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Benefits and challenges of going green

Feature, Graphics | March 1, 2011 | By:

Four businesses share their successes and challenges in pursuing environmentally friendly practices.

“Going green” is the favored phrase for making environmentally friendly choices, but it can be a loaded topic. Three print shops and a fabric manufacturer share their stories of navigating the green waters, from operations to end products, and the results they’ve seen along the way.

Occupying a niche

When Andy Graham wanted to make his print business more environmentally sensitive, he turned to the industry for help. In 2007, the president of Portland Color in Portland, Maine, reached out to the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), which was already on a mission to help its constituency achieve a more sustainable product and process. He became a keen observer, learning from the trade organization as it deciphered the definition of sustainability.

“It really informed my thinking about what things we could do to call ourselves a green printer,” Graham recalls. “That process made me realize that being sustainable was much more than just buying a fabric that had recycled content.”

In 2008, SGIA unveiled is Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership, which certifies print shops as green. Graham jumped at the chance, producing an annual report that outlines Portland Color’s smart sustainable solutions, including:

  • Establishing an internal committee to generate green ideas and creating a process for implementing them
  • Purchasing meters to determine power usage for different pieces of equipment
  • Installing low-flush toilets
  • Completing a thermal scan to determine the building’s energy efficiency
  • Replacing paper towels with hand dryers
  • Composting kitchen waste
  • Recycling and repurposing about 85 percent of materials, such as fabric scraps.

As he learned more about what it meant to run a green business, Graham looked at sustainability in a new light. “It is so complex trying to figure out how to do the right thing that we are constantly trying to flesh out what the actual effects are,” he says. “If you take an action, what are the ramifications elsewhere of that action?” He cites buying a latex printer as an example. Even though the latex inks are water-based and have relatively few VOCs, the drying and curing process uses a lot of electricity. “What’s the proper balance there?” Graham asks.

To answer his own questions, Graham asks more questions. For instance, when he attends trade shows, he seeks out the engineers who are behind the product and inquires about the composition of an ink, when they made it and the technology behind it. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles Graham has faced is misinformation about the definition of sustainability. To get a tighter grasp of the concept, he credits the certification from an outside organization, which required him to deeply examine his green business process.

Implementing a sustainable business model has its benefits, Graham says. “I have made my company more efficient and productive because I am paying attention to how we operate. Secondly, it allows us to occupy a niche. We are going into accounts in New York City and promoting our awareness of sustainability. We explain to them that it won’t cost them more to do business with us, and as the pressure to produce green products increases, we can provide the appropriate solutions.”

Graham also has seen improvements to the bottom line through factors such as energy savings and appropriately disposing of non-recyclable waste. “Green is the right thing to do and is cheaper in the long run,” he says. “If you simply think about how you could run your business more efficiently, you inevitably will become part of the sustainability movement.”

Natural selections

For the last decade, the topic of sustainability has been on Lynn Krinsky’s mind, but recently undergoing a detailed green certification process solidified her commitment. Krinsky, president of Stella Color in Seattle, chose the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership to assist in the journey. “You can make all the green claims you want, but what do they mean?” she says. “SGP certification was the best way to validate what we were doing and to find out other things we needed to do to make a difference.”

The first step in the process: getting organized. The certification requires print shops to formally write up procedures, then communicate them with employees and customers so everyone knows what they’re doing. In fact, appropriate documentation plays a key role in being green. “For example, it’s just not good enough to say that we maintain our equipment, because how would anyone know?” Krinsky notes. “We now have maintenance logs for every piece of equipment, and they are checked often. Your business is more sustainable when you take care of things inside the shop that run more efficiently. As a result, you offer better services to your customers at better quality.”

In addition to the quality record keeping, Stella Color implemented a series of eco-friendly changes, such as recycling as many materials as possible, composting kitchen waste, reusing packaging for shipping, and utilizing solvent-free inks. Krinsky’s view on sustainability became more focused, too. “Sustainability is not just about having a green material,” she says. “If you don’t treat your employees well, if you leave the lights on all night long, if you keep the heat at 75 degrees and if you do poor quality work, what good is it?”

Along the way, Krinsky found an unexpected partner in going green: the government. A few years ago, she changed lights to more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs through the help of a subsidized program offered by the utility company. The cost to make the switch ran around $12,000, about half of which was paid by Stella Color.

“Not only did we save money, but the lighting was so much better afterwards,” Krinsky recalls.

Another program through the city of Seattle helped Krinsky pay for a new energy-efficient compressor. “We all complain about the government, but there are a lot of programs out there at the city, county and state levels that help make sustainable changes easier.”

By implementing a strong sustainability policy, Stella Color has been able to educate current and potential customers alike. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Krinsky notes. “I’ve had customers who have called me asking for soy ink, and I have to explain that’s not the kind of printing we do. Or they might think that an outdoor sign made of cardboard is green, when it could wash away in the rain. Then it’s gone, and that isn’t very sustainable, either.”

In other instances, a business will issue a request for proposal that inquires about certification or a formalized management plan. “If they are asking for those and time and time again you can’t produce them, you’re probably not going to get the work,” Krinsky says. “Sustainability is about everything you do in your business—and making sure you stay in business.”

Simple changes, big results

Nora Norby is no stranger to the concept of sustainability. Before she owned her business, Banner Creations Inc. of Minneapolis, Minn., Norby worked for an organization that taught people how to conserve energy through a few simple lifestyle changes. The same lessons have served her well as she has implemented green initiatives in her print shop. “There are so many things you can do that don’t cost a lot of money,” Norby notes.

The business’s eco-friendly efforts have extended to products used and offered. By the early 1990s, Norby was already using water-based inks for screen printing, then dye sublimation. “As I learned more about solvent inks and the chemicals needed to clean screens after their use, I made the switch,” she recalls.

One of Banner Creations’ hallmark green products is Ecophab™, a textile made from 100-percent post-consumer soda bottles that can be recycled and reused at the end of its life.

Norby has created indoor banners, backdrops, aprons, shower curtains and lamp shades from the fabric, but it wasn’t an automatic sell to customers. “We’ve been printing on this stuff for many years, but at first we hardly sold any,” Norby explains. “We would take it to trade shows and people would say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and that was about it.” Sales would come from like-minded individuals, such as the Organic Growers Association.

These days, about half of Banner Creations’ orders are printed on Ecophab, which Norby attributes to consumer education. “You have to make people aware of the possibilities, but it hasn’t been an overnight success by any means,” she says. “I think people are also taking global warming more seriously than they did five or 10 years ago. And a company feels good about themselves when buying this kind of product.

Another important factor: smart use of fabric. “If customers are willing to either change the orientation of a banner or change the size slightly, they can get better usage from fabric and thus waste less.”

Even though consumers are becoming more amenable to the idea of green, Norby says that education is an ongoing process. “There is so much information available now, and frankly, it’s always changing. You have to stay on top of everything and keep your customers informed.”

The path to going green can have bumps, Norby acknowledges. Still, Norby has seen plenty of cost savings through her company’s actions. “You just have to look at all parts of your business and what you can do to save money. Start with the simple things first,” she advises. “Going green means being more thoughtful about your actions.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer in Pine City, Minn., who specializes in interior design, residential construction and architecture.

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