Work the Green Dream

By December 11, 2015 Environment, News No Comments

By Pamela Young

Work the Green Dream: It’s no longer enough to seem to be green. Now you have to really know what you’re doing to give clients environmentally responsible choices. Here’s our guide to some of the fundamental issues and options you need a handle on to go green. Don’t forget about the caribou.

Congratulations on that new brochure you just designed and had printed. The design is, of course, brilliant, and the client is thrilled to have logos on it attesting to the fact that it was printed with environmentally friendly vegetable-based inks on paper that is high in both chain-of-custody-certified virgin fibre and post-consumer waste, and was produced by a mill with an admirably small carbon footprint. You and your client are both justifiably proud of having handled this entire project in an ecologically responsible manner. So, naturally, you asked the caribou habitat question when you specified the paper, right?

Here’s the thing: In April 2009, Environment Canada released a report titled “Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada.” The findings are not good. Woodland caribou, whose thriving or waning is considered indicative of the overall health of Canada’s boreal forest wilderness, have already lost at least half of their original boreal range across Canada, and their numbers are declining rapidly—so rapidly that many First Nations and environmental groups are calling for an immediate pause to logging in what is termed “critical caribou habitat.” Areas that fall into this category extend virtually across Canada, and—you’re not going to want to hear this—some of the most rigorously certified chain-of-custody papers available in North America are made from wood logged in critical caribou habitat.

What is sustainable?

We humans tend to think that earlier times were simpler than our own, and in the case of designers who are trying to conduct their business in an environmentally responsible manner, they are right. Today everybody knows that it’s good to be sustainable, but definitions of sustainability are like snowflakes: They’re falling thick and fast on the ground and no two of them are alike.

According to some of the more comprehensive definitions, sustainability involves stewardship of natural, human and financial resources in ways that support the long-term viability of natural resources, communities and businesses. Practitioners of sustainable communication design, according to a definition endorsed earlier this year in Winnipeg at the annual general meeting of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), “consider the full life cycle of products and services, and commit to strategies, processes and materials that value environmental, social, cultural and economic responsibility.” This involves “acknowledging that we are part of an interdependent world” and “accepting responsibility for the consequences our actions have on our natural environment.”

Although the consequences of those actions can be substantial, information that can help designers make informed choices is more widely accessible than it has ever been. As well, designers are looking beyond the mechanics of ink and paper selection. They’re finding new ways to meet client needs that are inherently better for the environment, such as minimizing product packaging and not automatically assuming that all documents need to exist in printed form. This article outlines some of the issues and controversies designers should be aware of when they’re attempting to make responsible paper and printing choices, and it looks at how some designers are working toward a greener future by approaching projects from a different angle.

Clearly, the sustainable sourcing of paper and printing can’t be defined by a single attribute; instead, designers should take a range of environmental considerations into account when they are choosing products and processes. Metafore, a non-profit organization that has worked with companies that include Staples, Nike and Catalyst Paper to find ways to evaluate, select and manufacture environmentally preferable wood and paper products, has defined environmentally preferable paper in terms of seven interconnected “desired outcomes”:

  • Efficient use and conservation of raw materials
  • Minimization of waste
  • Conservation of natural systems
  • Clean production
  • Creditable reporting and verification
  • Community and human wellbeing
  • Economic viability

What’s your paper’s recycled content?

Paper containing recycled content represents one of the most straightforward means of pursuing the first three of those outcomes, and there has been tremendous growth in demand in recent years for papers with a high percentage of post-consumer waste (PCW). Some manufacturers now offer 100 per cent PCW papers, and a lot of large corporations are making it policy to buy paper with a minimum of 20 per cent PCW.

“There’s no question that it’s still really important to be specifying recycled content, because what we want to do is ensure that there’s less old forest and endangered forest logged,” insists Tzeporah Berman, co-founder of the non-profit environmental organization ForestEthics.

