A Nonprofit’s Guide to Green Printing

Check out this great article by Willow Cook, Associate Editor at TechSoup.org, an organization that supports nonprofits.

This is one of the best articles I’ve ever seen on why it’s so much better to print with recycled paper (especially post-consumer waste or PCW) and vegetable ink. Willow reminds us that the printing industry is the single largest air polluter and the third largest consumer of fossil fuels after cars and steel.

I’ve been trying my whole design career (since 1989) to get paper companies and printers to offer less toxic options, and encouraging clients to choose these options despite prices that are higher by 25-50%. Little bitty environmental nonprofits like our local Environmental Center and Land Conservancy would come up with the money to print responsibly, but hardly anyone else would.

Things have changed. A number of printing companies are beginning to offer some recycled papers and sometimes vegetable inks. It’s hard for printers to switch inks on their presses, and it actually wastes paper to get the ink-water balance right. So until they can print everything with vegetable ink, my favorite green printer is greenerprinter.com in Berkeley, CA. They have a terrific selection of papers in all weights, and everything is printed with vegetable ink with the lowest VOCs.

An Inconvenient Truth + Katrina = the tipping point.

I credit this change to Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth, followed by hurricane Katrina, with making the irresistable point about extreme weather due to global warming and humanity’s role in causing so many environmental problems. In 1990 read Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, when I published a newspaper called Earth Journal. He’s been talking about this a long time.

Now more and more people are getting it, and I am thrilled to see so much activity at all levels of society in support of environmental solutions. Really, it’s only common sense! And it’s also absolutely necessary.


A Nonprofit’s Guide to Green Printing

Do more to reach out to constituents
and less to damage the Earth

By: Willow Cook

If someone told you that your nonprofit could raise funds and generate awareness by razing a section of a forest, leaking carcinogens into groundwater, and adding toxins to the soil, you’d probably decline.

Yet chances are, some of the methods you’re using to generate awareness about your organization and its work are causing harm to the environment.

Like most nonprofits, your organization likely produces several printed pieces a year to appeal to donors, attract new members, promote events, and report to funders. When designing this collateral, you want to create a piece that successfully represents your organization, fits within your budget, and generates positive change while advancing your cause, raising awareness, and furthering your mission.

But if your print vendor employs traditional methods to produce this — using virgin-fiber paper, petroleum-based inks, toxic solvents, and chlorine-bleached papers — your printed piece might be doing less to reach out to constituents and more to damage the environment.

Luckily, there are eco-friendly ways to make your print projects, the earth — and your organization — look good.

Damage to the Environment

It’s no secret that paper production taxes forests, water, and energy supplies. In fact, eco-advocacy group Environmental Defense estimates that producing one ton of virgin uncoated paper — which accounts for 90 percent of the United States’ printing and writing paper — requires three tons of wood, 19,075 gallons of water, and generates 2,278 pounds of solid waste.

Moreover, many white papers are bleached via a chlorination process that releases dangerous chemicals and pollutants into the water, according to sustainable-design Web site Renourish.

“The printing industry is the single largest air polluter and the third-largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world after automobiles and steel manufacturing,” said Renourish Founder and University of Illinois Design Professor Eric Benson. “On a typical day, [printers] use trillions of gallons of water that must be treated for its toxic chemical content and released back into our waterways.”

Meanwhile, adhesives, bindings, and foils used in printing and packaging can render the final product unrecyclable, virtually guaranteeing that it will end up in a landfill. There, petroleum-based inks can cause lasting damage to the environment, leaching volatile organic compounds ( VOCs) — which can cause cancer and birth defects — into the ground, contaminating soil, groundwater, and, upon evaporation, the air.

The printing process itself is equally hazardous: Many of the solvents, shellacs, driers, and other solutions employed in producing film, printing plates, and cleaning the presses are toxic pollutants that can cause chronic health problems — including kidney and liver damage, and even death — among press operators, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Not exactly the message your nonprofit wants to convey.

It’s Easy Printing Green

For some nonprofits, the solution might be to eschew printing in favor of online marketing. Yet for nonprofits that rely on printed marketing campaigns for support and publicity, cutting out paper altogether might not be an option.

By printing green, you are sending a powerful reminder to your audience that you care about what’s to come. Environmental degradation has a wide-reaching impact, from poverty and disease to war and famine. By pursuing green printing practices, you are in a sense embracing all good causes — not least of all, your own.

