Beyond Green: Exploring the Multifaceted Realm of Sustainability in Printing

It is a good idea to use a different language.t’s a topic that has been hashed out, examined, and discussed almost endlessly in the printing industry over the last several years. It’s been dissected, defined, redefined, implemented, and strategized by manufacturers, suppliers, and printers. 

Sustainability isn’t a new term to the printing industry. In fact, it’s become part of the daily vocabulary. Yet for all the talks and efforts, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And there’s still a lot of unknowns when it comes to what sustainability truly means and what its role in printing is. In order to help the industry implement real changes, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of sustainability, as well as examples of other companies’ efforts and goals. 


Let’s start with the basics: what is sustainability? While it’s loosely defined across multiple industries — and can be tweaked and formatted to fit individual goals — there are a few basic principles that the term encompasses.

Garry Bell from Chasing Better Consultants Inc. believes that it is difficult to define a definition. Bell is currently assisting U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in the completion of the development and launch of its sustainability program. 

“Sustainability in all industries means the adoption of practices and processes that reduce the environmental impact, improve social outcomes, and have no effect or improve economic outcomes for the parties adopting the practice,” he says. “[That’s a] very vague response, but if these three elements are not achieved, then the practice may not be retained when overall market conditions deteriorate.” Often sustainability is tied to environmental impact, but Bell lists two other key factors in his definition: social and economic outcomes. 

“Sustainability goes outside just the environmental section,” says Paige Goff, vice president, sustainability at Domtar, a provider of a variety of fiber-based products. “What we have seen in the past several years is that the social part of sustainability is very important. It goes into your personal life with your relationships, with your family.”

This may seem to be outside of the print world, but it is important to note that global trends have an impact on what sustainability means for our industry. “Global standards unite us under a shared objective,” Steven Reid, compliance and sustainability manager at Showdown Displays, states. “These standards have not only prompted customer inquiries about our products and manufacturing practices, but they’ve also spurred evaluation based on their alignment with worldwide initiatives.”

Gary Jones is vice president of environmental, health and safety affairs (EHS) for PRINTING united Alliance. He notes that many define sustainability as their way of life. “Sustainability for me is not a set of discrete actions, but a lifestyle that involves making choices that support reducing my personal impact on the environment, and purchasing products and services that don’t exploit vulnerable populations,” he says. 

Jones’ personal opinion often applies to the printing industry, regardless of whether it is Jones’s or that of any other print shop owners, employees, or customers. “Sustainability for a printing operation is like my personal view in that it should be a framework for operating a business,” Jones believes. “The framework needs to include the three key aspects of sustainability: people, planet, and profit. All three are equally important, as they impact how viable a company will be in today’s economic environment.”

Showdown Displays’ team members participated in a beach clean-up event. They demonstrated the importance of sustainability as a part of corporate culture. | Credit: Showdown displays

Sustainable Solutions in the Printing Industry

The programs that are already in place within the printing industry provide a more concrete definition of sustainability. Many print, manufacturing, and supplier businesses have already implemented programs.

Bell begins with the materials. “Sustainable solutions include more environmentally friendly materials (inks, solvents, etc.),” he says, “as well as more sustainable substrates.” His list includes: 

  • Clothing made of sustainable fibers, packaging that is recyclable or recycled, etc. 
  • Innovative practices to reduce the environmental impact by reducing waste and using fewer resources. 
  • Adoption new technologies which consume less energy such as infrared dryers. 
  • Changes in business practices that have a positive impact on outcomes such as using virtual sampling instead fCal sampling (direct to screen software, direct to garment printing, etc.).).

Reid offers a few other simple suggestions. He acknowledges that the evaluation of raw materials is a good starting point. “Does the supplier offer a sustainable option and what do they claim are the benefits and can the claims be validated?” he poses. “Our company has looked at its production processes to identify waste streams from each and have connected with other companies that can use that waste for their processes, which reduces our landfill impact.”