However, 100 per cent PCW paper is expensive, and in some categories—coated papers in particular—there is, and likely always will be, a need to rely on virgin fibres. (Coated papers can and should be recycled into lower-grade paper products, but it takes tremendous amounts of energy and chemicals to incorporate high levels of recycled content into coated papers.) That, in part, is why chain-of-custody certification programs have become so important to the paper-specifying process. In these programs, a third party evaluates a product made of pulp or paper at successive stages of processing: It must be grown in a sustainably managed forest, manufactured by a company that meets certain environmental standards and printed by a company that meets another set of environmental standards in order to achieve full chain-of-custody certification.

In North America, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard (CSA) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are the four main certification systems. Some paper companies assign equal value to all or many of these systems; others will argue that some certification systems have higher standards than others. In general, the FSC system is considered the most stringent.

Mohawk Fine Papers, one of the most environmentally progressive paper manufacturers in North America, “gives purchase preference” to fibre from FSC-certified companies, and the FSC system is also the one that the environmental organization Forest-Ethics endorses. But as ForestEthics’ Tzeporah Berman notes, “right now in Canada you can get FSC certified even if your paper or wood comes from endangered caribou habitat.” The questions specifiers need to be asking, she says, are “Where does your supply come from?” and “Which logging company?”

How is your paper made?

Another question that is assuming ever-greater importance is “How is your paper manufactured?” “On a global level, the paper industry is the largest consumer of wood fibre, the largest industrial consumer of water and the third greatest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases, after the chemical and steel industries,” Mohawk’s “Commitment to Sustainability” states.

These are tough times for the paper industry: In April, AbitibiBowater, the third largest pulp and paper company in North America, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in Delaware. And most manufacturers are making a concerted effort to be seen as green. Mohawk draws attention to the fact that within the past six years its Ohio mills have virtually halved the amount of water used per U.S. ton of paper made. The company also purchases carbon offset credits from wind farms that are equivalent to 100 per cent of the electrical power its manufacturing processes consume from the New York and Ohio power grids.

Sappi Fine Paper North America (the North American division of a South Africa based company, and this magazine’s paper supplier) now has a director of technical marketing and sustainable development who has a PhD in paper science. Her name is Laura M. Thompson, and she spends much of her time leading Sappi’s internal sustainability council and speaking to paper specifiers about environmental considerations, information resources and her company’s environmental initiatives.

Sappi North America has set goals of decreasing its emissions from fossil fuels by 10 per cent across all sites by 2012 and increasing its production of paper made from chain-of-custody-certified pulp (FSC, SFI and PEFC) to an average of 80 per cent across all sites, also by 2012. “Almost nobody thinks that you can get to 100 per cent, but 80 per cent may very well be achievable,” says Thompson.

Where was it processed?

Just as the question “Where was it logged?” is worth asking when choosing paper with virgin fibre content, “Where was it processed?” can aid in making informed recycled content choices. “Most of the stuff that’s used to make post-consumer waste—comic books, newspapers, torn-up books and so on—comes from the U.S. and Canada,” says Matthew Alexander, president of Colour Innovations in Toronto, whose firm won three awards at the2009 Environmental Printing Awards, including Most Environmentally Progressive Printer in Canada (50 to 100 employees).

In many cases, Alexander says, this North American raw, post-consumer waste is then shipped to China, where it is de-inked with seriously toxic chemicals, and then shipped to Singapore where it is turned back into pulp. Then it’s shipped back to Canada to make PCW paper. Factor in two ocean crossings and, most likely, a lot of train travel, and it’s clear that recycled content that is partially processed overseas can have a surprisingly massive carbon footprint. As Alexander says, this sort of round trip “may have saved 300 trees but killed four whales.”

“The typical questions we get from designers are ‘Are you FSC-certified?’ and ‘Do you usevegetable inks?’ And that’s really not enough,” says Alexander. “It’s a big challenge for designers to be informed.” To that end, Colour Innovations has posted a wealth of useful information at, including 10 questions to ask printing suppliers,definitions of key terms, and links to the Websites of chain-of-custody certification systems and environmental organizations.

