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All Aboard the Green Express

Profiting via sustainability programs.

It's difficult to pick up a magazine or newspaper these days without reading something that addresses the challenges of our environment. And without question, the issue of becoming "green' has become very relevant to our own industry as well. More and more, in our shop we find that our customers are asking us what type of products we can offer that might be more environmentally friendly.

You’d better decide how to address these issues because they certainly are not going away. On the contrary, customer requests for materials that may be deemed sustainable-or renewable or recyclable-will become more and more relevant to your business strategies. So let’s discuss some of the issues that challenge us, and how you might plan for environmentally friendly solutions in your business.

Creating a sustainability program
One of the first things you need to determine is what it means to your business to be "green.' The range of commitment to becoming a sustainable company is enormous and can dictate wide and diverse implications to how you manage your operation.

It might help to begin with a popular definition of sustainability: 'Sustainable developments are those which fulfill present and future needs while [only] using and not harming renewable resources and unique human-environmental systems of a site: [air], water, land, energy, and human ecology and/or those of other [off-site] sustainable systems' (Rosenbaum 1993 and Vieria 1993). Even though this definition is 15-years old, it still remains timeless and is the measure by which companies determine their level of sustainability.

Based on this definition, if you are to decide that your business is going to wear the brand of 'sustainability,' the company-wide efforts to achieve that would have to be far-reaching. For example, you would need to implement resources to use and recycle all possible materials such as packaging goods, boxes, promotional materials, etc. You would need to carry virtually every possible substrate and printing material available as a "green" product offering to your customers. Even your heating, air, and electrical systems should be the most energy-efficient solutions possible. If you own delivery vehicles, they would need to be running on clean fuel.

Of course the list goes on, but you see my point: You cannot merely declare your business as one that is sustainable to the environment by offering a few green products. And, importantly, at the end of the day, creating a business that is friendlier to our environment must make fiscal sense to be successful.

At this point, none of us have customers who are demanding that we become 100-percent sustainable. A more likely approach may be to create a 'program' of green products that are in alignment with the needs of your customers. Begin by identifying the type of products that your customers are interested in purchasing. Consult with them about the products they currently buy from you and discuss alternative materials that will meet their needs-aesthetically and environmentally.

For a while, it seemed the customer requests for green products in our industry were ahead of the availability of products from our suppliers. However, I have been both impressed and pleased about the progress of our industry suppliers in developing a more diversified selection of green products to offer our customers. While there is still a long way to go, I am confident that we are firmly planted on the technological and developmental curve for printable, environmentally friendly products. Now, more often than not, our shop is able to come up with solutions for our customers who are requesting these types of graphics.

Shunning the shotgun approach
Earlier, I mentioned the need for a program of sustainability to be fiscally responsible. This can be challenging. In our industry, managing inventory levels with production requirements and cash flow is already a significant challenge. Now, when you add a suite of green products to offer your customers, the difficulties increase. Merely choosing to stock a full suite of green products in the event that one of your customers might request something along those lines will drain your financial resources and will be a strategic mistake. Yet many of us approach it that way.

In our company, when customers began requesting options for more environmentally friendly products, we took sort of a shotgun approach: Order as many material options that were out there and then see what might work. We soon realized, however, that this wasn’t the best approach.

Since then, we have designed a specific marketing approach to the products that we will offer our customers. We no longer try to offer a little bit of everything; instead, we've selected a good assortment of products addressing the needs of vinyls, foam substrates, corrugated substrates, pvc substrates, digital press papers, and others.

We then approach our customers with these products and work with them as to what will specifically suit their needs. We certainly don’t meet everyone’s needs, but this type of approach seems to be the most fiscally sound-and demonstrates to our customers our commitment to offering them green solutions.

Marketing your green expertise
You can leverage your green program to higher profits. But, product offerings that are oriented around environmental friendliness should not be solely price driven. Develop a marketing plan that creates value for your customers. While your customers will want a fair price, these products should earn higher margins for your business.

Because this part of our industry is really in the infant stages of development, very few of your customers are likely to understand what products are available for them to choose from. They'll rely upon your expertise to help them become environmentally friendly with their graphics. This places you in an advantageous position: As your role becomes one of a business partner and a consultant for their business solutions, you will no longer be merely offering them print for pay. Instead, you will be able to charge higher dollars for the value you add to their own business.

Also keep in mind that transitioning your business into a more sustainable company can be tricky. For example, our company recently sent out a mailer to our customers advertising our new line of green products. Without a thought, we simply produced it on our digital press on non-recyclable paper. It wasn’t until we received a pretty terse e-mail asking us how many trees we killed to produce the mailer that we realized our blunder. We could only laugh at our own shortsightedness. Even though it was only one e-mail, it did raise our level of awareness that when you get in this game, you’d better be in it for keeps.

No doubt we all have a lot to learn, but the future prospects of becoming environmentally clean in the world of graphics will be an exciting one. If you aren’t already heading toward that direction you had better jump on board, because this train is leaving the station.

Marty McGhie (marty@ferraricolor.com) is VP finance/operations of Ferrari Color, a digital-imaging center with locations in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Sacramento.

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