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Sustainability: The Ultimate ROI?

How renewable business practices can make your shop more profitable.



Sustainability. In 2017, that term most likely elicits one of several responses. Perhaps it’s a sense of pride as it relates to your business, processes, and employees. Or, maybe it’s apprehension at the perceived associated costs of “going green,” not to mention time and energy spent converting your facility and systems. It may even be outright confusion, because these days, how does one even know what sustainability entails? Wherever you may fall on that spectrum, at some point, the question of whether or not sustainability is worth the investment and hassle has probably crossed your mind.

Some businesses go green because they believe it’s the right thing to do: for their employees, their community, or the planet. Some do it because, as the nation continues its shift toward greater utilization of renewables each year, more and more clients are interested in, or required to work with, sustainable service providers. And some do it because they want to turn more of a profit.

Wait. What’s that now? Businesses can make the switch to sustainability and see an increase in profit? It’s absolutely possible. By making smart choices and thinking more in the long term, businesses across the country have proven a return on initial investment and profit growth.

According to findings from the 2016 Sustainability Global Executive Study and Research Project by MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group, of more than 3000 respondents surveyed, about one third say sustainability-related actions and decisions have increased profits. However, in organizations that made more wide-ranging, sustainability-related business model changes, that percentage jumps to 60 percent.

From switching out solvents and ramping up recycling efforts to adjusting artwork for optimal orientation and updating overhead lighting, with a little ingenuity and the willingness to look at your business through “green-colored glasses,” you’ll find efficiencies and opportunities are all around.

‘There’s No Magic “Green” Bullet’
In Orange County, California, Foothill Ranch is home to notable companies like Oakley, Cox Communications, and Nike, plus Image Options, a marketing communications company specializing in all aspects of retail and corporate marketing efforts from design through engineering, production, and delivery. And, they’re certified as a member of the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP).


If you’re unfamiliar, the SGP is an independent nonprofit providing a certification label for sustainability in the printing industry, according to their website. The organization is viewed as the industry standard for the certification and continuous improvement of sustainability and best practices within print manufacturing operations. Before its creation, there were no boundaries or parameters set as to what defined a sustainable printing operation. Now, SGP provides a benchmark for print facilities’ sustainability endeavors.

An Image Options team member cuts UV-imaged, eco-friendly, white Falconboard event graphics. Designs are expertly oriented to maximize space on a single sheet and reduce waste.

As one of the first shops in the industry to recognize the advantages of and begin using bio-solvents, a corn-based ink lacking harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Image Options has always been at the forefront of green technology, according to company president Brian Hite. “We’ve always believed in being good corporate citizens,” he says. “But there’s no magic ‘green’ bullet to profit.” Social responsibility, he notes, takes dedication and determination. “It’s in everyday decisions that are environmentally conscious.”

That’s why Hite and his shop work to utilize every square inch of material when printing, expertly orienting artwork to maximize space on a single sheet to reduce waste that goes to the recycling bin or landfill. This means fewer trash and recycling pickups, which equals less money leaving the building. “Any shop can choose to do this,” says Hite. “And you don’t have to worry about employees getting on board. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the company, and it’s good for paychecks.”

Tracking, metrics, and documentation are also vital to profits, adds Hite. For example, from 2011 to 2014, the company was able to increase the amount of materials they recycled from 17,660 pounds to nearly 26,000 pounds. They were also able to reduce VOCs from 1350 pounds down to just 162 pounds – an 88 percent improvement, which has the added benefit of being great for the health of their employees and the safety of their building.

Additional savings arose as Image Options updated their facility, installing motion-sensing LED fixtures throughout and swapping out their compressed air system and AC units. The 103,000-square-foot facility now uses 30 percent less electricity per month than their previous 70,000-square-foot building.


Image Options is able to do many of these things because they make the time to “document solvents, document material use, document everything,” according to Hite, such as cataloging metal waste in order to gauge recycling efforts and ensure the company sees a significant return.

They even test for metals and bio-components in the shop’s waste stream. “We’ve been doing this from Day One, even before our SGP certification,” says Hite. And although getting SGP-certified initially takes time and effort, sometimes up to nine months, it’s an extremely rewarding process. “And I should know,” he continues. “We’ve moved twice, so we’ve had to go through certification three times. But you look at what we’re doing and it’s completely worth it.”

An Image Options team member images sustainable, recycled fabric on the shop’s new EFI FabriVu 340 dye sub printer.

The company’s CEO, Tim Bennett, was a member of the original SGP planning board back in 2008 and helped define what it means to be sustainable in this business. Thus the idea that drives the SGP – “Responsibility by all means profitability for all” – is at the heart of Image Options’ practices and policies.

