How should print's green giant go on the offensive?

By Darryl Danielli, Friday 18 March 2011

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While everyone in print knows that it's a sustainable medium, there is less consensus when it comes to just how to counter its poor eco reputation.


Listen carefully and you can hear the unmistakable rumble of an impending rebellion. For years, the misconception that digital technologies are greener than ink on paper has been allowed to prosper unchallenged. Fed by a constant stream of misinformation from the all-conquering tech giants’ powerful PR apparatuses (and the general public’s mesmerised fascination with all things electronic) print’s commercial fortunes have waned considerably.

As an industry, print has been forced onto the defensive in a constant struggle for self-justification, cowering behind an ineffective shield of a portfolio of eco certificates. But now, many in print are beginning to feel that enough is enough and they are preparing to go on the offensive.

Among those in the vanguard of this counter-attack is John Roche, one of the founders of Friends of Print and Paper (FOPAP), a body set up to tackle print’s environmental misrepresentation.

"Print should attack the misconceptions and it should attack the industries that are attacking it," he says.

FOPAP aims to be the "aggressor", a role Roche believes other associations such as Two Sides are unwilling to take on.

He wants positive action to change the public perception through grassroots methods such as social media and forums. In conjunction, he wants to correct faulty information that has been put out into the market by releasing data comparing print with digital rivals, especially in terms of carbon footprint.

Softly softly
While few people would disagree with the idea that print deserves a fair hearing, this new-found bolshiness is making some commentators uncomfortable.

This faction points out that the environmental footprint of a digital service is notoriously hard to pin down and so, by going on the offensive, print risks being accused of hypocrisy in making unjustifiable claims of its own.

After all, print is now a thouroughly cross-media industry, employing and interacting with digital technology at every stage, so in attacking digital many believe print would be shooting itself in the foot. For those who side with this argument, a reactionary approach is the way forward, one where misinformation is corrected, not espoused. Step forward Martyn Eustace, director at print sustainability association Two Sides.

"The industry has to address these misconceptions quietly; a public spat brings everyone down and helps no one," he explains. "We have to work with the companies and organisations making these claims to make them understand the impact of what they are saying and the lack of evidence behind it."

While the two approaches differ greatly, both centre on a consensus: print cannot keep going the way it has done. Walk into any print company and you are met with a wall of certificates, performance indicators, accreditations, awards, business processes, power consumption charts – some have even painted their offices green to hammer home the point. It’s too much.

"In some ways, we have been our own worst enemy," admits Eustace. "There are too many badges for the environment in print. If you need a badge to buy it, you give the impression there is something inherently wrong with the product."

And the badge collecting seems to have had little, if any, impact on the public perception of print. Instead, the value of these certificates is in the tender and contract hoops they let a company jump through and in the costs they cut via efficiencies.

And so you are left with the question of how to move forward. But before you make that decision, it is important to realise that print is fighting on two fronts.

The people’s front
The first is the public’s suspicion of print as a medium. People, perhaps naturally, connect the harvesting of trees for paper production with deforestation of tropical rainforests, untroubled by the fact that around 94% of the paper we use in this country comes from managed, renewable forests in Europe, where forested land has grown by 30% since 1950.

Most agree that shifting that perception would be incredibly difficult. Information on print’s greeness has been around for years, but the negative connotations remain, and many believe this is an obstacle that cannot be overcome, no matter how you market it.

The second front plays on this innate preconception. Rival media, businesses keen to gain an easy point on their CSR agenda and certain environmental groups all, willingly or not, fan the spark of this doubt into a full-blown fire by joining the dots, wrongly, between global warming messages and print. Banks tell you to switch to e-billing as it is greener, the WWF sends out unprintable file formats to "save trees" – it’s a pretty concerted defamation of the industry.

Two Sides’ approach is to extend a conciliatory hand accompanied by a no-nonsense breakdown of the facts. When companies claim that switching from print to electronic communications is more environmentally friendly, Two Sides writes to the offending organisation and explains that they cannot prove digital is more environmentally beneficial and so are likely to be in breach of Advertising Standards Authority regulations for claiming so. Eustace claims a success rate of around 95% for this tactic with the vast majority of firms happy to stop making the claim once they are in full possession of the facts.

Lack of data
Eustace reiterates that attacking digital media for being less sustainable than print is largely a waste of time as there isn’t enough environmental data on the digital side for a valid comparison to be made. Rob Pearson of sustainability consultants Two Tomorrows agrees.

"The digital world is extremely complex and so it’s difficult to pin down to an environmental impact," he says. "As a result, there is as yet no agreed way of calculating that impact and so a decent comparison with print cannot yet be made."

Pearson is attempting to facilitate such a comparison through an initiative with Two Tomorrows. The aim is to encourage publishers to take a unified approach to calculating the impact of digital publishing by agreeing to set guidelines, but this is in the very early stages.

Roche, however, would argue you can make that ‘decent’ comparison already. He has done his own  calculations and found that the carbon footprint of print is arguably the smallest of all communication media (see the FOPAP website, www.fopap.org for details). PrintCity Alliance, meanwhile, is set to reveal the results of its Carbon Footprint and Energy Reduction report at the end of March, in which it looks at digital’s claims of being greener and cites figures to dispel the myth.

What PrintCity’s report also states, however, is the importance of digital and print working together. This is something those gunning for digital media should consider carefully. While the information from studies is useful in tackling the public misconceptions, print has to remember that it increasingly has a vested interest in digital technologies. Email, workflow, MIS, web-to-print, data capture, data sorting, cross-media campaigns – print is fast becoming a multiplatform industry and an attack on what are effectively digital allies, could hurt its own future prospects.

Of course, what print itself believes to be the best course of action may differ from those who would actually be impacted by a decision to change tack – namely the buyers. However, from this side of the fence, opinion is just as divided.

Mark Cruise, head of print management at BSkyB, is an advocat of print being more proactive, believing it should go on the offensive and tackle the misconceptions with the positives that it has been achieving. However, Chris Allen, managing director at On-Creative, an integrated design and branding agency that uses both print and digital formats, advocates a more restrained approach.

For him, the best course of action is for the printers to not get involved in environmental wrangles at all. He believes the eco message should be handled through a unified stance from the various print trade bodies. This, he says, will free the printers up to talk about what ultimately will really sway buyers such as himself.

"Printers should be left to concentrate on the practical reasons why print makes sense: its creativity and its power, in order to persuade print buyers of those factors," he explains. "Print can offer a lot, but the message is being lost."

And that, really, is the most damaging point about print’s green preoccupation. The most sensible solution, Allen says, is for the trade bodies to agree a unified message that could take the responibility for green matters away from the printers, then those printers could shift their conversations with buyers away from "Print is green because…" to "Print is great because…". It is the latter that will ensure print’s future, not the former.

PAPER MYTHS
Two Sides has published fact-based rebuttals of the more pernicious environmental myths surrounding the print and paper industry, such as these given below

MYTH: Making paper destroys forests FACT: 90% of deforestation is caused by unsustainable agricultural practices, while forests in Europe, where 94% of the paper we use comes from, are 30% bigger than they were in 1950
MYTH: Managed forests are bad for the environment FACT: A well-managed forest, used and re-planted, absorbs more carbon dioxide than a mature forest consisting of older trees
MYTH: Print creates masses of waste that is dumped into landfill FACT: Paper and print is one of the few materials which is able to be completely recycled

You can see the rest at www.twosides.info

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