.

SGP-certified printers can promote themselves as organizations that have tighter production guidelines, are more efficient, and are ecologically responsible. Today’s global marketplace requires you to stand out and differentiate yourself from the competition, and having independent confirmation of your sustainable practices can be a factor that sets you apart. Investing in sustainability is not only a sound business practice, can reduce your overhead costs and your environmental footprint.

SGIA also offers a 4-Step Sustainability Action Plan that can help you integrate sustainable practices in your organization. It’s based on the Plan/Do/Check/Act model, with suggested steps and resources provided at each stage covering everything from securing top management commitment to identifying and resolving challenges after a sustainability initiative has been implemented. More information is available at www.sgia.org/graphic_imagers/govt/sustainability/index.cfm.

SGIA members can also participate in peer–to–peer network groups to discuss sustainable business practices. The group meets every other week and is led by Marci Kinter, SGIA’s vice-president of government and business information. Contact Marci at govtaffairs@sgia.org for more information.

Final thoughts
Consumers care about doing business with responsible companies. They want to buy products that such companies produce, and sustainability will increasingly influence their purchasing decisions in the future. In several consumer product categories, sustainability-related considerations have risen in comparison to conventional buying factors such as brand image and whether the product is seen as being a premium or luxury item.


You need to be a part of this wave. We haven’t yet seen the full effects in the P-O-P and signage industries yet, but we will. The price and performance of alternate technologies have been the biggest impediments. Having a sustainability program seems to go hand in hand with being a well-run shop that makes a quality product—the first time, every time. I truly believe that as individual companies and as an industry, we want to be seen as responsible businesses that do the right thing.

What’s our next step at Mandel? We’re looking into SGP certification.


 

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