The Marshall Plan: Sustainability Starts with Action

Is 2018 the year your shop finally goes green?

This month’s column will look at a trend gaining a lot of momentum in the industry today – sustainability. If you haven’t been paying attention lately, more folks are jumping on that “green” bandwagon than ever before. No, not PMS 354 or Kelly Green. I mean eco-green. Green as in environmentally friendly, and green as in money.

That’s right: Pushing your processes and product choices to be more sustainable can mean more money to your bottom line from two directions. First, there’s the cost savings you’ll reap when you get your sustainability initiative underway and performing. Then, if you can craft a strategy to help market your new capabilities, such as obtaining a third-party, audited sustainability certification, you’ll begin raking in the green of new client money. Believe it or not, there are customers out there who value working with vendors that are trying to make a difference.

Digging Deeper
This isn’t a new topic for me: Those of you who have read anything I’ve written over the past few years know my feelings about the benefits of sustainability. What’s noteworthy, though, is that more people are interested in this topic than ever before. It came up again and again at the ThreadX conference in Palm Springs, California in February – not just in the presentations, but in conversations among the attendees.

When you consider how industry manufacturers are tweaking their products, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the trend is here to stay. Shirt manufacturers, for example, are using more sustainable sources for their yarn – organic; recycled; modal. It’s all being woven into super soft, trendy, retail-oriented fashion blanks.

But if you use those blanks and don’t really have a sustainable production environment, it is akin to only singing half of the song. You need to fine tune that other half to authentically market your wares as “green.” Otherwise, you are lying to yourself and your customers. That’s called “greenwashing.”

Getting Started
Putting a sustainability program into place at your company is like any other process. It’s not that hard. Like any journey, it begins with you taking action.

Let’s begin with a simple idea – a three-letter word, actually: Why.

Why should sustainability matter to your company? Is it because your customers are demanding it? I’m sure you want to decorate on those awesome new eco-apparel blanks and your customers are probably asking for them more frequently. But is a bigger trend taking place?

More of corporate America is interested in the triple bottom line than ever before. If you don’t think so, go to any major corporation’s website and read their policy online. If you aren’t getting business from those big brands, it may be because you are not aligned with their ideals.

Maybe you’re thinking about sustainability because you believe it can push more cash to your bottom line – always a good thing. Sustainable manufacturing can be a cost-saver.

Or maybe it’s a personal issue for you. The planet needs help. We can do more than clean up the side of the road on Earth Day.

If you start with your why, it will be easier to work on your plan and the justifications for beginning. The what and how will become more apparent to you. This framework will also help you make some crucial decisions later.

Action Step One: Energy
So, let’s say you’ve decided to get started. Where to begin? Easy: Take a look at your energy consumption. Whether you rent or own your building, you are forking out a lot of money for utilities. It’s one of the biggest expenses in your company, and also one of the easiest places to make some big improvements that matter.

First, contact your local utility company and schedule a commercial energy audit. This should be a service provided free or at a nominal charge by your utility company. They will schedule an auditor to come to your facility and nose around. The auditor will look at your HVAC, equipment, windows and doors, and other areas of concern. They may also ask you questions such as where you lose heating and cooling, how old your lighting fixtures are, and so on.

After the auditor is finished, he or she will write up a report on your energy consumption with a laundry list of all the things you can do to improve. That’s the best part: They do the thinking for you. Better, they will often recommend sources of grant money or low-interest loans that you may be eligible for to make the improvements.

Some of the recommendations you may see on your report, to cite just a few examples:

  • Switch out your lighting to LEDs.
  • Fix an air compressor leak or replace the unit.
  • Improve the sealer systems on your loading dock.
  • Install solar panels on the roof.

Action Step Two: Efficiency
Nothing lowers your cost of production better than efficiency, and the same mindset describes sustainability. When you eliminate waste, whether it’s unneeded motion or materials, you’re making yourself more sustainable, too.

Being efficient means that you complete more work with the same amount of labor, expense, and time as yesterday. Some of you may recognize this line of thinking as “continuous improvement;” if so, you are already familiar with one of the key questions you should ask as you consider making changes: Again, it’s “Why?”

Why do we use that ink? Why haven’t we changed the air filters in two years? Why are we still using film to image screens? Why haven’t we purchased a Newton meter? That one word can take you in a lot of interesting directions. The most common answer, and the one hated by any decent production thinker, is “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

Do yourself a favor and open up your mind to the possibility that, no matter how many years you’ve been in business, there may be a better way. I’ve been in this industry a long time and I learn something new practically every day. Challenge your norms.

Efficiency and performance usually live upstream from where you are standing. For example, if you find your press operators double stroking your white ink to get better opacity on a dark shirt, the problem may not be the ink. Look into the process step before that.

Why are you using that particular squeegee durometer? When was the last time the blade was sharpened? Do the press operators know how things like squeegee and floodbar pressure affect opacity? Go back another step: What is the tension of the screen? How are the screens being coated with emulsion?

You may be asking yourself what this stuff has to do with sustainability. They’re just printing techniques, right? Yes. Efficiency and performance all center on technique. When you do things the right way, you use less product. The same work takes less time. Using less product while getting faster throughput means you print more shirts in the same timeframe, at lower costs. Cha-ching!

Action Step Three: Training
Sustainability doesn’t impose itself in your shop: It’s a decision. It’s work.

It gets easier, though, when you are transparent about what you are doing and involve your team. This means that dreaded “T” word: training. Your crew needs to understand what’s going on and, more importantly, how they can help.

Ask each department what could be done to take a step out of the work process in their area. I’ll bet that if you ask every person on your staff, you’ll get a bunch of great answers, many that you hadn’t even considered. Try it.

Training your staff about sustainability isn’t lecturing about the need to turn off the lights or put soda cans in the right bin. It’s about getting people to think. Once your crew is empowered to help, the ideas will start flowing like a river. Training is simply sharing. You’re probably used to the boss telling everyone what to do, not asking the employees what they think. That might mean you need to be brave enough to lead your team differently.

So, in essence, you’ll be training too. Sustainability opens up a lot of great doors.

Action Step Four: Certification
Let’s talk about the money-making part of sustainability. That’s when your marketing department gets in on the program.

The first step along that path can be much easier if you have a guide. For that, I highly recommend getting involved with SGIA’s Peer-to-Peer Network, a group of like-minded shops that are all working to improve their sustainability.

The Network has webinars every other week that will teach you the finer points of building your sustainability program. One week, you’ll learn to measure your carbon footprint; the next, they may help you write your mission statement or set some goals. Other members of the group are learning, too, so you can compare notes.

When you do the work and get through the program, then you’ll have a foundation in place to consider going for a third-party sustainability certification. The best-known one in the printing industry is the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) Certification. Your state or region may have sustainability certification programs as well that are worth exploring.

The reason certifications can be valuable for your company is that they are tough to get. An auditor will come out to your shop to review your program. In the case of SGP, if you have gone through the Peer-to-Peer Network program, you should be ready, as it basically teaches the answers to the test.

Most of what auditors want to see is your documentation. Do you have written rules and procedures for how your shop should operate? If so, are you using them? Working on this can be a challenge. But remember, no growth comes without friction.

Getting the certification is a big deal. Your shop will be one of the best in the industry in terms of sustainability. This is a highly marketable point. Remember, anyone can decorate a shirt. A sustainability certification puts you in a different league.

Go back to your “why” statement. If buying eco-friendly products matters to your customers, then this is the direction that you should take.

Read more from Screen Printing's April/May 2018 issue or check out more advice from The Marshall Plan.

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