Going green is probably the most fashionable yet the most sensible thing to do in any industry as well as in everyday life. But is it really possible to go green all the way all the time? Anne Stewart, a blogger and copywriter working at Hotcards.com, has volunteered to write about the ways to make our print experience a little bit greener. Anne’s favourite thing to do is finding good design in weird places, like the back of cereal boxes.

Chances are, if you work in graphic design (and this applies even if you basically live online), you’ve had a few experiences with getting something printed. Whether it’s wedding invitations or print promotion for your web presence, the day will come when you have to ask yourself: how shall I print?

Some folks go cheap. Others go local. And increasingly, nowadays, designers and businesses are deciding to go green.

Enter The Green Printer

If you’re a printer, then ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ printing is the sexiest thing going on in your industry. It’s also one of those terms that can come off sounding a bit like an lumbering oxymoron. How can a process that is so resource-intensive possibly be environmentally friendly?

The whole truth is that it can’t. We may be obliged to stand up and admit to the crowd that our profession will never save the planet. That being said, printers and designers can make myriad small changes to our process in order to prevent pollution, reduce our ecological footprint, and revision our industry to be, if not the answer to all of earth’s problems, then at least part of a sustainable future.

So again the question, this time asked by the printer herself: how shall I print?

Not as easy to answer as it sounds. Every printer that’s taking steps to green their process has a different take on what qualifies as eco-friendly printing. And in an industry that’s exploding on a daily basis, what’s green today may be considered toxic tomorrow.

Let’s take a look at the debate.

The Paper Puzzle

A recycled, reusable paper bag, complete with a green mission statement, from International Paper.

There’s a lot of choice – and controversy – out there when it comes to paper selection. Printers will brag about the post-consumer waste (PCW) content of their recycled paper, whether it’s 100% recycled, or just 30%.

The percentage of recycled content that tends to matter to consumers works in direct relation to how much it costs to print. A paper with 30% – 50% PCW will likely cost the same as regular printing, while 100% recycled paper may come at a premium.

Other green printers choose to forgo recycled paper in favor of paper made from farmed trees. Often, paper from farmed trees is milled and shipped locally, cutting down on the carbon costs of printing.

Ironically enough, when printing on recycled paper first came into vogue, many boutique printing houses were buying recycled paper from overseas – a typical (and often repeated) case of delivering the product, while kind of missing the point. Recycled paper: good. But international shipping? just not great for the old ecological footprint.

The best way to get the skinny on a printer’s paper is to trace it back to the mill that supplies it. A good rule of thumb is that if the mill and the paper are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, you’re good to go. The benevolent FSC is the golden standard when it comes to responsible paper buying.

Design For Your Green Medium

Combine interesting textures with natural imagery to create designs that speak for the environmentally-concerned community.

As a designer preparing a job for print, consider developing a print design that will look good on a matte, or low gloss paper. High gloss paper, though good-looking, has the unfortunate drawbacks of being resource-intensive to produce, and difficult to recycle.

Choosing to design for a matte finish is also a good way to express your eco-conscience to clients and consumers. Textured paper, and themes that identify easily as ‘earth conscious,’ instantly conveys that earthy vibe that’s so popular in eco-design right now.

Inquiring Into Inks

In the world of eco-friendly inks, the term “Low-VOC” says it all. Printer inks have traditionally been lead-based, with a high content of Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs are basically vapors that create air pollution, and seriously affect air quality in the workplace. Lead-based inks are also toxic in general, take a long time to biodegrade, and are difficult to dispose of safely.

An eco-friendly print design doesn’t necessarily mean dull colors!

These days, most eco-conscious printers are making the transition to soy and vegetable-based inks, which are dramatically lower in VOCs and much easier to dispose of cleanly.

And all those rumors you’ve heard about soy and veggie inks being dull, easily faded, and difficult to work with? So ten years ago! If you want to keep it a secret, no one will ever know your designs were printed using earth-friendly inks.

But Who Does It Best?

Once you’re an expert on papers and inks, you’ll still need to choose the right printer for your project. Lithographers, screen printers, digital printers, and sheetfed offset printers will all argue that their process has the most to offer. The questions you need to ask to find the solution that works for you are:

  • Is the printer replacing chemical-based processes (like platemaking) with water-based, or even waterless processes, wherever possible?
  • Is the printer recycling, and using recyclable materials, wherever possible?
  • Is the printer using electronic billing to eliminate paper waste?
  • Is the printer working with local vendors and suppliers to cut down on their carbon footprint?
  • Is the printing engaging in any extra green initiatives in the community, such as supporting clean-up efforts, investing in alternative fuel and energy sources, and contributing to green causes?

