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Answering the Riddle of Environmentally Friendly Media

Large Format Vendors, Suppliers, and Buyers Aspire to Sustainability

By Gretchen A. Peck

Though printing celebrates significant progress in its efforts to be more environmentally considerate, large format still has a long way to go—starting with how the industry at large deals with media. Part of the reason why large format graphics may be lagging behind is confusion.


Casually tossed-about terms like sustainable, “green,” and environmentally responsible are relative to one another. Is media green if it isn’t comprised of some percentage of recycled material? Is it green only if it can be inserted into standard recycling streams? Can substrates be green if they have to be finished with the introduction of a chemical-based solution? Is it green if it can be used and reused with ease, without loss of integrity, such as textile-based print?


Print service providers (PSPs) are tasked with juggling these questions and supplying answers to their customers. In return, they look to media vendors to provide sustainable products. Here, we profile PSPs who are helping solve the sustainable media riddle.


Entering Large Format

Tucker, GA’s Bennett Graphics built its reputation on commercial print—first, with conventional offset equipment, and more recently with the addition of Hewlett-Packard (HP) Indigo digital presses. As commercial print margins narrowed, the company’s founder David Bennett predicted it was a good time to diversify. Large format graphics were a logical extension and the PSP launched this new offering in January 2014.


Like most commercial print specialists, talks of sustainability and eco-friendly consumables have been status quo for more than two decades. Customer demand ebbs and flows for sustainable practices and goods, recalls Bennett, but that learning curve enables the company to look at its new large format services through an environmental lens.


This part of the business is still perhaps too new to make any educated assessments about what Bennett Graphics can expect from its clients buying large format print, but Bennett notes that the company has to prepare for it.


“We need to have some sort of an alternative, so if someone wants styrene, we can say, ‘okay, here’s what you asked for, but here’s another option that’s more environmentally friendly,’” he explains.


Not only must the PSP be able to counsel clients on a range of substrates, it also needs to discuss end of life with customers—how disposal matters, and tips on reducing, reusing, and recycling waste.


Culture of Sustainability

Brian Madigan, GM, visual merchandising, out-of-home division, Sandy Alexander, headquartered in Clifton, NJ, quips about the million certifications the company has attained for its operational efficiencies and environmental stewardship when asked about the company’s sustainable culture. Truly, these are core values, and such a part of the organization that even a seemingly daunting task like a Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership audit proves a non event.


When it comes to wide format, things get a little more complicated, and Madigan says that by and large, the industry here is in a reactive state, rather than a proactive stance on environmental sustainability. He does credit the media suppliers with bringing to market a few more eco-friendly substrates, and notes that they are doing a good job at closing the gap on pricing. That, combined with a more socially aware clientele, means that print buyers aren’t daunted at the prospect of perhaps paying ten to 15 percent more for eco-friendly media, according to Madigan.


Sandy Alexander is a fan of Natural AdCampaign Inc.’s NatureWoven media, but notes that given its unique visual aesthetic, it’s not a fit for every large format job. So more options are sorely needed, asserts Madigan. In fact, he encourages media suppliers to offer more products and better help on how to specify, use, sell, and best dispose of media.


Starfish Signs Lives Its Values

Laura Reilly and her husband Mike have been in the large format graphics business for 20 months. But in that short period of time, they learned a lot about the industry, its technologies, and its stewardship strengths and weaknesses.


In fact, one of the company’s core values is sustainability, and so when it went in search of print equipment, it chose an HP latex technology, and invested time in HP’s online sustainability course.


When it comes to media, the Reillys were surprised by the limited number of eco-friendly substrates available. “I came back from a training course, and said to my husband, ‘we print on vinyl. That’s not recyclable!’ We were shocked,” shares Laura Reilly, owner, Starfish Signs and Graphics.


This realization changed the way the San Clemente, CA-based team looked at media. It raised a dilemma about how best to live the sustainable value with such a limited scope of truly environmentally friendly substrates. Reilly says that she looks to 3M Commercial Graphics and its non-PVC 3M Envision Wrap Films for notable jobs like a charitable event the PSP recently completed for The Ocean Institute in Dana Point, CA.


