Meet the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership

When discussing environmental sustainability, whether it is in the printing industry or in general, there is no shortage of acronyms. Indeed, there is a veritable alphabet soup of organizations and initiatives: FSC, SFI, ATFS, ISO, PEFC … the list goes on. One, however, that is worth paying special attention to is SGP—the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.

The SGP Partnership was launched in 2008, and at the recent Graph Expo in Chicago, announced that it was celebrating its third anniversary. The goal of SGP and the reason for its founding is simple: to serve as an independent third-party sustainability verification organization. Says SGP’s website:

SGP is the industry standard for the certification and continuous improvement of sustainability and best practices within print manufacturing operations.

The organization was initiated by the top trade associations Printing Industries Association (PIA), Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) and the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM). Before its creation, there were no boundaries or parameters set as to what defined a sustainable printing operation. “Green” products were available, but this did not address the actual manufacturing process.

SGP provides a benchmark for print facilities’ sustainability endeavors. Its criteria covers the Product, input materials used to product products such as substrates, inks and coatings; the Process, the manufacturing process involving press equipment and supporting technology; and the Envelope, the facility in its entirety, its energy consumption, employees, and supporting activities.

While paper-based chain-of-custody certification organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certify that paper and other forestry products have been grown and harvested sustainably, SGP certification looks at the entire commercial printing facility and the printing process as a whole. The SGP website has detailed information on the steps required to become certified, but, in a nutshell, SGP auditors look for and at:

  • The establishment of a sustainability committee and a sustainability policy on the part of the facility.
  • The printed product: how it was designed and the “input materials” (consumables, etc.) that were used to create it.
  • The printing process: how those input materials were converted into a finished product—including by-products that have an environmental, health, and/or safety impact.
  • The facility itself, or what is referred to as the “envelope”: the building and associated grounds, including water, land, and other natural resource usage in addition to other functions at a facility.
  • Local laws: does the facility comply with all relevant local, state/provincial, and federal environmental and employment laws?

SGP has developed a comprehensive set of metrics to take all of these items (and more) into account and measure a plant’s progress toward certification worthiness. SGP also requires annual progress reports; sustainability is a process, after all, not necessarily a final destination.

The auditing process can take anywhere from six to 12 months, but can be shorter or longer depending how far along the facility already is in meeting SGP’s criteria for sustainability. SGP also certifies a wide variety of different types of printers—digital, offset, flexo, etc.

To date, 36 North American printing companies have been certified, and four more are currently in the process of being audited. Admittedly, SGP got off to a rough start, having launched in the midst of the Great Recession (not exactly the most propitious time to start a new initiative), but as the economy began to improve (albeit slowly), and printing companies saw business get a bit better, interest in SGP certification started to pick up.

Driving this, said Gary Jones, Vice Chair of the Technical Advisory Committee for SGP, in a press conference held September 12 at Graph Expo, has been print customers approaching printers with specific standards they need to meet. “One of [PIA’s] members is looking to be able to print for a large retail organization [which] handed them two things they have to meet: they had to meet the quality standards for printing, and they had to meet environmental standards.” As print buyers increasingly need to boost their own green credibility, so, too, do they need to ensure that their vendors and suppliers are sufficiently sustainable. As a result, SGP can serve a valuable role in verifying and certifying that a facility is truly run in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

SGP has also launched a new series of educational videos on its website that explains the certification process and the benefits of certification. The site also offers print buyers and others a directory of certified printers.

As sustainability becomes a more important issue for business across the economy, they will increasingly need to green their own supply chains, and a certification like SGP is one rigorous way that printing companies can prove themselves “greenworthy.” More importantly, it also goes no short distance toward showing that print is an environmentally sustainable and friendly medium—something that is desperately needed at a time when electronic media are perceived as far greener. 

Richard Romano is managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Going Green, and is a writer and analyst for the graphic communications industry.

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