“Our goal is maximum audience impact, minimum eco-impact,” says Hite. “And through our continued efforts, we’re achieving it.”

Eliminate Waste, Save Money
With two retail storefronts, a commercial facility, and a production facility, QSL Print Communications in Springfield, Oregon, has a lot of ground to cover in trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but somehow this family-owned, fourth-generation business has been providing – and profiting from – sustainable print services for decades.


That’s because QSL is aiming for zero waste. As in, none at all. The company started down this path by recycling everything: “One hundred percent of our aluminum press plates. One hundred percent of our solution containers. And 100 percent of our pallets, including the straps, wood, and cardboard,” says QSL VP Melissa Koke. “Even shrink wrap.” And because the company’s paper needs are sourced on a per-job basis, there’s no storage, and no waste.

Because standard banner material doesn’t biodegrade in a landfill and can’t be recycled, QSL is testing new banner material made from 100-percent recycled plastic bottles which, even after being printed on, can be recycled back into plastic bottles.

QSL also uses only soy-based ink, so there are no harmful toxins polluting the air or noxious chemicals stored in their buildings. And utilizing digital presses allows the company to produce shorter print runs with fewer setups, only printing what’s absolutely necessary. Their web-to-print services make it even easier to control inventory and reduce waste.

“If you’re not paying attention, all sorts of waste can add up over time,” continues Koke. “It didn’t happen overnight, but each year we got better and smarter, and we saw the efficiencies begin to add up. That all turns directly into profit.”

The company maintains this level of consistency by making it easy and convenient for employees to participate. Beginning with early education and ensuring that everything in the manufacturing process is labeled reduces mistakes and prevents errors. QSL has also set up reminder signs and recycling bins around the shop for a multitude of materials, including plastic/glass/metal commingling, paper products, refundable items, and even compost – going so far as creating an area for staff to compost leftover lunch and dinner scraps.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. “We embraced a diverse set of green technologies and renewable resources early on,” explains Koke, “but there were concerns about quality. And to us, and more importantly, to our customers, quality is paramount.”

Through some expected trial and error – and the due diligence of searching for and sourcing products and materials from the right suppliers and vendors who champion sustainability as much as the shop does – those original concerns never proved to be an issue. “You can maintain high quality and be sustainable,” observes Koke. “It has its challenges, but it’s definitely possible, because we’re doing it.”

This sustainable tradeshow booth was recently completed by QSL for a local B2B Expo. A layered, dimensional piece, the booth is built completely from recyclable substrates, even down to the reusable plastic panel joints.

To stay accountable, QSL uses Bring Recycling, one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit recyclers, and their RE:think Business certification, a free, comprehensive program that helps Lane County, Oregon, businesses reduce waste and save money.

“That’s certainly a silver lining,” says Koke, “that when you figure out how to reduce waste, you save money.” And even though saving money, she explains, isn’t why they do it, Koke recognizes that the business needs to make money and keep the lights on. “Even if they’re LEDs.”

It’s Never Been Easier
Just up the coast, Stella Color in Seattle offers a wide range of large-format digital products and services. An SGP-certified shop since 2010, Lynn Krinsky, Stella’s owner and one of our , remembers the good ol‘ days of doing paste-ups, back when her biggest expense was buying empty 4-ounce bottles and metal nuts to mix printer colors manually.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” she says, noting the impact today’s technology has had on her business and her ability to be sustainable. “We were one of the first shops on the West Coast to add dye sublimation to our product mix back in ’94. At the time, we were just looking to add something new, something different, but it had the happy coincidence of being more sustainable than a lot of the other products at the time.”

But just because something’s better for the environment, adds Krinsky, doesn’t mean it’s going to catch on quickly. There’s typically an adoption factor, time and energy put in before the wheels of progress turn. The T8 lighting Krinsky and her team initially installed to replace older fluorescents, for instance, burned out far faster than expected. After some digging, they discovered that the motion sensors they had also newly installed were shortening the life of the bulbs, turning them on and off more frequently than their design specifications could handle. “Trial and error is a large part of trying new things. You just have to plan for it,” she says.

In the Northwest, where sustainability is a serious business, there isn’t much room for mistakes. “You’ll get a note from the city for having glass mixed in with your cardboard recycling at home,” observes Krinsky. “They’ll make the time to let you know.”

Yet, even though they’re sticklers on sorting, the city and county are great sources for information and programs on recycling, renewables, and sustainability, according to Krinsky. “Seattle City Light, our public energy utility, teamed up with the city to offer free LED bulbs to businesses looking to become more efficient. We took advantage of the program to switch out our old incandescents, and now we’re saving 30 percent on our electric bills on average. It’s definitely worth looking into in your own area.”