“When we think about media, we think about safety, and want to be sure that everyone who comes into contact with it is safe—installers, employees, the people who view it,” she adds.


Image (and Earth-) Conscious

Loves Park, IL is the home of Meridian, a print and communications provider. Jake Chanson, wide format specialist and eco-solutions expert, Meridian, suggests that identifying substrates that are a little more eco-friendly than their alternatives requires a creative approach.


“It all comes down to what the customer needs. Let’s say they need a graphic, but instead of a banner that has grommets and is stretched across a space, we now might suggest a two-sided blockout paper that’s recyclable and displayed with banner rails on top and bottom,” he explains. 


It’s safe to assume that price still matters to print buyers, but the discrepancy between the cost of traditional media for graphics and eco-friendly solutions has narrowed. Still, brands with big budgets and buying power are often more receptive to environmental considerations.


“Before I was with Meridian, I worked for a company that sold to high-end retailers with bigger marketing budgets. It wasn’t hard to get them to grasp paying $0.70 versus $0.40 per square foot,” recalls Chanson.


Sometimes it’s not the environmental value proposition that appeals to print buyers but the more obvious and immediate bottom line perks. Chanson offers an example. “We just completed a display that was bound for a retail chain. And we swapped out a PVC substrate for a corrugated product. It was a dense corrugated board, and obviously not quite as rigid, but it was three times lighter than the PVC equivalent. So the conversation wasn’t about it being recyclable as much as it was about saving money on freight and reducing carbon footprint that way.”


Chanson is a fan of Natural AdCampaign’s NatureWoven line for two reasons—how it’s made and how it looks. “If you use a more environmentally friendly substrate that’s PVC, but it still looks like PVC, well someone walking into a Foot Locker, for example, isn’t going to notice that you’ve chosen a sustainable graphics material. Whereas with this product—the products throughout the line—they speak green instantly. As a print supplier, I wanted to have a substrate to offer that really stands out, that I could take to certain types of clients.”


Sounding the Rally Cry

RPI, of Seattle, WA, still derives as much as 90 percent of its revenues from narrow-format commercial print, with the balance representing large format graphics. As a commercial print supplier, the company’s sustainability journey began more than five years ago with a “war on waste,” according to Dave Gens, EVP, RPI.


“We sent more than 500 tons to landfills every year back then,” recalls Gens. “You really don’t realize it from a financial basis just how much that impacts your bottom line.” The war on waste declared, “the next thing we knew, we were sending less than 15 tons a year to landfills, and today we have a new initiative to get that down to single digits.”


All things environmental are relative, acknowledges Gens, recalling that not long ago it was considered environmentally responsible simply to print on demand, negating warehousing. Today, that alone isn’t really considered environmental progress.


“Customers also want to save money,” notes Gens. “We are involved in the SGP Partnership because it’s a set of criteria that we can measure ourselves against.”


How does that prove to be cost effective for both PSP and print buyer? The process forces an analysis that dives deeper into operations than a cursory glance into consumables.


“The idea that sustainability is costly is a false argument,” he stresses. “It’s a fallacy. I can give you many examples of how we’ve saved. We discovered that we were spending $300 a month on paper towels. And we never would have known that—and replaced them with hand dryers—had we not joined the SGP.”


Another perk to SGP involvement—especially for Gens, who notes that he’s a board member—is the great pool of resources and talent among the entire group. “I view it as a competitive advantage—all the resources I have at my disposal,” he remarks.


On the customer side, SGP involvement is beneficial, especially with RPI’s narrow format and personalized products. “When you’re dealing with Fortune 500 companies with a sustainability policy, it just makes doing business with them easier. You’re not just paying lip service to sustainability,” he stresses. “It’s the right thing to do for your business. It’s a great thing to do for the environment, and it won’t introduce any additional cost burdens or overhead. It’s a net benefit.”


