Greenway or the Highway

Green isn’t just for the Birkenstock-clad, tree-hugging hippie any more. The signage and printing industries haven’t exactly been known for their clean practices, but this is rapidly changing. Everything from substrates, to inks, to printing processes has seen vast improvements as the idea of “greenness” has increasingly gained acceptance. The movement has become especially visible within the world of banner materials. Recyclable, eco-friendly, biodegradable – all are terms finding their way into banner printing.

Be forewarned, there are no industry regulations defining a true green product. And while there are organizations seeking to improve this, it’s still a “new, up-and-coming” market, and let’s be realistic – it’s always easy to make a quick buck on a developing trend.

So what exactly is green?

For banners, substrates that are both recycled and recyclable are one of the latest green industry advancements.

Don Graham, president of Toronto-based BMG Imaging, explains that this is known as a complete “cradle-to-cradle” approach.

In this process, a green banner substrate is manufactured from recycled products. For example, the latest banner product is a woven fabric composed of 100 percent post-consumer recycled soda bottles. After the banner has completed its display lifespan, it can be recycled again to avoid littering the dwindling landfills. There are also substrates that, while not necessarily recyclable, still provide an environmentally-friendly option. Even PVC film makers are developing biodegradable banner material.

Don Jackson, owner of Forestville, Calif.-based Don Jackson Photography, specifically recommends using 100 percent cotton or cotton-poly blend canvas materials. Even if they are not recyclable, he says that they can still adequately biodegrade in a landfill environment due to their organic nature.

Along with eco-friendly substrates, even inks have appropriate green alternatives, including water-based and UV-cured inks, instead of conventional solvent inks.

“The new technology that has come out since we’ve been interested in going green is UV-cure printing. Traditional digital printing for outdoor banner applications has been solvent-based, which is not attractive environmentally. UV-cure printing is a much more green printing process,” says Graham.

And although water-based inks are not always a practical solution for outdoor applications due to poor outdoor durability, UV-cure printing is outdoor-durable and is solvent-free and VOC-free. Once a banner is printed using solvent ink, it typically cannot be recycled; however, UV-cured inks provide a recyclable alternative. Solvent printing also releases harmful VOCs into the atmosphere during the printing process and requires a ventilation system, to protect employees and the environment.

Everyone loves that marketing jargon. You know the type – the buzzwords that infiltrate late-night infomercials: industry-leading, cutting-edge, innovative, ground-breaking. It may sound cheesy, but this is the type of marketing that lends itself to green banner printing.

There is a certain mystique surrounding eco printing, which allows shops to perfectly position themselves as an industry leader of a developing trend. Grasping this advantage can establish your business as a premier, innovative green partner, and shops are gaining clients for this exact reason.

“There was a small handful of people who were definitely asking and looking for green ideas from us, but we also felt the vast majority didn’t even know what was available or weren’t asking about it, so we saw it as an opportunity to position ourselves as somebody who’s leading,” says Janine Trutna, Eagan, Minn.-based BIG INK marketing director.

Naturally, green clients seek green solutions. The eco trend transcends the printing industry, and clients of all types are looking to position themselves by functioning green. Offering clients green banner options gives your shop that “X-factor” edge and provides a mutually satisfying marketing relationship between the client and your shop.

Krista Jorgenson, marketing director of Sheridan, Wyo.-based Bella Graphics says, “Interestingly, we are getting a lot of green companies now that are finding us. While we let our existing clients know about our green product line, and they’re all very excited about that, it’s bringing a flood of new clients to us, who are going to the trade shows or have banner needs, all while they have a positive stance on environmentally-friendly or green options.”

For shops looking to take their green stance seriously, a certification program may be the right answer, which adds instant credibility to the eco marketing message. The Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, an independent recognition organization (SGP is a collaborative effort spearheaded by several industry groups — PIA/GATF, SGIA, FTA, and NAPIM), provides benchmarking tools as used within the printing industry and verification of green and sustainable business practices based on a published list of criteria. When a shop meets the recognized guidelines, it is publically distinguished as a Sustainable Green Printer and recognized on Shops then may display and use the SGP Partnership’s logo as part of their marketing collateral. Recently the Indianapolis-based Pratt Corporation was accepted as a SGP Verified Printer.

Becky Arrington, vice-president of sales, says that the accreditation reinforces their green message, and she encourages other businesses serious about green printing to pursue this avenue. “If you really want to walk the walk, you need to go all the way, because to get that certification, it touches every part of your organization,” says Arrington.

Another option is Co-op America, a national non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that promotes a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. Jackson says that his business exploded after he joined Co-op America’s Green Business Network ( The directories offered through both SGP Partnership and Co-op America are basically low-maintenance marketing channels. Jackson’s message of not printing on vinyl or pseudo-green products is promoted through Co-op America and several of his clients discovered his business through Co-op America.

It should be noted, certification programs are designed for those ready to commit to a long and thorough procedure. “It took a long time to go through that process, and they asked lots of questions. It took a lot of work, but they’re trying to get people who are serious about it. It’s not a casual rubber stamp,” says Jackson.

Sure, if you want to pursue green banner printing, your marketing message is important, but how does a shop actually back that message? Perhaps the easiest way is to start small, which is how Eagan, Minn.-based BIG INK recently progressed into the market. They first looked internally and created the “Green Team” that brainstormed ideas they could easily and cost-effectively implement.

Not only did BIG INK’s internal changes offer greener practices, but it also impacted their bottom line.

Trutna explains, “We immediately started saving end scraps, recycling office paper, using recycled content and copy paper and labeling different machines that either were turned off or left on at the end of the day. We immediately saw our end scraps were 2,400 lbs a month, office paper was 600 lbs a month and our electricity went down by 20 percent, so we saw immediate effects of these little things that we were doing.”

After BIG INK’s internal improvements materialized, they began to reach out to their customers. By offering various environmental-saving options, which can be as simple as reevaluating the design or content, their customers can easily find their way into green printing. Trutna says that BIG INK encourages clients to find ways to reuse their signs. Eliminating dates on a recurring event is an affective method. BIG INK also has printed banners for Wal Mart where one side might display “Opening Soon” and the other side reads “Now Open”. BIG INK recently launched their zero waste recycling program. After a client uses BIG INK’s eco-friendly banners, they may bring it back for complimentary recycling, which inevitably invokes the cradle-to-cradle approach.

One of the past challenges within the eco printing movement used to be the price when compared to non-green alternatives.

Graham says when he first entered the industry, green banner alternatives were nearly three times the cost of traditional products, which limited most shops’ options, but as the green trend continues to gain momentum, the price is decreasing, allowing more shops to cost-effectively enter the market.

For instance, instead of facing threefold costs, BMG Imaging now offers Duraprene, a non-woven wall covering material that is imaged with UV-cured ink and contains 50 percent wood pulp, 40 percent recycled post-industrial waste and 10 percent recycled post consumer waste. Duraprene is generally within 10 to 15 percent of the cost to equivalent non-green products. As similar price comparisons enter the market, expect to see eco-friendly printing continue to rise.

Jackson adds, “With more demand, there’s going to be more innovation and more green products.”