Stella also has a number of ways in which they’re reducing waste, saving money, and looking out for the planet. Like the other SGP-certified shops, they conduct regular staff training and education; recycle acrylics, wood, and other production materials; and use hand dryers in their bathrooms – and kitchen. “You know how it is,” describes Krinsky. “You wash a plate, or wash your hands, and you reach for a paper towel. That’s a lot of waste people don’t always think about going into the landfill.”

There are many great ideas out there on reducing waste and adding to your profits, says Krinsky; you just have to be willing to look, and maybe ask for some help.

A Modernistic Approach
Modernistic, located in idyllic Stillwater, Minnesota, is a national supplier of décor, displays, graphics, and industrial OEM products. After nearly 80 years in service, this third-generation family-owned business is experiencing firsthand the savings behind “saving the planet.” They’re also the only print shop in the world to receive an eight years in a row.

A Modernistic digital cutting operator removes styrene waste from the shop’s Zünd bed for recycling. A styrene recycling Gaylord located near his operating station reduces extra steps while maximizing recycling potential.

“We don’t want to just meet requirements,” says DeAnn Strenke, marketing manager at Modernistic. “We work hard to exceed our own expectations and distinguish ourselves as a leader in sustainable business practices.”

Strenke believes the company’s employees want to participate in sustainability, and if opportunities are made available to them, they will. And they do. They’ve set up Gaylord boxes around the shop to facilitate all kinds of recycling, and the staff takes full advantage. Each year, Modernistic recycles around 3 tons of aluminum and miscellaneous metals, 114 tons of corrugated material, 120 tons of plastic waste, and 96 tons of scrap pallets and shipping crates. Because of their efforts, 333 tons of waste avoided the landfill last year.

“Recycling has a cost: to get employees on board, to separate, to haul away,” adds Strenke. “But by reducing our waste, we’re not just preventing otherwise recyclable materials from ending up in the ground; we’re reducing the number of trips the city has to make to our business for trash collection. That savings, along with the fact that some materials, like PETG and styrene, can be recycled and actually bring in money, really adds up over time.”

To bring about further efficiencies, the company replaced all of the metal halide bulbs and fixtures on their shop floor with compact modular, high-intensity fluorescent bulbs. The resulting energy savings cut light-related electricity costs by 64 percent – from $58,715 annually to just $21,000. This reduction also had the added bonus of earning the business the distinction of Xcel Energy Efficiency Partner Status in 2009 and an Orion Energy Systems Environmental Stewardship Award. It was in 2009 that the company also received their SGP certification.

“It’s all in the continuous improvement,” says Strenke. “Each year, as part of our SGP recertification, we’re required to submit a plan to improve our business further – to make us more efficient, or reduce more waste. And that’s where the real savings come in.”

Modernistic has positioned Gaylords for recycling a wide variety of different materials throughout their facility, along with easy-to-follow instructions on what can and cannot be recycled. These actions remove team member confusion and exponentially increase recyclable output.

Over the years, Strenke, as the shop’s SGP coordinator, and her team have come up with a number of cost-saving strategies to not only meet the SGP continuous improvement requirement, but also add profit to the company’s bottom line. In 2016, for instance, they decided to set a goal to reduce the amount of cleaning disinfectant chemical usage in the company by 75 percent. By installing a new chemical dispensing system, they managed to dramatically reduce chemical waste and cut employee exposure to the hazardous fluid. This change also significantly reduced the amount of plastic “ready-to-use” disinfectant bottles that were being shipped to the facility, further reducing transit and recycling costs.

All that to say, in the end, Modernistic didn’t achieve a 75 percent chemical usage reduction. They hit 85 percent.

Just Start
“In 2016, the SGP-certified community realized total operational savings of $2.3 million,” says Marci Kinter, chair, SGP Technical Committee, and member of the SGP Board of Directors. “That includes a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2.42 tons.”

Being more sustainable and using some kind of benchmark or certification to keep yourself accountable can benefit your business in a variety of ways, from creating real cost and resource savings to ensuring a better, healthier facility and community, to gaining differentiation in a crowded marketplace. However you choose to start, the best thing to do is just start. As each print shop noted, it can take small changes over time, but the savings really do add up.

Whether or not you’re currently emphasizing sustainability in your own shop, it’s clear that the days of spending more on green products, materials, and services with no return on investment are gone. “Year over year,” notes Kinter, “SGP continues to see the positive impact of sustainable business practices turned into real operational savings.” And that’s a future we can all count on.

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