“Your constituency, your board, and the foundations you work with will look to see if there’s coherence in the way you walk the talk,” said Roger Telschow, Owner and President of Ecoprint, an environmentally friendly printer l
ocated in Silver Springs, Maryland. “Every point of contact with your constituency should reinforce the idea that you are not only saying the right things but doing the right things. Printing is a very visible part of that, particularly for a membership organization. Doing the right thing environmentally and then advertising it goes a long way [toward establishing] the integrity and sincerity of your organization. It’s a wonderful way to underscore your mission.”

Happily, eco-friendly options are on the rise — and there are many resources online that can help you locate them.

In Dynamic Graphics’ Printing Green: 12 Things You Need to Know, the design magazine suggests alternatives to traditional printing and packaging. Sustainable-design site Renourish also has a comprehensive list of resources for eco-friendly printing, including a Sustainability Toolkit, which lists recommendations and resources for selecting and finding sustainable paper, ink, and packaging.

Among Dynamic Graphics and Renourish’s recommendations:

Choose paper that is 100 percent post-consumer waste (PCW), processed chlorine free (PCF), uncoated, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, made by renewable energy sources like wind or solar power (Mohawk Paper is a leader in this area), or even treeless (hemp and kenaf are two options).

Use vegetable-based inks or soy inks instead of petroleum-based inks. These alternatives are both low in VOCs and competitively priced. When using Pantone colors — an industry standard — avoid colors (mostly metallics and warm reds) that contain barium, copper, and zinc, which can cause health problems in humans. (Renourish offers free downloadable PDFs showing which Pantone colors are safe in its ink section.) Not all soy inks are created equal, however: Ecoprint’s Telschow advises using those with less than 2 percent VOCs.

Look for a printer that uses renewable energy sources. Telschow points out that Monroe Litho in New York operates solely by wind power; Ecoprint itself has gone 100 percent carbon neutral by buying renewable energy credits for the emissions they aren’t able to eliminate in the shop.

Try waterless printing, which eliminates the dampening systems used in conventional printing. Digital printing, which avoids the film and chemicals in traditional printing processes, is another good alternative.

Avoid using bindings, adhesives, or foil stamps in packaging.

Reduce the amount of inks you use by going with one- or two-color designs; you can also save paper by asking your designer to use standard press sheet sizes.

Familiarize yourself with industry standards. The Environmental Protection Agency mandates that federal agencies must use uncoated printing and writing papers containing at least 30 percent PCW content; coated papers must contain 10 percent, notes Dynamic Graphics.

Other Printing Considerations

Those nonprofits that print a lot of exhibit or signage materials should opt for a printing process called dye sublimation — rather than solvent-based inks, which use petroleum and other VOCs, according to a September 2005 article in Print magazine. Digital printing and appliqué (which works particularly well with banners) are also cleaner, more sustainable options; look for fabrics like Ecospun, which are made out of recycled materials.

What if you do most of your printing in-house, or at a local copy shop like Kinko’s? While toner-based shops tend to use cleaner inks than offset printers, Telschow notes, they consume a lot of energy. Some shops — including some FedEx Kinko’s — have tried to offset this by purchasing renewable energy credits.

When working with a copy shop, Telschow advises, request that they print your job on 100-percent PCW paper; if the shop doesn’t carry it bring in your own, and encourage the printer to be as eco-friendly as possible. “Tell them, ‘We could bring in more business if you committed to green energy,'” he suggested.

Good Design Is Up to You

“Shouldn’t this be the designer’s responsibility?” you might ask. Fortunately for you — and the environment — the answer is no. Ultimately, as the client, the burden falls on you to make sure your project is as green as possible. And with the growing number of options out there, it isn’t difficult to locate eco-friendly paper vendors, designers, and printers that can help you do just that.

Places to start your eco-friendly search include Renourish’s list of green design firms, Celery Design’s Eco-Paper Guide, the Forest Stewardship Council’s list of certified printers, and Renourish’s directory of U.S.-based eco-friendly printers.

If you can’t locate a green design firm or printer in your area, don’t worry — easy-to-use technologies like PDF readers and compression utilities (see TechSoup’s Free Downloads section for good options) make file transmission quick (and often free) via email and FTP, allowing you to work with the vendor of your choice regardless of your location. Many print vendors will allow you or your designer to upload files directly to their sites and will then ship the printed materials to you.

Even if a design firm doesn’t promote itself as “green,” it may be willing to accommodate your request. If you have a long-standing relationship with a designer, discuss ways you can make your project as eco-friendly as possible. (Renourish’s Sustainable Design Checklist will help you know what to ask for.)

