Moving Toward Sustainable Decorating

March 1, 2009
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The industry has begun to embrace the  concept of responsible sourcing, which is becoming known as “greening the supply chain.”



The sustainability movement continues to gain momentum. In 2009, it is anticipated that the customer base will continue to ask imagers, including those in the ceramic and glass industries, to report on their efforts to become more sustainable and, most importantly, to provide real evidence to back up efforts. To accomplish this, manufacturers are asking their supply chain to supply information and confirmation that the products and services they sell help achieve a true sustainable business model.

The industry has begun to embrace the concept of responsible sourcing, which is becoming known as “greening the supply chain.” This concept refers to a process whereby manufacturers require a certain level of environmental responsibility in core business practices from suppliers and vendors. Manufacturers’ responses to integrating sustainability into their business models have resulted in the development of internal standards, policies, and environmental management systems that govern environmental performance and efficiency.

If suppliers do not abide by these same standards, the buyer company may be buying and using products that do not meet their own standards. It can be difficult to know how to start a dialogue with suppliers, but this dialogue results in the information manufacturers need to make the most sustainable choices for their businesses. It also keeps suppliers informed regarding specific needs.

Thou Shalt Not Greenwash

An important element in these supplier discussions concerns greenwashing, which has been defined as the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. In 2007, TerraChoice Environmental conducted a survey of six category-leading big-box stores that identified 1018 consumer products bearing 1753 environmental claims. Based on the survey results, six patterns of greenwashing were identified-now commonly referred to as the “Six Sins of Greenwashing.”

The survey findings suggest that greenwashing is pervasive and its consequences are significant. When discussing the sustainability attributes of any product or service, it is important to keep the following discussion in mind. These points can also act to generate questions regarding the environmental attributes of any given product or service.

In addition, it is important to keep the following points in mind when discussing one’s own sustainability journey. Is your company overstating? Do you have sufficient information to make a declaration? The Six Sins have become commonly accepted in the sustainability movement.

Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
The first sin is committed when companies suggest that a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without paying attention to other pressing environmental issues. These claims, while not patently false, are most often used to paint a greener picture of the product. An example would be paper that promotes its recycled content while the manufacturer pays no attention to manufacturing impacts such as air emissions or waste or water discharges.

Sin of No Proof
Any environmental claim that is not substantiated by easily supported and accessible information, or by a reliable third-party certification, is guilty of this sin.

Sin of Vagueness
Environmental claims are too vague if they are so poorly defined or broad that their true meanings are lost on the final customer. The use of the words green, environmentally friendly or eco-conscious is meaningless without elaboration.

Sin of Irrelevance
Companies commit this sin when they make an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful to consumers. For example, labeling insecticides CFC-free is irrelevant because CFCs have been banned for 30 years and no products are permitted to include them.

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
This sin involves “green” claims that may be true but distract the consumer from a greater environmental impact. It is also applicable when environmental qualifiers are used for products when the product itself is of questionable environmental value. Organic cigarettes are one example.

Sin of Fibbing
This sin is committed when the environmental claim is simply false.

Points of Discussion

With this information, manufacturers can begin to develop strong responsible sourcing guidelines for their vendors through the preparation of questions and requests for documentation. Some manufacturers might hesitate to develop such a program, but the information provided by vendors is critical to any sustainability program that is presented to a customer base. The information provided is only as strong as the information received.

In order to develop and maintain a strong sustainability program, manufacturers must demonstrate compliance with environmental, safety and health regulations. Does your company have policies in place regarding a vendor’s compliance with environmental, health and safety regulations? Customers often request proof that compliance obligations have been met. In the quest to reach sustainability goals, credible information is key.

Vendors and suppliers continue to make claims regarding the environmentally friendly aspects of their products. This is to be expected, as environmentally preferable products have an edge in the market. But what constitutes an environmentally preferable product? The only guidelines that exist to date for the use of such terms are the Green Guides issued by the Federal Trade Commission.

These guides apply to environmental claims that are included in labeling, advertising, promotional materials, and all other forms of marketing, whether asserted directly or by implication through words, symbols, emblems, logos, depictions, product brand names, or through any other means, including digital or electronic marketing such as the Internet or electronic mail. The guides apply to any claim about the environmental attributes of a product, package or service in connection with the sale, offering for sale, or marketing of such product, package or service for personal, family, household, commercial, institutional, or industrial use.

Because the guides are not legislative rules, they are not enforceable regulations, nor do they have the force and effect of law. The guides themselves do not pre-empt regulation by other federal agencies or state and local bodies governing the use of environmental marketing claims. However, the guides do provide information about the use of terms like biodegradability, compostability, recycled content, etc. Additional resources, like Glossary of Terms developed under the auspices of the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, also provide direction for information requests.

It is recommended that each facility develop a policy and standardized procedure for requesting information on all products, not just those marketed as environmentally preferable. As customers request more detailed information on the products produced, each manufacturer’s answers will rely on the information provided by their supplier base.

When specific environmental claims are made, it is recommended that manufacturers request additional documentation. If a product is deemed biodegradable, was an appropriate test method used in the determination? Can test results be shared? For products with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), was the proper test method used to determine VOC content? If recyclable, can the product be recycled in most waste streams? Answers to these questions can help provide sound information to the customer base.

Goals and Objectives

Manufacturers should review the information requests they receive from their customer base. Transparency in the supply chain is becoming a growing trend, and manufacturers can stay ahead of the curve by asking these questions and requesting information. Requesting copies of suppliers’ environmental policies, as well as any goals and objectives they have set, represents a sound business practice.

Developing a program for responsible sourcing is no longer a luxury-it has become a necessity as companies embark on their own sustainability journeys. The momentum for green or sustainable companies will continue to grow, and those with a green supply chain will gain a competitive advantage. It is no longer a viable solution to rely on the supply chain for environmental and sustainability ethics; each facility must first implement its own standard by seeking information to support its goals and objectives from suppliers. Manufacturers that can prove they are green will thrive.

For additional information regarding sustainability, contact the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, 10015 Main St., Fairfax, VA 22031; (703) 359-1310; fax (703) 273-0456; e-mail sgia@sgia.org; or visit www.sgia.org.

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