Sustainability has long been a challenge for the printing industry, particularly when it comes to printed packaging. High VOC solvents are still used in many types of ink and most platemaking processes. Under siege by Wal-Mart since late 2000s, package printers have struggled to come up with solutions to the retail giant’s fuzzy definition of “sustainability.”
According to Marcia Kinter, VP of government and business information for SGIA (Specialty Graphic Imaging Association), it was pressure from Wal-Mart that drove the creation of the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership. “In 2007 we had the first onslaught from Wal-Mart on sustainable packaging. All our members were getting hit with sustainability questions sustainability checklists, etc.,” she recalls.
SGIA was not alone. Three other associations – Printing Industries Association (PIA), Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) and National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM) – were all besieged with questions from their members about what was considered sustainable, and how to comply with Wal-Mart’s demands.
At the time, Wal-Mart did not have any benchmarks for defining sustainability. The closest thing to a sustainability certification that the industry had was the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) certification. These programs were designed for businesses that consume wood and pulp product (such as paper manufacturers), but don’t take into account the printing process itself, which occurs further downstream. According to Kinter, printers that did not even work with paper product – such as film and flexible packaging printers – were being asked to get these certifications.
“Plus we were being told by many of our members that a lot of the auditors coming in had no idea what printing was and what it did. So the printers found themselves educating the auditors on the industry and the processes,” says Kinter.
The four associations saw that as an opportunity to help their members and the industry at large. They formed the SGP Partnership with the mission of establishing clear benchmarks for sustainability that made sense for industrial printers. “If we were not proactive as an industry, the requirements would have been forced upon us without any thought as to the impact,” says Kinter.
The SGP Partnership was officially founded in 2009 as an independent non-profit certifying body supported by printing and graphic arts organizations. It has no full-time staff, and uses independent contractors with backgrounds in both the printing industry and environmental, health and safety. It’s operations and strategies are overseen by a board of directors, which Kinter currently chairs.
To date, approximately 50 industrial printers have achieved SGP certification, the most recent of which was the U.S. Government Printing Office. The certification process itself is achievable for most printing operations, regardless of process.
“We say it takes between six and eight months to have the program in place. A lot of the printers already have the process in place, they just need the documentation,” says Kinter.
In order to obtain certification, printers must:
- Adopt a sustainability management system, which includes the creation of a company sustainability policy and sustainability committee.
- Develop a continuous improvement project with realistic and achievable goals.
- Conduct EHS and energy audits.
- Demonstrate conformance with established best practices.
The impact of each plant’s facilities is also an element that SGP auditors consider. This includes sanitation conditions, grounds, shipping and more.
Kinter notes that compliance with local and federal EHS laws are not a requirement for SGP certification, per se. However, the business must be aware of its state of compliance and have a plan for achieving full compliance.
In 2011, SGP updated its criteria and metrics, filling in gaps, answering questions and clarifying information. The SGP aims to update its criteria at least every five years to stay current and relevant. This will become increasingly important, as sustainability demands spread beyond Wal-Mart into other retailers and packaging buyers. Kinter says, “We see an uptick in interest on the part of the buying community on sustainable certification. It’s no longer acceptable to just say, ‘Hey, we recycle.’ People want validation and proof.”