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How the printing industry can move towards zero carbon in three stages

Isn’t zero carbon a fantasy?

One might be excused for thinking that zero carbon is an unrealistic aim. In previous blogs we have shown that the printing industry is currently far from sustainable (Read Here). We have also shown that key strategies used by many companies to claim that they are reducing their carbon footprint are no more than greenwash (Read Here). Zero carbon is a long way off, both for the printing industry and many other sectors.

However long the journey, zero carbon is achievable. And, if we want to arrive there, we need to start now. The fact that the journey will be hard and require radical thinking is not a reason to put off beginning it.

Here’s why the journey to zero carbon is so important

Firstly, brands are committing to zero carbon. As part of this, they are beginning to implement reductions in their supply chain, otherwise known as Scope 3 emissions. This means that all products created for these clients by the printing industry will need to have an accurate carbon lifecycle measurement. And printing companies will have to show how they are continually reducing the carbon lifecycle of what they are producing.

Secondly, legislation will come that forces companies to commit to zero carbon. In the UK, large companies must already report on the carbon emissions of their buildings and vehicles. It can only be a matter of time before the government follows the example of the US and demands that companies report on the emissions of their entire supply chain.

And, finally, it is the right thing to do. NASA reports that 2022 was the fifth warmest year on record, with 2020 being the joint warmest year. Climate change is happening. The only way to avoid the worst effects of climate change such as nature collapse is to make rapid progress towards zero carbon.

There are three areas where, along with all manufacturing sectors, the printing industry must take action. The first one is about persuading others that they should also take action.

Carbon reduction must take place throughout the entire supply chain

There is little point in making changes to your own emissions if your supply chain isn’t also working towards zero carbon. Your supply chain often accounts for more than 80-90% of your total carbon emissions.

In the printing industry, some moves are being made towards reducing emissions further up the supply chain. Many press manufacturers are creating presses which use less energy and create less paper wastage. Some manufacturers are also trying to create a more circular economy with parts for presses, such as reusable ink cartridges.

However, not all the news is good. Modern digital presses are unlikely to have as low a carbon lifecycle as traditional litho presses. Their lifespan is not as long. And the largest carbon driver in the construction of a press is actually the electronic components.

Despite promises of paper manufacturers to lower carbon emissions, there is also a tendency to carbon balance paper which, as we have already shown, does not actually reduce carbon emissions and is at risk of being no more than a form of greenwashing.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep pressure on supply chains and to ensure that they are accurately measuring and reporting on their emissions. In addition, all suppliers should be committed to reducing their actual carbon emissions and the carbon lifecycle of their products without relying purely on offsetting. This responsibility is equally important for your own company. So what is the best way to start carbon reductions?

Your factory can be a quick win for carbon reduction

  • These days, zero carbon is easy to achieve for buildings by eliminating fossil fuels. Simple projects to reduce carbon footprint include:
  • Switching to renewable electricity, including generating your own
  • LED lighting
  • Harnessing excess heat from production machinery to heat office and warehousing space
  • Managing heating temperatures and zones
  • Waste management
The payback on many investments along these lines is now very worthwhile on an economic as well as a low carbon basis. Cheap energy no longer exists and a number of carbon reduction investments are paying back in around three years or less.

Some other reductions will involve larger, more considered investments. Changing a press can have a significant effect on energy consumption. However, it is important to balance this with the carbon lifecycle of the press itself.

Factories should also make sure that they are running on renewable energy. This may involve generating on-site electricity through investment in solar panels or even wind turbines. Or it may be a question of selecting a renewable energy contract.

Transport is another important element of the carbon footprint of a factory. It can be difficult to reduce the carbon emissions of longer-range deliveries. But local deliveries can be carried out by electric vehicles. Staff should also be encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint in their daily commute and when working from home. Consider making company vehicles electric and offering free EV charging at your site.

The third step is to consider what you are producing.

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Product lifecycle is an important part of the equation

The carbon lifecycle of a product is what most brands want to measure as part of their supply chain, otherwise known as Scope 3 measurement. The lifecycle will include the impact of your supply chain and your factory. However, significant reductions can be made in the specification as well.

Substrate choice naturally has an important impact on carbon lifecycle. Weight is an obvious first choice. The manufacture of the substrate can make a big difference: sometimes alternative fibres can dramatically lower the carbon lifecycle. This area can be less than easy to interpret: the same grade of paper can have a different carbon footprint depending on the mill at which it was manufactured. This is why many are calling for standardised, independent, carbon measurement that isn’t calculated by the industry itself.

However, recyclability can actually have a bigger impact on the lifecycle calculation, especially for wide format products. This isn’t just about substrate choice: it is also about whether a product can be recycled or not depending on the printing and finishing processes involved.

Show your clients what you have achieved and what you plan to achieve

A growing number of print companies are now beginning to publicise their commitments to carbon reduction. A good commitment will state a target for carbon reduction against a baseline, perhaps demonstrated using a carbon intensity ratio to account for the ups and downs of trading. It will also state how those targets will be achieved. It may break the main target down into separate targets for areas such as energy usage, recycling and procurement. And it will report on annual progress.

It is equally important to show your clients that you are measuring the lifecycle of what you produce. It is now perfectly possible to calculate an instant carbon footprint for every product that you quote on or produce. This reassures clients and prospects that you take carbon emissions seriously. It also shows them that you are in a better place than many competitors to help them with carbon lifecycle measurement and reduction.

Printing companies and brands may require help with this. CarbonQuota is able to assist with measurement, advice and software to provide an instant carbon footprint calculation for your products.

Many sustainability claims from printing companies promise nothing

Phrases such as “we are committed to seeking out solutions” and a “journey towards becoming a carbon net zero business” are meaningless without specific targets and timelines.

Many procurement sustainability awards focus on a “best in class” approach. In other words, you can still score highly if you are an organisation with a high impact on the environment. You just have to be a little bit better than your competitors.

Equally, claiming ISO14001 accreditation can be mis-leading. The certification lets you set your own carbon reduction goals: they do not have to be taxing. Nor do they have to show that you have set a goal towards being zero carbon.

It is time to take action

The most important action point is to start now! Here are three easy action points that you can implement quickly:

 

  1. Create a zero carbon champion. Make sure there is someone within your organisation who can drive your journey to zero carbon. This does not have to be a full-time role. But they should have the responsibility to drive progress towards your carbon reduction targets.
  2. Start with easy wins with a good payback. There are usually plenty of actions that can be made within a factory that can make a quick carbon reduction.
  3. Engage your supply chain now. They must understand your aims and work in partnership with you towards them. It is also important that they understand that they must play their part in this or lose the opportunity to work with you.

Make fantasy reality

Remember, zero carbon in your supply chain is a long way off. But it is achievable, especially within your own facility. However, it is only achievable if the journey starts now. The good news is that the printing companies is starting to embrace it. In the BPIF’s Printing Outlook survey for Q4 2022 two of the three top areas for investment were energy reduction and Net Zero initiatives. Many in the printing industry have already started their journey.

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