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Sustainability: State of the industry

Feature, Graphics | January 1, 2013 | By:

Throughout the entire supply chain, the fabric graphics market is stepping up its green game.

Sustainability programs in the business world have shifted from nice-to-have to must-have. What once started out as a marketing advantage is now a strategic, even competitive platform. More than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies issue sustainability reports, meaning that they’re looking for vendors of all sizes who can help attain their eco-friendly goals. Even small businesses and nonprofits are following suit. All this spells good news for the fabric graphics market.

“In recent years, many end users of graphic materials have a strict corporate social responsibility policy,” says Alex Dowdeswell, CEO of Natural AdCampaign Ltd.“The graphics shop can offer a product that is aligned to this [mission], and it gives them the ability to show something different and win new business.”

The growth of sustainable textiles

As companies big and small look toward more sustainable media for their advertising, branding or trade show campaigns, fabric manufacturers are producing more environmentally friendly alternatives to materials such as polyester, a petroleum-based synthetic product, and PVC, which emits toxic additives.

Fisher Textiles in Indian Trail, N.C., used recycled materials when developing its green line, called Enviro-Tex. The fabrics are made with Repreve®, a yarn produced from a variety of waste streams, including post-consumer plastics and post-industrial waste.

Two years ago, the company introduced its Enviro-Tex Plus styles, made solely from 100 percent post-consumer waste. The shift “improved the product’s color, making it whiter and more desirable,” says Sharon Roland, advertising, promotion and publicity manager at Fisher Textiles. The non-coated Enviro-Tex collection is compatible with dye sublimation, UV and latex printing.

For its part, Pacific Coast Fabrics in Gardena, Calif., was on the lookout for a fabric made of recycled content that also performed well. In mid-2012, the company introduced Deko-Green, a textile created from 100 percent recycled PET (soda bottles) filament produced in a Swiss mill and then woven in Germany. The product also is 100 percent recyclable.

“After receiving positive feedback from our partner printer who provided trials on a variety of print machine and printing methods, we knew that we had a recycled fabric that printed to the same quality standards of any non-recycled fabric,” says Jeff Sanders, digital fabrics sales manager of Pacific Coast Fabrics, adding that Deko-Green performs on dye sublimation, direct sublimation, latex and UV print platforms.

Meanwhile, Natural AdCampaign Ltd, an environmental business headquartered in London, wanted to develop a naturally based printable fabric after seeing a void in the industry. “There were no non-petroleum materials available in the world’s market, and the realities of recycling of petroleum-based products such as polyethylene (PE) or PVC are extremely low,” says Dowdeswell.

“Consumer awareness of environmental and sustainable issues is increasing, and we felt the printing industry in particular—which relies on petroleum-based materials that are used for a relatively short period of time before being disposed of—needed a viable and competitive alternative,” Dowdeswell continues. “Our products had to be truly ‘green,’ though, and not a variant of existing materials that often do not do what they claim or are still using the original scarce resources.”

To that end, the company developed NatureWoven™ Chorus, made from annually renewable plant materials. “The plant materials are fast growing, absorb significant CO2 during growth, and have relatively low industrialization to produce,” Dowdeswell explains. “It is a significant improvement on oil-based substrates that are non-renewable and take a lot of energy to produce.”

What’s more, Chorus is compostable/biodegradable after its use, providing nutrients for new plant life. Useable inks include UV, HP’s latex and the water-based Sepiax.

When the outdoor advertising industry started looking for alternatives to PVC billboards, Cooley Group heeded the call. Working with several of the industry’s largest companies and print service providers, Cooley developed a seamless 5-meter-wide sustainable billboard product. Known as EnviroFlex, the material is made with polyethylene, which Cooley says is the world’s most recycled plastic. The product also is 100 percent recyclable.

“It’s much lighter than typical PVC so a lot fewer raw materials are used,” says Bryan Rose, vice president and general manager of the commercial graphics division at Cooley Group in Pawtucket, R.I. “Because the material is lighter, it’s less expensive to ship. Polyethylene is completely free of toxic chemicals like chlorine and phthalates.”

EnviroFlex’s lightweight properties translate into other benefits. Adds Rose: “We can put more yards on a roll, which allows customers to be more efficient and reduce waste. The lighter material also is safer and easier to install.”

The company first introduced EnviroFlex in late 2011 with a full commercial launch in September 2012. The product line—which is printable with UV inks on direct-to-media printers— faced several challenges it needed to overcome. In certain instances early in the product’s development, the inks had trouble fully adhering to the substrate; Cooley Group has since developed a new formulation to overcome the potential concern.

Additionally, the PE needed to perform in an outdoor environment as well as its PVC counterpart does, since a typical interstate billboard is up for at least a year and goes up and down six times throughout the country.

Inks, printers improve green performance

Like fabric producers, ink and printer manufacturers are undergoing a green evolution. Splash of Color in Richardson, Texas, supplies both dye sublimation and disperse dye inks for the direct-to-fabric printing market. “The primary carrier in our inks is water-based, making them quite eco-friendly,” says Keith Faulkner, president of Splash of Color.

Such water-based inks make for a healthier work space, too, Faulkner notes. “Shops that employ solvent printers to produce vinyl signage and graphics are much more likely to have VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air as a result of printing.” He adds that regardless of the inks used, printers should have proper ventilation and air extraction/filtration systems to remove the byproducts of printing and ensure a safe environment for employees.

