The printing industry has long pioneered new forms of technology and is now on the cusp of more significant change, spurred on by the devastating deterioration of our planet. The truth is climate change is here and our industry has to change.  

The printers we consulted say that the best strategy for this kind of major shift is to truly believe in the need to change how we work, then prioritize it without losing jobs, time, and productivity. The footprint of every step of a project, from the very beginning to when it is loaded onto trucks for delivery, has to be re-evaluated. As an industry that thrives on innovation, it is time for us to reinvent ourselves yet again.  

None of the changes we make will matter unless customers consult with their printer at the very beginning of their project, so they can be briefed on sustainability-related changes. Fortunately, findings from a recent survey by the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania indicate that the consumer, particularly the up-and-coming Gen Z consumer, is trending more and more towards greener consumption practices1. This is a major driving force for almost every industry, many of which are steadily adopting more planet-friendly practices.  

Plan a sustainability strategy 

Community Printers is an employee-owned printing company in Santa Cruz, California. They have been in business since 1977 with a strong commitment to sustainable practices, including a strict chain of custody for everything used in their work. “We build a matrix designed to help you figure out all the levers that you can pull when you’re designing for sustainability,” says Ross Newport “and it looks at things like recycled content, it looks at things like FSC and whether the fiber that’s being used is coming from sustainable sources. It has a value system built into it.” 

The client who is anxious to limit their carbon footprint should be persuaded to follow a sustainability strategy that includes all elements of the printing process. This begins with designing so as to optimize sheet size, then adding their project to other jobs on press, using the house FSC-approved sheet, printing with low or no VOC inks, and avoiding non-recyclable features like foiling. When starting this process, begin with the files themselves.  

When collecting and preparing files for print, how often does your team do repetitive tasks manually? These grueling tasks result in mistakes that lead to costly reprints. They are time-consuming, generate unnecessary waste, and are not always the best use of a team member’s time. You can eliminate mistakes by automating your workflow with a sophisticated yet cost-effective solution like Enfocus Switch. Pull in files delivered by email, FTP, and other delivery methods automatically in a flow, preflight and make corrections automatically, label jobs and route them to the right approval system or press, and eliminate the waste of time, error, and reprints.  

If you have a soft proofing system in house, the sustainably-minded client will be excited to view and approve their proofs on a profiled prographic monitor. Remote Director is a tightly controlled soft proofing solution that consistently produces accurate, repeatable proofs. These digital proofs are charged to the client at the same rate as inkjet proofs. Though there is a carbon footprint to all things digital, the footprint for soft proofing is significantly lower than that of hard proofing due to the reduced need for paper and inks, which also have a production-related carbon footprint. For those clients who do prefer physical proofs, a profiled printer that is regularly calibrated with a RIP designed for an inlet printer will produce accurate contract proofs right away, eliminating waste and misunderstandings on press. 

Selecting papers and ink for a lower footprint 

Waste is a major concern of the printing industry. Jason Tempestini, CTO of Rods and Cones, examined the claim that there are recyclable plastics. “I think we’ve been really trying to recycle plastic for a long time,” he states. “And the evidence I’ve seen over the last five years is that it’s not a recyclable product, period. There’s no such thing.” A more commonly wasted material in the printing industry is not plastic, however, it is paper.  

Although paper waste is in some ways less harmful than plastic waste, paper waste should be just as heavily considered. By combining jobs, the amount of paper waste is dramatically reduced, fewer plates are generated, and less ink is used. The press can be organized around these jobs, which allows you, for example, to set your press to a four-color process and keep it like that for a certain number of days per week. This not only saves on cost, but also has a substantially lower carbon footprint. To get there, your client will need to have been persuaded at the start of the job to allow a few more days in the schedule.   

To persuade your client to use your FSC-certified house sheet, remind them that there is often a heavy carbon footprint produced by ordering paper from abroad because ground and air shipping contribute large amounts of GHG emissions. Statista reports that in 2020, bulk carriers emitted on average 440 million metric tons of CO2, while container ships emitted 140 million metric tons CO2 2. Using the house sheet is preferable, but in order to have an alternative, build a list of papers that can be sourced locally with a clear chain of custody and certification.  

Whenever possible, offer soy-based inks and, if the design is in black and white, consider a black, algae-based ink, currently offered by Eco-Enclose, which also specializes in sustainable packaging. The pigment of algae-based inks is biodegradable and uses water or plant-based carriers. Soy-based inks are currently the sustainable ink of choice, and are undoubtedly much less destructive than traditional inks made with oil, but because they must be grown on land they create new issues around crops and crop cycles. Algae, alternatively, is grown in water which eliminates soil and biodiversity issues caused by monocropping. It is also a net negative carbon technology, meaning it’s an active absorber of CO2. In fact, each bucket of algae ink captures the same amount of carbon as two trees3.  

However, it is not only the ingredients in ink that should be considered. Other ecological concerns, such as whether they will dry without curing and whether they can be sourced locally, should also be assessed. Curing requires dryers that cause the inks to emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can sometimes cause harmful effects to humans and the environment4. The popular solution printers are using today is LED UV curing, which uses considerably less electricity. 

There are some decorative styles that your client may request, especially in the realm of packaging, and should be discouraged at the onset such as foiling and lamination. The metallic or pigmented foil applied to the paper cannot be removed and cannot be recycled and, of course, lamination is just “plastic with a paper core,” says Jason Tempestini. 

Becoming the go-to green printer to grow a business 

For printer and client alike, putting our carbon footprint first is a major cultural shift. It requires new ways of working, storing, selling, buying, and appealing to clients. It’s an investment of time and money, and it forces re-prioritizations from start to press. But printing industry veterans will be reminded of earlier days when linotypists were replaced by typesetters, digital printing heavily impacted offset, and match prints and color keys were waylaid after inkjets arrived. These significant changes heralded new eras that were also, and foremost, new opportunities.  

As always, when unsure about the steps to take, consult a workflow specialist. Their mandate is to chart a path for change, in incremental ways, with a clear understanding of cost and revenue.  

Community Printers, who decided more than 12 years ago to reduce their carbon footprint and encourage their clients to do the same, has grown and prospered because of their creative approach to projects. Becoming the sustainability consultant at the very start of a project, when everything is open for discussion, and then becoming the printer known for their commitment to better solutions, is opening a new channel that brings more revenue at the onset, and guarantees a place for the company in the future. 

As for the clients, their priorities are changing too. They come to printers after discussions with family and friends, exposure to the news, and sometimes after falling victim to unusual and destructive weather patterns. Consumers are living through the effects of climate change, and they want to play a role in reversing them.  

It is clear that there is a distinctive role that we can take as members of the printing industry that positively contributes to recognizable change for our planet. We can be the stewards of innovative environmental practices, not only for existing clients that share our values, but also for those who are newly ready to embrace positive change. 

Laura Aitken is a writer and script developer. She is based in Los Angeles. Erica Aitken is president of Rods and Cones. The company offers color management and automation solutions. Laura and Erica are committed to helping change how we live and work. 


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