From Partnering with Printers to Achieving Independent Certification

by Amy Bauer

In the three years since its launch, Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) certification has been awarded to 35 printers, designating their commitment to environmental, social and ethical standards of operation. Today, binders, finishers and loose leaf companies also can pursue this certification specifically tailored to the graphic arts industry.

While there are a number of quality management and paper sourcing certification labels in the marketplace, in 2008, top print industry trade associations came together to form the independent, nonprofit Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership. The SGP was formed to create “the only whole-facility sustainability certification program for the graphic communications industry,” as the SGP website states.

Gary Jones, assistant vice president of environmental, health and safety affairs at the Printing Industries of America (PIA), helped develop the program as a member of the partnership’s board of directors and vice chair of its technical advisory committee. “It’s not just soy inks and recycled paper,” Jones said. “This is everything from A to Z. It looks at janitorial supplies, it looks at water consumption, it looks at energy use. From an operational perspective, SGP gives companies a framework for improvement,” he explained. “It gives them a lot of tools that they wouldn’t have otherwise and provides a more formal approach to managing their operation.”

Adding Post-Press Certification

In September 2010, the SGP expanded to include binding, finishing and loose leaf operations, and in May, newly integrated criteria were unveiled to apply across the board to any operation – from printer to post-press – applying for certification.

“There was a natural fit,” said Kris Bovay, general manager of Pacific Bindery Services in Vancouver, British Columbia, and an early proponent of including post-press operations in the certification process. She is a board member of the SGP and past chair and board member of the Binding Industries of America (BIA), as well as active on the board of British Columbia Printing and Imaging Association (BCPIA).

“If you are a binder or finisher, you do not ‘own’ the paper you process or finish,” she said. “However, from a bindery’s perspective, we work with the products and hold ourselves accountable for using sustainable methods and processes in our daily workflow.”

Bovay’s company is currently preparing its application for SGP certification. “It’s important for us to be part of an organization, like SGP, that recognizes the effort that needs to be invested and managed,” she said. “I think there will be an early adopter advantage to printers, binders and finishers who become SGP certified. The world is heading in this direction, and it makes good business sense to invest in this process.”

Working with Certified Printers

As more companies carry the “SGP-certified facility” label, it is important for binders, finishers and loose leaf facilities to know how this affects them and their operations. While Jones said the certification doesn’t preclude printers from working with binders and finishers who don’t have the SGP stamp of approval, or vice versa, it will require some cooperation.

For example, Jones said, certified printers have to work in their supply chain and discuss with customers sustainable options for each job. He used the example of a coil in a spiral-bound project where both nonrecyclable coil and coil made from recyclable or renewable materials is available. While the SGP certification standards don’t dictate which ingredient customers must choose, an SGP-certified printer has to make that information available to the customer. So binders, finishers and loose leaf manufacturers will be asked more and more to supply documentation about materials used and sustainable alternatives offered.

Bovay says binders and finishers are, in most cases, accustomed to working with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified printing partners in today’s printing environment. “We have learned to understand and follow the rules of FSC; we can learn to understand and follow the rules of the more broad-reaching SGP,” she said. “Printers will be looking for metrics: Can you demonstrate your commitment to the environment and to social responsibility and to economic viability?”

Chain of custody requirements, like those for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification label, aren’t a part of the SGP certification requirements. “However, there are ethical considerations for all certified printers,” Bovay said. “Do they need to disclose that their binderies/finishers aren’t certified? That is a question for printers to answer. Coming from an ethics background, I’d say that there is a duty to be transparent and open on this issue.”

She expects that certification numbers among post-press operations will grow. “As SGP and SGP-certified printers begin to drive more businesses to making sustainable choices – i.e. creating demand – the suppliers (binderies, finishers, loose leaf companies) that are committed to sustainability and that have gone through an independent, third-party certification process will have a competitive advantage. It’s also the right thing to do for all of us in the industry.”

Why Consider Certification

In some cases, Jones described, printers – or even the end clients themselves – will be looking for more detailed metrics about a company, beyond just the materials to be used in a particular job. He gave the example of a PIA member working for a large brewery customer that is very focused on water conservation. The brewery was asking the printer about its own water conservation efforts.

“This is not unusual from these very large companies, and you’ve got to put in place a program,” Jones said. PIA counseled its member. “They’re going into the supply chain, and it’s a supply-chain management issue. What the brewery wants to do is pull that forward so they can say, “Look, as a company we’ve reduced our water consumption by X amount. We did our internal operations. We went to our supply chain. We got reductions out of our supply chain.” So they can report metrics that are very favorable.”

