The print industry's take on sustainable practices is erratic, to say the least.
We’ve heard a fair amount of chatter about sustainability in various circles recently, but if you’ve listened closely, you realize, by now, that some of those data points are contradictory.
Print buyers are placing increasing pressure on their suppliers to eliminate PVC from their products, affecting not just P-O-P printers but apparel decorators as well. It’s been a boon for companies manufacturing recycled rigid substrates, water-based textile inks, and more. Yet, I recently saw an op-ed piece in The New York Times that made a fairly well-reasoned case that with the exception of paper and metal, recycling doesn’t make economic or environmental sense – not even for plastics such as PVC.
Buyers are also beginning to ask about sustainability programs in their requests for quotes, says Marci Kinter, SGIA’s resident expert on environmental issues and a champion of the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership certification program. Yet most printers I talk to say their customers’ interest stops the moment they’re told that sustainable product substitutions may carry a higher price. And, at the recent International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) in Austin, Texas, the most important educational event for people who plan retail spaces, only two of 400 attendees selected sustainability from a list of interactive discussion topics. (Disclosure: Screen Printing magazine’s sister title, VMSD, produces IRDC and I chair its educational program.)
So, what’s the industry’s current pulse on sustainability? Kind of arrhythmic.
I’m beginning to believe that a very different diagnosis may lie ahead, however. This realization came during the closing keynote presentation at IRDC, delivered by Christian Davies of design firm Fitch. Laying forth a challenge for all retailers, while wryly noting that his presentation was the only one delivered at a major design conference in 2015 themed to sustainability, Davies presented a systematic case for why socially responsible business practices will be vital for success in the years ahead.
His premise? Tomorrow’s customers won’t accept anything less. Younger consumers are increasingly identifying with brands that share their values and rewarding them with their loyalty. This is particularly true for Generation Z – today’s 14- to 19-year-olds, who will be the most important demographic for most brand marketers within just five years, and who represent what Davies called the most socially responsible generation in history. They can, and will, put their dollars behind their beliefs.
For printers, the trickle-down consequences of this change in mindset are clear: Consumers will put pressure on brands and retailers, which, in turn, will look to their suppliers. We’ve already seen how this affects printers through Walmart, Nike, and many others. There will be more direct repercussions as well. Some of today’s teenagers will one day work at ad agencies and other organizations that procure printing. All will be entering the job market soon. If you think it’s tough to recruit young people into a printing business now, wait until 2020.
The good news, and it was underscored by Davies as he profiled exceptional work being done by progressive retailers today, is that sustainability should be embraced rather than feared. It strengthens customer relationships and streamlines production, often with measurable ROI. All the more reason to get in front of the generational shift that is surely headed our way.
P.S. See a video of Davies’ presentation.
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