Accreditation in the balance
By Jenny Roper Friday, 21 October 2011
In a marketplace where price and quality are givens, green credentials can be critical factors in a print buyer’s decision-making process, but are clients being dazzled by badges?
Put yourself in a print buyer’s shoes: you have several companies to choose between and they’ve all more than satisfied you on the time, quality and price fronts, so you take a look at what they have to offer in the way of environmental credentials.
And this is where the confusion begins.
Environmental claims and accreditations can be problematic for both the buyer and the printer keen to differentiate itself from the mob by being a brighter shade of green.
With paper certifications, eco labels, individual innovative waste-management schemes, 100% recycling claims, solar panels and wind turbines all jostling for their attention, how does the buyer know which is a worthier effort at keeping it clean than the rest, and are the choices buyers are currently making fair?
Certainly, a company’s environmental performance has become an increasingly decisive factor in print buyers’ decisions in recent years.
"The environment is becoming the fourth standard commodity phrase," says Matthew Parker, director of print buying consultancy Print and Procurement. "Buyers demand price, service and quality, but now they’re looking for the next indicator that makes the difference."
This does not always go hand-in-hand with an in-depth understanding of how different sorts of printers might best reduce their impact on the environment, he says.
"I think sometimes buyers don’t want to ask the detailed questions," says Parker. "They just want to say that they’ve done it and a widely known certification, like FSC,
allows them to say ‘I’ve got an FSC printer so I’m environmentally friendly’."
Alison Branch, managing director at Park Communications, one of the companies shortlisted for PrintWeek’s Environmental Company of the Year 2011 award, agrees that the most easily communicable environmental practices will often win buyers over. She says the reasons for this are based not necessarily on ignorance, but more on time pressures.
"In this market, customers, particularly the smaller ones, don’t have a lot of time to build up a detailed knowledge of the environment, so they are reliant on certain certificates," explains Branch. "For the customer, it needs to be simple."
It is not surprising, then, that those credentials that can be expressed in the form of an official stamp of independent approval, rather than uncorroborated claims, are frequently cited as most desirable by print buyers. Not that the official stamps narrow the eco field of appraisal too far – there is still a wide comparison of accreditations, certificates and stamps to be made.
At least unofficially, among the well known-names of FSC, PEFC, EMAS and countless others, print buyers do tend to place a higher regard on ISO 14001, an internationally recognised system monitoring the environmental targets companies set themselves and how they achieve and improve upon them.
This certification is seen as a must-have for many print buyers, Parker says, and it is certainly no secret that the UK’s biggest print buyers need this in place before the sales process even begins.
The number of printers pursuing and gaining the accreditation suggests that they have recognised the power the ISO holds in print buyers’ eyes. But Chris Head, health, safety and environmental manager at Howitt, says the badge is more than attractive clothing to entice a buyer. Rather it has tangible benefits to the company as well, being a valuable tool to ensure that businesses achieve a high environmental performance.
"We look at it more from a point of view of what ISO 14001 can do for us," he says. "If you have good benchmarking and good objectives and targets it can actually deliver quite a good saving for the company.
For instance, waste on this particular site in 2005 was more than 500 tonnes to landfill; last year it was less than 25 tonnes. So the management of those parts of the business is extremely important and can produce a saving."
Head does concede, however, that, for smaller businesses, the costs of achieving ISO 14001 recognition could be prohibitive. Expenditures to be taken into account are the twice-yearly audits, costing around a £1,000 each, and of course the salaries of workers like Head who ensure the systems are implemented. For print buyers to give precedence to an ISO seems an unfair bias, then, against smaller operations.
That said, there are cheaper ways of implementing the ISO 14001 than the most widely respected UKAS accredited scheme. These include self-accreditation, and certification from a range of different bodies including Lloyds, BSI and AJA, all of whom might appeal to a company’s individual needs. Printers can also enter into a BSA 555 or Acorn Project scheme, designed to help them on their way to an ISO 14001. But this might not get them very far with buyers who see a UKAS verified ISO 14001 as a must.
An expensive form of marketing
The frustrating thing for many will
be that, rather than the ISO 14001 pushing them to make changes they had considered for a while, it is
more an expensive way of marketing and communicating the environmental procedures they already have in place.
Alan Wilding, a consultant in the design, implementation and auditing of ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 management systems, has found that this is often the case. He explains that there is no better way of ensuring good practice than by having it independently verified, but he says that, for the most part, companies are doing all they need to already, without the certificate. Hence, an ISO badge does not necessarily mean you are any more environmentally friendly than someone without one.
Obviously, being independently verified does give more weight to any environmental claims, but considering the costs, printers could be forgiven for feeling frustrated at the situation. To make things worse, the next certifications on buyers’ environmental shopping lists, FSC and PEFC paper accreditations, are subject to similar issues.
While no one would dispute that printers should source paper from sustainably managed forests, there are those who would argue that buyers’ expectations that one or both of these accreditations automatically be in place suggests a lack of knowledge about other ways of responsibly sourcing paper.
Rob Pearson, consultant at international corporate sustainability agency Two Tomorrows, explains that some print buyers’ automatic requirement that their printer be certified with one of these logos overlooks the fact that paper can be from a reputable source even if not FSC or PEFC accredited.
