Treading lightly: holistic logistics

Jenny Roper
Thursday, October 4, 2012

Taking a interconnected view of the supply chain will enable printers - and their partners - to improve the overall sustainability of the medium

Whether it involves scrubbing out jam jars, turning off lights or investing in a new low-energy press, few people would deny that, when it comes to the environment, we should all be ‘doing our bit’.

But in the face of increasingly ominous environmental headlines, there may well be some questioning the reassuring simplicity and convenience of this maxim. And, aware not only of the significant impact their operations could potentially have on the environment but also of the power they wield in influencing other companies, many of those may well be business owners. Products are rarely masterminded and brought to market by just one company in isolation, after all. So is it good enough just to look after your own small patch and wash your hands of what happens to a product once it’s no longer technically your problem?

Many printers, with plenty of environmental considerations and accreditations to worry about already, will understandably be feeling more than a little overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to influence actions, such as the design of a product, or whether it gets recycled once used, that are typically not their responsibility. There are only so many hours in the day, they would point out, so decisions will have to be made about whether looking to their own processes or adopting a wider-reaching outlook will most effectively look after the planet.

Certainly there are some battles not traditionally a printers’ responsibility that are, according to those advocating the changes, worth fighting from the point of view of how dramatically they could reduce a product’s environmental footprint if won.

Don’t ignore the data
One such battle, says Martyn Eustace, director of sustainable print lobby group Two Sides, is pushing direct mail clients to clean up their databases. In this way the considerable lengths a printer has gone to in making production of the pack as environmentally friendly as possible won’t be rendered redundant by the fact that the pack should never perhaps have been printed in the first place.

"Data management is really a big part of sustainability," he says, "in that you make sure that you’re sending out the right things to the right people. It makes obvious environmental sense."

Then there is the issue of what will happen to the print product once the customer has finished with it. Or rather whether the product will biodegrade or be recycled, or sit releasing methane in landfill for hundreds of years.

The number-one influence here is whether the substrate chosen can be recycled or composted. Of course, how much room there is for a printer to improve a product’s overall environmental performance here will depend on what sort of printing they’re doing. While a printer using deinkable printing methods on paper and board will be working with designers who will most likely opt for recyclable print anyway, those printing on plastics may have a greater responsibility to influence substrate choice.

This is certainly the ethos of Ryedale Group, a specialist plastics printer that, uncomfortable with the non-degradable nature of the plastics it was supplying to the horticultural sector, decided to work with scientists and plastic technologists to develop new, more environmentally friendly substrates for plant packaging.

Commercial director James Buffoni outlines the improvement switching from non-compostable plastics will hopefully have: "The stuff we were using was originally used for drinks bottles. I’ve been to Mumbai and seen the plastic waste everywhere, so I’m highly aware of the need to reduce that on a global scale."

But once the printer has ensured its product is made from an environmentally friendly substrate, the job of lessening a product’s impact is still, perhaps, only half done. That is, there are steps that could be taken at the design stage, which the printer might influence, that will ensure a product is actually recycled or composted and so will dramatically reduce its environmental footprint.

POP pressure
One such step is to make sure the product is easily collapsible, which will be particularly pertinent where a POP display is concerned, says Phil Day, director at retail marketing association Point-of-Purchase Advertising International (POPAI).

"The majority of temporary POP stands are made from cardboard so they should in theory be quite easy to recycle," he says. "But if you’re using rivets and fastenings and fittings then your average spotty Saturday supermarket worker is going to struggle. Because they’ve got a million and one things to do, they’ll have a tug to see if they can collapse it, but then it’s just going to get thrown in a skip."

Another seemingly small but highly effective planet-saving step is to include logos to indicate that a product is in fact recyclable. Most might assume that consumers will either fit into the eco-conscious and so recycling-savvy mould of person or not. But they may, says Alex Walsh, associate director at the Direct
Mail Association (DMA), be surprised at just how effective it is to include clear, detailed instructions about how to recycle a product.

"Research indicates that half the population don’t know whether the Möbius loop recycling logo means it’s made from recycled paper or is recyclable," he explains. "So I personally think explicit recycling instructions are very helpful, and better than just a logo."

And although it might seem an exercise in stating the obvious, including details on what a substrate is actually made of can be similarly influential in how likely a person is to recycle.

"On the one hand, you might say it’s pretty obvious when something’s paper or cardboard," says Matthew Botfield, environment manager at Antalis McNaughton.  "But on the other, we do sell a range of rock papers which consumers might assume need to go down the paper route, but actually need be recycled as plastics."

And once the printer has gained an audience with a designer it might be that, as well as addressing changes that will influence whether the end of a product’s life is an environmentally friendly one, they might suggest changes that will bring them back to minimising the impact of their own processes too. For example, there are those who would advocate printers and designers working together to come up with efficient product designs that don’t generate a lot of trim waste once impositioned on press.

But for Eustace, the latter is the perfect example of a battle that may not be worth diverting significant energies to, particularly if this will be at the expense of more worthwhile green endeavours. On-press waste is actually not such an issue where the printer is being responsible about recycling their own off-cuts, he points out.

"The designer has a responsibility not to design wasteful or somehow harmful elements into the design, so not including ridiculous cut-outs that create lots of waste," he says. "But let’s not beat ourselves up too much on this one and get hung up on the idea that there must never be waste. If there is a cut-out and there’s trim and that’s unavoidable then you recycle it. If it goes back into the system, then that’s fine."

And so the importance of thinking carefully about the impact a printed item is having at all stages of its lifecycle, and diverting energies to mitigate those with the most drastic impacts, becomes clear.