Think it might be tough to squeeze all these details out of a printer? It shouldn’t be if the printer is sincere in her effort to make a difference. If a printer is being cagey and evasive, you can bet they’re advertising a stronger green ethic than they’re actually living.

In fact, if a printer is serious about catering to a green community, they should have a ton of information readily available on their website.

All-Around Eco-Ethics

The last check point in the above list might seem a bit extreme, but the fact is that one of the best things printers and designers can do to offset their environmental impact is to be ecologically responsible in other areas of their lives.

To ‘green’ the industry, printers aren’t just thinking about recycled paper. They’re thinking about how they get to work in the morning, where the food in their cafeterias comes from, and what they can do outside of the office to make a difference.

Bring Together Green Design, And Green Living

By ‘ganging’ small print jobs together onto a single sheet of paper, printers cut down on paper waste.

The same philosophy can be applied to the print design process. When engaged in a print business process, a designer can ask herself what she can do to minimize the ecological impact of the printed piece. For example:

  • Reduce paper consumption by sending postcard mailers instead of cards in envelopes.
  • Reduce ink waste by creating simple one and two color designs.
  • Work with a gang-run printer to cut down on the waste paper created by a project.
  • Find a local printer to cut the carbon costs of shipping.
  • Stay away from foil stamps, plastic/metal hooks and latches, glues, and other add-ons that make recycling difficult.
  • Design with a green message. A positive statement about environmental stewardship can be sent not just with copy and logos, but through the style and tone of your design.

As ‘green design’ comes into its own, it’s increasingly taking on a look and feel that makes it stand out from the ultra-polished, plastic looking majority. And for many businesses and consumers, it presents a very appealing alternative.

Expressing a message of environmental concern and desire for change through graphic design may be on of the most powerful things our industry can do to actually make a difference.

Like Your Mom Always Said, Just Try Your Best!

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a semi-depressing fact that green printing PROBABLY isn’t going to save the world. Even at it’s best, logistical and ethical challenges do abound, but around the office where I work, that can’t-win-don’t-try attitude isn’t allowed. Just because printing may never be perfect, it doesn’t mean we can’t constantly be trying to make improvements, brainstorming for new ideas, and challenging ourselves to print, design, and think greener every day.

As long as our industry, and every industry, continues to make the effort, rather than throwing up our hands in despair, we can but move forward into a future that is green, sustainable, and as beautiful as we all imagined it could be when we first fell in love with design.

What’s your approach on going green in your daily activities and work?

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9 Insightful Bits in response to “Designing A Sustainable Future”

  1. MP

    Very good article Vivien. I have to agree with trying to minimize or “trimming the fat” on any design project. I’ve been “ganging” print jobs together for quite a while, and not only has it reduced my impact, but it’s also reduced my stock cost. I think the most important part is to get designers to assess the way they produce a project. There are many ways to improve, even if it seems minute.


  2. Anne Stewart’s article is one of the clearest, most comprehensive statements of the case for green design. Thanks so much for including our site as one of the links. We welcome the opportunity to share our ideas with more designers.

  3. I’ve heard/read that you also have to be careful with recycled paper because of the process that it goes through to be ready to use again. Often, lots of chlorine and other harmful chemicals can be used, which rather defeats the eco-friendly purpose of recycling!

    We had a green marketing project a while ago that I did a brochure for and we used soy-based inks. They turned out beautiful! You can’t even tell the difference between soy and regular inks. I chose the Tortilla paper from Neenah’s Environment collection and I think this project really stands out in a crowd (aside from the stunning design and layout that is ;) )

  4. robby gilds

    Like you stated, it is hard to be a green printer because the process is “resource intensive.” However, http://www.caryprinting.com, a printer I use on occasion provides an eco-audit with every single order showing you how many resources you saved.

    While you made a valid point in saying printing is not an enitrely green process, at least Cary Printing makes you know how you have saved a little bit.

    Thanks for caring!

  5. oh, I can’t believe I haven’t responded here yet… :( sorry, guys.

    You’re right: even a small change towards being more considerate when designing for print and printing will make a big difference in a long run.

    Thanks so much for dropping by and for linking to Anne’s article from your wonderful site.

    Very good point: sometimes the processes that are involved in recycling don’t make the outcome any greener.
    You know, I hear more and more people are using soy-based inks in print and are very happy with the results.

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on