A key factor in printing that designers often overlook, Alexander says, is what suppliers are doing (or not doing) to reduce effluents and emissions through the capturing and reuse of solvents. For Colour Innovations, this has been both an environmental and an economic success story. The firm purchased solvent distillation units to capture and recycle its waste-water miscible auto blanket wash on-site.

“Blanket wash is very toxic and, basically, we now buy only 25 per cent of what we used to buy,” explains Alexander. “We used to truck it in big bins that our supplier would then take out, clean and bring back. Just bringing that in-house saved eight trucks going back and forth a month, and now we’re able to recapture 75 per cent, clean it right at the plant and then it goes back into the press. We’re saving $50,000 or $60,000 a year and we’re buying fewer chemicals. So fewer chemicals are being used and made, and less is going down the drain and back into the system [i.e., the water supply].”

Designers should also consider digital printing for smaller print runs, Alexander says. The quality now rivals that of conventional offset printing, but it’s cheaper, there are no plates, much less waste is generated and the process uses environmentally preferable vegetable-based inks. As well, instead of printing a huge number of brochures all at one go, warehousing the bulk of them for months or years and ultimately trucking them off to the landfill when they become obsolete, with digital printing it’s economically viable to print in small batches and reprint as needed.

And just in case you didn’t already have enough to worry about, what with logging in critical caribou habitat and all that, keep in mind that print in landfills is really bad news. “When paper decomposes in a landfill it forms methane, which is a greenhouse gas,” says Sappi Fine Paper’s Laura Thompson. “Methane has a global warming potential that is 21 times worse than carbon dioxide.”

Like Colour Innovations, many Canadian fine printers are taking the lead when it comes to environmental issues. Hemlock Printers of Vancouver, for example, not only shared the gold at the 2009 Environmental Printing Awards for Most Environmentally Progressive Printer in Canada (100-plus employees), it announced last March that it “has achieved carbon neutral status. It is the first printing company in Canada to gain this distinction.” In addition to carbon neutrality, Hemlock won the Heidelberg Eco Printing Award 2008 for Most Sustainable Printing Company.

What else can designers do?

Beyond ensuring that they spec responsibly, what can designers do to reduce the environmental footprint of their work? Quite a lot, really. Working with clients to minimize their packaging can make a huge difference. In her speeches to industry organizations and environmental groups, ForestEthics’ Tzeporah Berman sometimes cites the example of how Nokia, by reducing the size of its cell phone packaging, took the equivalent of 12,000 trucks off the road and saved $610 million.

For design firms that specialize in communications materials, often it’s a matter of thinking about what, in this digital age, really needs to be printed. “Whenever we can, we try to put less stuff on paper,” says Casey Hrynkow, a partner at Herrainco Brand Strategy + Design in Vancouver. At the most literal level that can mean not using metallic ink, foils and plastic coatings that are environmentally unfriendly. But more fundamentally, it involves using print more strategically.

If you’re fed up with all the simultaneously sanctimonious and wishywashy statements out there about Our Environmental Commitment, check out the “Green Design” page (under Articles of Interest in About Us) at for an articulate and refreshing dose of common sense. “We don’t see an end to the need for printed materials any time soon,” it states, “but their role is changing. They are ideal first points of contact that can drive people to Websites for further and more timely information.” Hrynkow sees a good fit between clients’ need to save money in these economically messed-up times and their desire to demonstrate corporate responsibility by doing right by the planet. For example, one of Herrainco’s clients, chemical manufacturer Methanex Corporation, recently switched from printing its internal newsletter to distributing it electronically—thereby saving both money and trees.