A good designer should be able to meet your needs by locating the proper vendors and working within the requested perimeters. If a designer tries to talk you out of using a two-color design or dissuade you from choosing an alternative printing technique, get a second opinion.

Often, designers mark up paper and printing by as much as 30 percent (GG&A; does not), so be wary of those that insist you use expensive paper, pr
inting, binding, coating, or foiling to make your piece look good — they may just be trying to increase their own profits and reduce the time and overhead involved in researching alternatives. A truly competent design firm can make your project beautiful regardless of the specifications.

Dispelling Green Myths

One common misperception among nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike is that eco-friendly means lower quality.

“When recycled paper first came on the market it was rather brownish,” said Renourish Founder Benson. “Today, it is nearly indistinguishable from virgin-fiber papers. I hung up two pieces of paper — one recycled/PCW and the other virgin-fiber — in a gallery side by side. No one could tell the difference. Even better, when printed on, both papers perform equally well. However, the myth still persists that recycled/PCW papers contain seeds, are brown, and are of lower quality. This is simply untrue.”

Telschow suggests that nonprofits talk to an eco-friendly printer to better understand their options. “The biggest deterrent to [printing green] is lack of information,” he said, noting that a printer can help you determine what types of papers, inks, and coatings can give you the quality you want and stay within your budget.

Offsetting Costs

Another common deterrent is the misconception that printing green is always more expensive than using traditional printing methods. However, this isn’t always the case. Vegetable-based inks are often competitively priced with petroleum-based; carbon-neutral printing is no more expensive than traditional methods; and many recycled, TCF, and ECF papers are in fact less expensive than virgin.

Telschow notes that because there are many factors that contribute to a printed piece’s price — including the size of the project, the press you use, and even the time of year — it’s important to work with a printer that can find the best solution for your organization’s budget.

Keep in mind, too, that as more organizations like yours invest in eco-friendly options, the price will eventually decrease. “It is cost-efficient to make recycled paper as it requires less energy [than virgin],” said Benson. Yet, “there is often a slightly higher premium for recycled paper. That is largely based on supply and demand issues. The more we request recycled, PCW [paper], the more the paper industry will supply, and costs will even out. Printers pollute and pollute badly. Why should this be OK? Choosing to not support those practices is to vote with your dollar.”

Even if you discover that going green means paying more, there are still many ways you can offset the costs:


Instead of holding four mail campaigns a year, try sending out three eco-friendly ones. The positive publicity generated by going green may in fact improve response rates, and you’ll be more likely to make the most of what you do send out. Or, offset costs with creativity: “Design multifunctional projects — for example, self-mailer/program combos — to economize when using more expensive paper,” suggests Dynamic Graphics’ in its Printing Green article. “Also, combining projects whenever possible is wise; one idea is to print business cards and postcards from the same recycled paper.”

Bypass the Middle Man

Sourcing and managing a print project is not as complicated as it might sound, and will help you avoid high markups from graphic designers. Ask your designer to send you print-ready files, and then work with the printer on delivering and proofing them. Explain that you are a nonprofit and are trying to save money: many printers will be happy to help you through the process. Alternatively, some designers may even be willing to forego the markup when they know they’re supporting a good cause.

Share the Glory

Another way to offset costs is to ask a vendor to chip in. Some printers will reduce their price if they can put their logo on the piece, and many will do so unobtrusively. Likewise, you could ask one of your funders to help cover the costs in exchange for a small promotion on the piece.

Keep It Exclusive

Benson notes that some printers will offer discounts if you bring all (or most) of your business to them. “Choosing a printer to print your literature exclusively can result in a contract that can reduce costs the more work you send them,” he said.

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It

If you print your project on recycled paper using soy-based inks or wind-powered presses, by all means, let your constituents know about it. Add a simple line of text explaining how the piece was printed on the bottom of the postcard, or include a discreet Forest Stewardship Council, Soy Seal, or Processed Chlorine Free symbol if it applies.

Alternatively, you can tally up the piece’s impact for your readers: Neenah Paper’s eye-opening Environmental Savings Calculator can help you calculate the environmental savings — in trees, water, energy, solid waste, water-borne wastes, and atmospheric emissions — in selecting papers with higher levels of post-consumer fiber content.

Promoting green practices not only makes your nonprofit look good — it can motivate others to do the same. For when other organizations see how good your piece looks, they might be inspired to go green, too.

Copyright © 2006 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

…creative by nature