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Printers blinded by green spotlight: Print 21 magazine article

Wednesday, 22 July 2009
By Print 21 Online Article

Focusing on ‘green’ issues is distracting printing companies from concentrating on what is really important to customers – namely, creating effective, affordable communications. Part of the problem, argues Tony Duncan, is that we still don’t know enough about where our print goes and what makes it work.

Australian (and other) politicians are really struggling to put together sensible policies to address the range of issues that are accumulated under the terms climate change, sustainability or being green.

This has led to an uncomfortable vacuum, and as politics thrives in a vacuum, all sorts of actors are currently taking positions as saviours, zealots, bullies and purveyors of snake oil.

The continuing problem seems to be that the whole area is in danger of being turned into a commodity – an undifferentiated, one-size fits all generic piece of policy which fails to address the complexities of the issue. And a common theme of all good strategy or policy is that the vision remains simple and very focused while the nuances are complex. I sometimes think we are getting the climate change policy back to front.

The whole debate is unfortunately getting a bit boring, as all sides (not sure how many sides there are on this issue, but it is at least a heptagon) posture to ensure they get the greatest gains. After all, the definition of policy is simply the re-distribution of money.

The problem seems to me to be a lack of definition rather than a lack of science. Reducing carbon dioxide pollution is in the interests of every business. It is a waste by-product from manufacturing processes. Reducing it directly is good. Reducing it indirectly (energy reduction) saves money. And government support to drive reductions is sound policy whether you believe in climate change or not.

Unfortunately, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme seems to be in danger of spinning out of control. (And, by the way, there is nothing wrong with carbon, most of us are carbon-based life-forms – the issue is with greenhouse gases). This continuous spin is, I believe, causing many people to turn-off. To date, the major area of research spending around climate change has been to find technologies to minimise carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations and find places where it can be buried. The irony of a government saying it is OK to bury this industrial waste (CO2) while our industry is being driven by other regulations to minimise or ban sending paper waste to landfill, should not be lost.

Don’t believe the hype
In the meantime, some in our industry are mistakenly getting sucked into the policy vacuum and attempting to address wider policy issues, often in the guise of customer perceptions, rather than focusing on the issues that are really affecting their business. It is easy to get caught up in the hype of ‘greenism’ rather than focusing on delivering what customers really need – effective communications at prices competitive with other media – while continuously reducing material and cost inputs (aka sustainability). Focusing on green PR is a nice ‘warm and fuzzy’, but it is not cost nor customer effective for the vast majority of companies, and it is debatable whether it is doing the industry any good.

Unfortunately, the mixed signals from areas of government tend to negate some of the initiatives that can deliver real greenhouse gas reduction benefits. There is an underlying truth that trees and plants are about the only things on the planet that can remove and sequester carbon dioxide. Currently we use trees for timber and paper, although elsewhere in Europe and North America there is a growing business in cellulose as a retail fuel. (Waste from the papermaking process has been fuelling paper and pulp mills for decades, and in Australia it makes up 50 per cent or more of the energy source for some mills.) Again, in Europe particularly, a number of mills have joint ventures with energy companies looking at second generation technologies to convert cellulose from wood into transport fuels. The energy companies have the money and the forestry/paper companies have the logistics and cellulose technical expertise.

While there is one near-commercial ‘tree’ to ethanol plant in operation in Australia, there has not been too much support here for research into these technologies even though we have the sixth largest forestry resources in the world, a major fire issue in southern Australia, and real employment and economic opportunities provided by these new technologies focused primarily on forestry litter and waste. The research needed is long term (three years plus) and it is unusual for any company to be spending too much money on projects with these timeframes and high degree of technical risk. As such the industry is dependent on organisations such as CSIRO to be undertaking this ‘blue sky’ work. Unfortunately they have not, and their drive for more corporate dollars effectively means they end up involved in short term work, with little chance of breakthrough developments.

Print’s black hole

For the print industry, the issues are in some ways easier and less grandiose. All smart strategies rely on delivering on both the top line (sales/margins) as well as the bottom line (costs). Focusing on non-sexy day-to-day sustainability issues such as lean manufacturing, reduction in energy, waste, water, VOCs and recycling is where there are real opportunities to make money while delivering to consumers concrete examples of sustainable manufacturing in action. And the smarter governments in the States and Territories are providing funds to support companies prepared to invest in these cost and waste reduction programs.

But don’t get caught up in the hype to ‘prove’ print is more environmentally friendly than new media. While some facts do need to be put on the table, this is not an argument that many large customers will heed. Although they may posture differently, the environmental argument is often secondary to the need for print to be competitive and more effective against other media. And while customers need to understand that you are taking steps to reduce environmental footprints and minimising their risk when specifying print, they are most interested in how print is going to perform.

As with all industries, some find it easier to promote green-ness, rather than doing the hard yards to develop their data and understand where print is more effective. And that is one of the major reasons many sectors of print are losing out to other media. Producing effective print is climate-friendly and sustainable for all concerned. Unfortunately, measuring it is difficult.

And that is where some of the organisations in the industry should be spending their dollars. Exactly how it is done is something which should be exercising the minds of the smarter people in the print and paper industry who are concerned with the medium term outlook. Without an understanding of the effectiveness of a particular piece of print, how do you convince your customer to spend the dollars? Other industries and media sectors manage.

For an industry which measures performance throughout the manufacturing process – people, paper, consumables and equipment – product performance is generally a black hole: printed products are sent out into the big wide world and … good luck.

We had this issue arise when working with the NSW government on the recovery of printed matter. While newsprint and packaging recovery is reasonably well-known, general commercial print is not – primarily because we don’t know where it ends up. While most commercial print is sold to corporate Australia, probably the majority actually ends up in the home (eg transactional mail, magazines etc). There is little data available and anyone who says they know is just guessing.

It is easy to see how this has implications for the recycling industry as they need to know where the opportunities are, but there are also implications for the producers of print and their customers. Understanding how the printed product is used by its end users impacts on how the product is designed and provides a continuous opportunity to value add and niche market. Otherwise we end up in the commodity trap.

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