Many Dimensions of Eco-Friendly

In the exhibit and display graphics space, Dimension Design, Glenview, IL, is a behind-the-scenes workhorse, the guts of production, the guys and gals bringing creative visions to three-dimensional life.


Stuart Katz, director of marketing, Dimension Design, explains the company’s mission. “The service we provide is merging materials and assembly techniques to create one-of-a-kind venues that help brands connect with their audiences.”


Inherently, substrates are part of that value proposition; thus, Katz says that he and his colleagues are particular about specifying and sourcing media.


“Early on, a fabric that was green meant that it could be recycled. But now, green also refers to what’s happening on the manufacturing side, how that material is made and certified. As a print supplier, certification matters. It gives me confidence,” notes Katz.


But beyond how the material is made and disposed of, there are other less-obvious ways in which large format graphics impact the environment, stipulates Katz—for example, the shipping weight, as both a raw material and as a served-its-purpose graphic.


“Consider, too, the care instructions,” he suggests. “Is the green fabric washable in cold water, by hand, as opposed to machine washed in warm water?”


Katz acknowledges Fisher Textiles Inc. for its environmental leadership in fabrics. He says the supplier’s Enviro-Tex fabrics not only meet the PSP’s environmental expectations, but also a high level of quality and printability. As an added perk, he finds the company’s sales collateral to be thoughtful and useful, clearly denoting the environmental comparisons of its substrates.


“It’s important that when we represent that a fabric is green, and that it’s going to perform the way we expect it to perform, that it is and does,” adds Katz.


Recycling and take-back programs aren’t the only way media gets renewed life at Dimension Design. Even transfer paper, once it serves its purpose, is used for a clean-environment carpet when a new display is being assembled. “We don’t want the fabric getting dirty on a floor, so we reuse that paper, and ultimately recycle it to the tune of 15 tons, between roll cores and wide format papers.”


Theories of Relativity

The amount of PSPs considering green media is growing and much of this is related to vendors and suppliers’ stances on the subject.


“Everyone’s working a lot harder at being green,” concurs Jonathan Graham, worldwide business development manager, Graphics Solutions Business, HP. “On the substrate side people are much more concerned about vinyl. There are take-back, recycling, and recovery programs in place, particularly in North America. We have to make sure that our industry takes advantage of these opportunities.”


“Paper mills are focusing on reducing natural resource consumption—fiber, water, and energy—and sustainable sourcing, while original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are working diligently to reduce the energy required to run their equipment,” adds Al Bobst, digital market segment manager, Monadnock Paper Mills, Inc.


“There are many more non-PVC products, biodegradable products, and so forth. It used to be that faced with a choice between an environmentally friendly product and one that wasn’t—with the price differential—the printer and the customer would likely choose the cheaper one,” recalls Peter Spotto, director, sales, DreamScape.


Nate Goodman, product manager, Drytac Corporation, acknowledges that often even the most environmentally compelling media—with the promise of equal performance and lifespan—isn’t enough to persuade customers shopping by price.


“When someone says, ‘I need a banner this big,’ they just want whatever is cheapest. They’re not thinking that it’s only going to be useful to them for three months and then be thrown away,” forewarns Goodman. That’s why it’s so important for PSPs to know the media, define its environmental value, and educate customers about why they carry that media,” he suggests.


“The environmental profile of the media and the print process are a major consideration, particularly in architecture and interior design. Papermakers collaborate with OEMs to create media compatible with eco-solvent, latex, and UV,” says Bobst.


While the average customers coming into a sign shop may not be ripe for a thorough education on sustainability, they will appreciate that their print supplier has carefully considered these dilemmas on their behalf. Larger brands and print-buying agents demand it of their suppliers.


Getting Started

Transforming large format graphics into a more responsible and sustainable print segment is a shared concern, according to Graham, who says that it begins with the printer manufacturers, ink developers, and media suppliers, extends to the print shops across the nation—and includes their customers, the print buyers.


The PSPs profiled here are part of this movement, ready to take their knowledge to their customers and showcase the benefits of eco-friendly media.


Click here to view the Think Green Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!


May2014, Digital Output

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