He said sustainability initiatives – and the credibility that comes along with certification – allow printing and finishing operations to pursue new markets and customers who value sustainability and “green” practices.

As another example, he pointed to a PIA member looking to print for a large retail department store chain. In order to qualify as a vendor, they not only have to pass print quality requirements and have a quality control system in place, but also must have an environmental standard and be audited on both their print quality and environmental standards. “Now we’re waiting to see if the printer will approach the retailer to see if they are going to accept SGP as an alternative certification,” Jones said, because the environmental standards the printer was given were tailored to the apparel, mill and textile industry, and the retailer does allow alternative environmental certification programs.

Bovay pointed to an October announcement from toymaker Mattel, Inc. that set targets for sustainable paper and wood fiber sourcing. By the end of this year, 70 percent of the company’s paper packaging is to be composed of recycled material or sustainable fiber. By the end of 2014, the goal increases to 85 percent.

As this type of demand grows from these largest of customers, Bovay explained, companies will find stronger incentives to put time and money into investing in sustainability efforts and pursuing certification. “Just because you get certified, that doesn’t mean people are going to beat a path to your door,” Jones said. “However, it becomes a very powerful tool that you can use to get people to beat a path to your door.”

Where he sees the largest demand so far for sustainability certifications among vendors is with Fortune 1000 or Fortune 100 companies, schools and universities, hospitals, government and the financial sector. Though that list is growing, he said. “We had another printer who said, ‘Without the certification, I couldn’t have even approached some of the customers I have now,'” Jones described.

Becoming Certified

SGP certification is open to stand-alone and in-plant printing, binding and finishing, loose-leaf facilities and printing departments within schools or government agencies in the United States and Canada, according to the SGP certification criteria, which can be found at In the case of in-plant operations, only the printing or post-press portions of the facility are certified.

Among the requirements for certification are that companies create a sustainability team, implement a management system, develop an annual Continuous Improvement Project (CIP), use SGP program metrics, take steps to reduce the facility’s environmental footprint, implement pollution prevention activities and commit to social and ethical norms. Annual reporting and biennial audits by independent, third-party auditors are required.

“It’s not a how-to. It doesn’t say, ‘Step 1, do this and Step 2, do that.’ That’s for you to figure out how you work relative to your culture,” Jones said. “But it gives that framework that provides the ability to go through and lay out the steps. It allows a lot of flexibility and freedom for companies to put in the way that they do business or the way that the culture is set up in their company.” Jones said that those familiar with quality programs like ISO 9000 will find the approaches similar. ‘It’s built on a ‘plan, do, check, act’ approach,” he described.

From the time of application, a company has 12 months to request its initial audit. Jones said the paths to certification have varied so far, with some companies taking the entire 12 months – or in some cases, asking for extensions in the case of personnel changes or other hurdles – and other companies achieving certification within 30 days. It all depends on how much of the groundwork is laid before an application is submitted. If a company were to devote a person full-time to the certification process, Jones estimated it would take four to six weeks. But few, if any, companies have that luxury, and Jones said most have agreed that six to eight months is a fair estimate of the initial time required.

Application fees range from $295 to $595; base audit fees (not including auditor travel expenses, which are required) range from $1,500 to $3,000 and Corrective Action Report (CAR) fees – required if the audit finds corrective actions needed – range from $75 to $150 per hour. Annual renewal fees range from $250 to $400. The different pricing structures depend on a company’s membership in trade associations – several offer discounts for certification. Jones noted that the auditors SGP contracts are required to have familiarity with the print industry, attend a training class and pass a written test.

Certification Results

SGP-certified printers are reporting cost savings already related to their completion of certification. Jones described one company that chose for its continuous improvement project to focus on reducing its solid waste. “They were able to save almost $200,000 a year on solid waste, and essentially they’re just about done throwing things away,” Jones reports. “They went from dumping a 30-cubic-yard dumpster about eight times a year to not having one at all, period.”

That’s why Jones objects to those who call SGP just another certification label. “If you look at it and you look at how people have been successful with it, and those who truly embrace it, they have actually found it to be very rewarding,” he said.

The most successful companies, he says, are those where the entire workforce has been engaged in the effort. When the SGP certification program was being beta-tested, those companies that relegated the program to the marketing department struggled, Jones said. “We have to overcome the myth that this is just another certification. I think it is much deeper than that,” Jones said. “It actually can be transformative.”