Clothing and textiles is one of the largest industries in the world.
The top 10 industries that waste the most resources in the world
Threadfast Apparel is one of the many companies that are now producing garments from recycled or recyclable materials. | Threadfast Apparel

“[It] starts with small actions that build and support each other with the ultimate goal of integrating sustainability into all aspects of an operation,” Jones believes. “In my experience, there are many companies that are on the continuum by implementing programs to capture and recycle certain process materials, make changes to inks and substrates, and use newer, less polluting technology.” 

Others take a completely different approach. “[Other companies] undertake more aggressive actions and set ambitious goals such as becoming a zero-landfill operation or to replace all their electricity consumption from nonrenewable sources to renewable ones,” Jones explains.

For Goff, this is where the “why” comes in. While many in the printing industry have a good grasp on the subject, there are some that don’t. “We’ve been very vocal from primarily where Domtar is because a lot of folks don’t understand the fundamentals,” Goff says. She says that education about sustainability is essential. “We also focus on why this is important — to link manufacturers to the end users. That’s when customers understand and make the connection because of products we use every day, like toilet paper.”

Goff says that this knowledge can help you implement your own programs. Take paper, for example, since it’s one of the biggest players in the industry. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around paper: People think of cutting trees down but don’t understand that keeping forest [a] forest is extremely important,” Goff says. It’s not that harvesting trees for paper in and of itself is bad, which is why it’s crucial to understand the process to debunk those myths. 

“Make sure you educate [so] that people understand that we harvest in different areas,” Goff offers. “It’s rotational. It’s not completely taking out the entire forest. You may harvest once, maybe twice in people’s lifetime. It doesn’t happen every day, it does rotate.”

Look at the Laws and Regulations

Clothing and textiles are a major part of this industry. It’s here that sustainability efforts are growing at lighting speed. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tracking of municipal waste (MSW) includes textile materials. It collects data about textile production and their disposal by recycling, composting and combustion with energy-recovery, as well as landfilling. The organization estimates the production of textiles MSW was 17 millions tons in 2018.

“The overall apparel and textile industry is facing significant scrutiny on both the environmental impact front and the social compliance front,” says Bell. This scrutiny led to massive revamp efforts. “On the environmental side, government regulatory frameworks are increasingly requiring all consumer and customer advertising to avoid any semblance of greenwashing, effectively forcing the advertisers to be able to prove any claims they make externally,” he adds.

Materials such as inks and paper, among others, have been a major focus of efforts to improve sustainability. | Credit: NUtec Digital Ink

The social aspect of the debate is not left out. “On the social compliance side, the recent changes such as the U.S. Government’s UFLPA (Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act), places the responsibility on all importers of products into the U.S.A. to be able to document and prove the origin of the raw materials and the locations of each supply chain participant connected to the overall value chain of any imported product,” explains Bell. One of the largest items imported from the region — Cotton.

Jones has worked extensively in the area legislation which affects all printers, whether they are large format, direct mail, apparel, or anything else. “A pattern that we have been seeing emerging over the past several years has been that governments are now getting involved and passing legislation mandating that companies wishing to conduct business in their country now meet certain requirements,” he notes. The European Union (EU) is experiencing a lot of progress.

Why is it important for Americans, and especially printers? “Even though these regulations were adopted in the EU, they apply to any U.S. company that either provides covered products or does business in the EU, and meets the threshold for compliance,” Jones explains. “In addition, these new requirements will require EU-based companies to request information and assurances from anyone in their supply chain, so they are very impactful.”

Final Thoughts

It’s difficult to touch on every aspect of sustainability in just one conversation. Manufacturers, suppliers, and printing shops can work together to change the industry by understanding global impacts and factors. “Inspire your colleagues by showcasing the value that embracing sustainability can bring,” finishes Reid. “Elevate your understanding and actively engage your team, fostering a collective effort to drive meaningful change.”