Robert L. Peters, founder and principal of Circle Design in Winnipeg, has a deep and longstanding personal commitment to environmental and social causes. He has lived for the past 27 years in a low-energy passive solar home that he designed and built, and he’s a past president of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda). At Circle, envelopes containing incoming mail are kept and their logos are scribbled over. They are then restamped “Circle reuse” and used again for outgoing mail—it’s a little thing, Peters says, but it tells people something about the firm’s values.

He and his designers are always working with clients to find ways to do more while generating less waste, whether that means coming up with material-saving and compostable packaging for a pasta company, or launching a viral marketing campaign instead of printing posters. “Probably the most effective thing that we do is not how we design actual communications and brand materials: It’s the influence that we have in boardrooms,” says Peters. “Design is very powerful when it’s deployed in an upstream position, and early in…. The classic maxim is that the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones, but because someone came up with a better idea. I think that’s very pertinent to what we do as designers.”

—Pamela Young is an Applied Arts senior writer based in Toronto.

Spreading the Word

It’s often said that the busiest people are the ones you can count on to get something else done, and that’s how Toronto’s Spread the Word ( came into being. “Our original meeting started around midnight,” co-founder Patrick Robinson says with a laugh. That was three years ago, when Robinson was general manager of production at the AmoebaCorp design studio, in Toronto. “A group of us at Amoeba and the John St. advertising agency were working so many overtime hours that we just thought, Why don’t we stay one more hour and get something useful done that’s for us?” he says.

Spread the Word describes itself as “a special interest group designed to celebrate those who are working to promote sustainability and corporate responsibility in the design community.” The group hosts regular monthly meetings and special events, and its members talk to school groups about cause-based design and sustainable issues. Recently, Spread the Word played a part in encouraging the establishment of an Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD) committee on sustainability.

This spring, Spread the Word launched its UnBook, which aims to “leave a better place for the billions who are poised to inherit our footprint.” “It’s supposed to be written by a group and it’s a book that’s never finished,” says Robinson. At its launch, each ‘page’ was printed at the size of a large poster. Participants were given markers and asked to write their contributions directly onto the pages, under headings such as “Ugly Stats” and “Glossary.” Their comments will be incorporated into an electronic UnBook, which will evolve and grow iteration by iteration.

Spread the Word’s organizers have kicked off the dialogue with some solidly useful ideas. They put the creative brief template from the RGD Ontario Handbook into the UnBook, supplementing it in the margins with questions that designers can ask their clients to ensure that sustainable thinking is part of every job from the get-go. For example, under the “Budget” heading they have added, “Is there a budget to offset the environmental impact of this marketing matter?” As well, the UnBook already contains a Carbon Offset Benchmark Chart that can help designers understand how carbon offsetting can work for clients in simple and relatively inexpensive terms. Robinson, who worked as a printer for several years and is now associate partner of production at Grip Limited, developed this chart partly because he thinks the paper calculator tools available to designers through paper companies and environmental organizations are inadequate.

“All the paper calculators online are woefully out of date and they only tell you what you save, not what you are using,” he says. Spread the Word’s chart explains that it takes 24 trees, 7,325 gallons of water, 5,700 pounds of greenhouse gas, 22,000,000 BTUs and 2,200 pounds of solid waste to make one tonne of paper—enough for 220,000 sheets of photocopy paper, or 729,000 business cards or 11,000 movie posters. It then provides sample sums for offsetting 1,000 units of greenhouse gases for each of these types of paper products. “Some offsets cost more than others, and that’s part of the confusion around them,” says Robinson. “But they cost less than people think.”

Spread the Word embodies the belief that the design community, armed with the right talking points, can make a huge difference. Here’s a case in point: Honda is a Grip Limited client. The automotive manufacturer, acting on information provided by its ad agency, is switching from coated to uncoated papers for its Honda brochures, and for its luxury Acura brand it’s staying with coated paper but going with one that offers a carbon-neutral program. “When you share awareness, you get a kick, and you get some giveback from it fairly quickly,” says Robinson. That’s a message that Spread the Word wants to disseminate far and wide.

Applied Arts

August 2009
Volume 24 Issue 3

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