"If you look at all of the European producers, non-certified material from the top-10 paper companies certainly won’t be suspect," he reveals. "Another way a printer can ensure its credentials is to ask the paper supplier to provide information – this way it makes sure the fibre is fully traceable."
But this less official way of sourcing eco-friendly paper won’t fulfil a lot of print buyers’ environmental expectations, Print & Procurement’s Parker warns. FSC and PEFC certifications are typically must-have accreditations because this aspect of the print process is perhaps easier for the average person to understand, with the FSC logo winning favour over PEFC, some say, partly due to its higher profile.
"You can say ‘I use an ISO 14001 printer’, but your average person doesn’t understand what that is," says Parker. "So how do you communicate on your printed product that it’s been printed in an environmentally friendly way? You go back to the paper a lot of the time."
This greater familiarity with the environmental issues surrounding paper and with the companies promoting them, has led to a situation, Parker says, where other aspects of a printing company’s environmental performance can be overlooked.
"A lot of buyers see FSC as a general stamp of good environmental practice," says Parker. "I have to explain to them that you can be getting environmentally friendly paper and breaking all of the pollution rules, trucking it in from miles away for example."
The worry for printers is that a benchmarking system in which buyers typically plump for the ISO 14001, FSC and PFEC certifications, could make it difficult for printers to get the incentives they are most proud of noticed – and to make things worse, these sought-after badges are seen by some not to be as great as they seem.
Take ISO 14001; while it covers elements widely recognised as the most important for printers to address, such as waste and energy and water use, it allows different companies to set very different targets. Hence, two companies boasting an ISO 14001 certificate can have very different levels of environmental performance. For some, this devalues the certificate, as it enables printers to play the "green game" without necessarily doing as much leg work as others – which takes away the incentive for those companies striving to do more.
"The ISO 14001 can be a greenwash," confirms Howitt’s Head. "There are companies out there I’m sure that effectively talk the talk but don’t walk the walk."
He adds that it is not only the dominance of ISO, FSC and PEFC certifications that can cause equally worthy, equivalent schemes to be sidelined. Another casualty, he feels, can be carbon-reduction schemes with no official accreditation. A carbon-neutral logo from one of the array of companies offering carbon footprinting services can look very impressive on a printer’s website, but the logo does not necessarily guarantee that the company is making efforts to reduce its emissions as well as paying to offset them.
"There may be some companies offsetting rather than reducing," admits director of the Carbon Trust accreditation service Harry Morrison, conceding that this could be disheartening for printers with admirable reduction schemes who sense they may be losing out to competitors basing their carbon-policy purely on offsetting and receiving an impressive-looking logo for this.
This scenario is, however, becoming less and less of an issue. "When we launched in 2008 there were quite a lot of companies basing their entire carbon strategy around offsetting," he says. "But since then the market has matured a lot and many of the offsetting firms now encourage reduction activity."
The Carbon Trust has its own standard and Morrison says that printers looking to differentiate themselves should get involved as it is a more robust system than the buyer’s favourite ISO 14001.
"ISO 14001 is a good start, as it means that you’re taking the right actions and have the right policies in place," says Morrison. "But while there is some assessment of improvement there isn’t an absolute performance threshold that you have to hit. Carbon certifications are a newer area and represent more of a stand-out performance and, over the past two years, we’ve seen big companies starting to ask their suppliers for much more information about carbon."
Another less-used way of standing out is EMAS (Eco-Manage-ment and Audit Scheme). This accreditation requires organisations regularly to produce a public environmental statement and so is seen by its advocates as the gold standard of transparency.
Knowledge of EMAS and the Carbon Trust Standard is not as widespread as the ISO 14001s of this world, however, so despite some arguing the former to be more rigorous, their kerb appeal for print buyers is perhaps less than the latter. That said, Richard Owers, company director at Pureprint, the company with the longest-held EMAS certification in the UK, says that official accreditations like EMAS certainly have a role to play in helping printers to secure business.
"EMAS is important to us because it is indicative of the whole culture at Pureprint," he says. "When a customer comes to visit, there’s a whole ethos going on which I think is what gives us the edge if a print buyer is comparing us with another company."
It’s this process of inviting the buyers into the company and really explaining the eco performance of the business that many see as the way forward through the blinding accreditation maelstrom. If the buyers are pre-occupied unfairly with a couple of the easy-to-understand labels, then it is the job of the printer to educate them otherwise, to explain why their in-house scheme is better than an ISO, or why the Carbon Trust Standard means they are performing better than someone with a PEFC paper logo.
"Within this industry, there are professionals who deal in the environment such as myself and it’s our job to clarify things for people so they do ensure that they’re making an informed choice," says Head.
The trouble is that an "informed choice" is a malleable concept and so benchmarking accreditations in a hierarchical list is nigh on impossible – priorities will shift with the type of work and the context of that work. This makes the current penchant for prioritising ISO 14001, FSC and PEFC all the more frustrating for printers, of course, but, as buyers are pushed for time and under pressure to hit targets, the trend is understandable.
It’s up to printers to educate those buyers if they feel other environmental stories need to be told. And if, as some say, the concentration on the big three badges is misleading, then the responsibility rests upon all printers to ensure a more accurate version of print’s environmental performance prevails in buyers’ minds.
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