But once they have readjusted their outlook to beyond the printroom, printers may understandably question just how much is within their power to change. Certainly where an extra cost is involved, printers may have trouble persuading the buyer to work with them to go greener.

This is the problem with tidying up DM databases, explains the DMA’s Walsh, whose organisation is promoting this as part of its recently revamped PAS 2020 environmental initiative. "If you can do things that are good and it won’t cost any more money that’s fine, but if you’re asking the customer to pay more, then they probably won’t," he says.

"And usually in large organisations there are other issues, like who controls the budget," he adds. "The person who sends out the marketing communications campaigns doesn’t necessarily hold the budget for cleaning a database. And particularly if you’re a large organisation, like a bank, booking the time in with IT and making it a priority – if for instance you have people saying ‘we’ve got customers who can’t access their accounts’ – will be difficult."

This issue of bureaucracy will also confront the printer keen to ensure the way a customer is distributing their print is as environmentally friendly as possible, says POPAI’s Day.

"Many printers take care of the courier service themselves, in which case they can ensure they or the company they use are acting responsibly," he says. "But where the customer is in charge, sometimes there’s just not the time to build in an appropriate logistics strategy. Then there’s no logical approach to the route planning, so you could have two drop-off points in neighbouring counties or towns, but the van will go somewhere in between them. And no one plans how the print’s loaded into the van, or what type of van is used."

The way to overcome these organisational difficulties, and even the initial cost of database cleaning, is to point out to the customer the long-term savings that can be made. With transportation, this will involve showing the client that planned routes and carefully loaded vans avoid extra journeys and so cut costs, with direct mail, that the company will achieve better ROI with more targeted campaigns. "It isn’t cheap to clean up databases, but you do get a very quick payback," says Walsh.

But where there is no cost saving to entice the buyer, printers may have a trickier job of beating the system and getting disparate departments within the same company to talk to each other, and to them.

This is often the experience of polythene printer Jonathan Neville. In the absence of any local authority schemes to recycle this substrate, his company Polyprint has started its own. But for this to work it’s vital a small logo is included, instructing the consumer to either drop off their polythene waste at the Polyprint premises or send it by post, and often the message of how important this logo is just doesn’t get through to the designers.

"Often by the time we find out what’s going on, the artwork’s already prepared and comes through the door," reports Neville. "Probably less than 30% of our customers actually end up including the logo on the artwork."

Designer demands
And even where getting through to the right person isn’t tricky, printers are often confronted by designers wedded to the exact aesthetic they have created, and unwilling to alter its shape or substrate, or even to include a small recycling logo.

"I’ve just done an audit and realised that the last time we were asked to actually put the FSC logo on a job was two years ago, and that’s something you’d expect people to want to include as it shows how responsible they are being," says Steve Wood, quality, safety, health and environment manager at SP Group. "So you can imagine how hard it is to persuade people to include a Möbius loop, even if we offer to change the colours so it matches their branding."

Ultimately, many say, printers often struggle even to get an audience with designers or be taken seriously by them and others at a company once they do, because they’re simply not seen as an authority when it comes to the environment.

"We do have conversations about correct labelling with some designers but, being humble printers, I’m afraid people don’t always listen," says Neville.

"Some printers are regarded as partners, so obviously customers will take much more advice from them, but I think there are others where the customer just thinks that the printer’s job is to print what they are told to, and that’s it," agrees Walsh.

But many would warn that this role of the ‘humble printer’ isn’t something most in the current climate can afford to accept. That is, instead of giving up on offering environmental advice because it seems to be falling on deaf ears, printers should perhaps keep chipping away in order to eventually differentiate themselves from the print-as-commodity mob.

"Printers these days should be thinking outside of being printers," confirms Eustace, explaining that DM printers who help customers clean up their databases and so send out less mail will still profit in the long term. "If you can show your customers how they can be more targeted and more effective then you’re helping the environment, but also saving them money, and actually they’ll probably spend more with you because they’re able to afford more and better campaigns."

And some say the message is slowly getting through and that there are some companies now looking for printers who have already considered how to implement a joined-up environmental approach. 

"There are some brands that are leading the way," says POPAI’s Day. "With them it’s not just a closed-door approach of saying ‘just get me the materials at the right price, I just need it in store, I don’t want to have a conversation about the environment’. It’s not a procurement approach of just ticking a box to say you’ve got ISO 14001."

SP Group’s Wood agrees that when buyers do open up to a more holistic approach, printers must be ready: "If a buyer is looking to us as the professionals and saying ‘what advice have you got?’, if we just turn around and say ‘well it doesn’t matter because we’ve told you all this before and you don’t listen’, then we’re going to be out of business."

And the DMA’s Walsh points out that showing real environmental expertise and concern will eventually benefit not just individual printers, but also the industry as a whole. "Paper doesn’t have a very good image in terms of the environment," he says. "People see paper waste as very visible and tangible whereas they don’t realise the impact of digital. So people may migrate to digital faster if the print industry is seen as inefficient and wasting resources – so it’s got to be in everyone’s interest to promote a better approach."

The case for trying to illustrate to clients the ways printers, buyers and designers can all work together to make print greener, seems, then, a strong one. The genuinely environmentally friendly printer, say some, will need to realise that it is not only the way ink and finishes are applied to paper that will dictate a product’s environmental footprint. Rather, there are a whole host of substrate, design, distribution and recycling considerations to be taken into account if print is really to ‘do its bit’.

And, with eco-consciousness mounting, it may soon be required of printers to advise on how the whole lifecycle of a product might be improved. Printers should, then, at least start considering what happens to a product once it leaves their hands and advise their customers accordingly. The buyer might not be receptive to their suggestions just yet, but they will certainly remember the printer’s expert advice and bring work their way when they decide that it’s time to join forces in going green.

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