Over the last few years, Bordeaux Digital Printink Ltd. of Yavne, Israel, has developed several environmentally conscious inks. The April 2010 launch of its UV LED inks corresponded with the introduction of the first UV LED printers. “Unlike common UV, this ink consumes less electricity and generates less heat, resulting in compatibility with a wider range of substrates,” explains Ruth Zach, marketing coordinator for Bordeaux.

Additionally, the company offers the PRGS Mix & Match ink for Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 printer, which incorporates a nickel free formula, as well as water-based latex and dye-sublimation inks. Bordeaux specially formulated the latex ink, known as EDLX, for the piezo drop-on-demand print head technology to ensure compatibility to a wide range of printers. “The ink can potentially be installed in most solvent drop-on-demand printers without requiring modifications,” Zach adds.

Mimaki is one such printer manufacturer that has moved to energy-saving LED curing technologies on its UV-curable printers—which produce no VOCs and require less ventilation. The company also has created a latex solution to meet market demands.

What’s more, Mimaki is giving the eco-friendly treatment to inks. “Right now our main focus for fabric/textile printing is water-based inks such as pigmented inks (cotton), acid dye inks, reactive, dye sublimation, latex and UV curable,” says Michael Maxwell, the company’s Southeast representative. “We manufacture inks specifically designed to help reduce maintenance on our printing products, and be cost effective and consistent.”

Understanding the challenges

Even though corporate and consumer interest in sustainability continues to rise, the fabric graphics sector still faces some challenges. “The textile must perform every bit as well as a first-generation fabric,” Sanders says.

The price of printable eco-friendly fabrics remains a hot topic in the market, too. “People aren’t willing to pay 50 percent more for an eco-friendly product,” Rose says. “It’s nice to have something sustainable, but if no one will buy it, what’s the point?”

James Gay, director of marketing at Fisher Textiles, notes that the manufacture of recycled fabrics costs a bit more than its non-recycled counterparts. “One of the reasons that the growth has been slow in these particular textile fabrics is due to the fact that it is actually more expensive to create fabrics with recycled yarn than to manufacture virgin polyester,” he says. “If the market reaches a point where the usage of products made from Repreve is large enough, then there is the possibility to see a shift in the cost of manufacturing the yarn. With these costs currently being slightly higher, the commitments down the line to the end user must be strong.”

For its part, Natural AdCampaign views printer education as a major obstacle. “This is an uphill struggle for us as people are so used to using traditional oil-based products,” Dowdeswell notes.

From a printer standpoint, Mimaki continues to address some of the limitations in the marketplace. “The U.S. market is still heavily dependent on solvent technologies,” Maxwell says, “and as we progress, the requests for faster production and turnaround are slowed by the inks’ ability to perform at those speeds without solvents.” Maxwell adds that Mimaki is trying to meet the challenge head-on with its development of latex- and water-based products.

Practice what you preach

Many manufacturers of eco-friendly fabrics, inks and printers employ sustainable initiatives in their own facilities. Natural AdCampaign has implemented a number of environmentally sound practices, including recycling or reusing the majority of production and office waste, solar panels that heat water, and a green roof.

Some manufacturers offer take-back services. Through its Reflex program, Cooley Group takes back PVC and PE for recycling, integrating the post-industrial and post-consumer waste into its other products such as commercial roofing material. Furthermore, the manufacturer has reduced gas use by 75 percent and improved the carbon footprint of its PVC billboard product by more than 30 percent.

Mimaki, which has implemented a cartridge return policy for recycling, is moving toward eco-friendly cartridges that use a replaceable bladder manufactured with aluminum films. “By reusing the casing we have eliminated the need to produce excess plastic, and in doing so reduce the amount of plastic being discarded every year,” Maxwell notes. A bulk ink system further eliminates additional plastics, and all printers utilize features such as sleep mode and low power consumption.

At its manufacturing facilities, Bordeaux recycles some solvents and sells them back to industries that do not require 100 percent purity as required for inkjet. The remaining waste is hauled to Israel’s largest solvent recycling plant and neutralized there. Furthermore, the company invested in an expensive ventilation system that monitors the air quality in the working environment.

Many graphics shops are implementing similar efforts in their businesses—and experiencing lower costs and winning more
eco-based jobs in the process. Banner Creations in Minneapolis, Minn., serves as a successful example of what it means to run a sustainable business. “When I saw how much waste there was to an inexpensive vinyl banner, we stopped making and offering them,” notes Nora Norby, president of Banner Creations.

The company has a laundry list of earth-friendly initiatives: reusing paper; sharing ends of rolls with artists and craft people; developing a line of consumer products made from scrap fabric; printing on Ecophab™, a fabric made from recycled water bottles, for half its jobs; recycling office waste; and using printers that don’t waste ink.

Beyond improved efficiencies and the bottom line, Norby takes an altruistic approach to her work. “Doing the right thing always feels good,” she says.

By most accounts, the fabric graphics industry will continue down its green path. “This area will continue to grow,” says Natural AdCampaign’s Dowdeswell, “and if the graphics shop is clever, a niche can be carved in the market.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer from Pine City, Minn.

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