Post From Yesterday on FSC Picked Up Nationally

The response to my post from yesterday, “A Negative Tipping Point for FSC Certification,” has been overwhelming.  In my 4 years of blogging, it has been far and away the most widely-read and distributed post.  Most notably, it was picked up by Ecopreneurist, a leading green business news website, which you can view here.

I have received dozens of tweets, as well as messages on Facebook and Linkedin, and virtually every comment has been supportive of my suggestion that FSC’s best days may be behind it in the printing and marketing industries.  I welcome your feedback as well!

A Negative Tipping Point for FSC Certification

Turning the page on FSC?

Over the past few years, awareness has grown about FSC-certified papers and printing.  FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council, a group that works to ensure that the materials used are sourced responsibly.  Each step in the chain (i.e. from forest to printer) must be traceable.  The intent of the FSC system is to eliminate habitat destruction, water pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples and violence against people and wildlife that can accompany logging.

Although I believe this is a meaningful cause, I wanted to report to my readers that I believe that FSC certification in the commercial printing and marketing communications industry has hit a negative tipping point.  By this, I mean that the future of FSC certification in these fields is murky at best.

I base my assertion on a lot of anecdotal evidence I have seen in the field, both from printers, and especially from marketing professionals and print buyers.  Back when I started conducting green marketing seminars (and writing on Sustainable Ink) in 2007, there was growing interest in FSC, and a sense that it would become the industry standard, on the level of recycled paper.  It was on its way there, but I believe it was hurt in three major ways:

  1. Lack of awareness of what FSC means. As I mentioned before, FSC is a system designed to ensure the chain of custody of paper, from when it was a tree to its final printed form.  The fact is, many people in our industry do not know what FSC is, and therefore do not sell it.  More importantly, I have seen many research studies that show that most consumers do not know what it means and are therefore not interested in it.
  2. Lack of tangible environmental benefit versus other green attributes. When people use recycled paper, they know they are consuming less natural resources than they would if they chose virgin fibers.  Vegetable-based inks sound like they make a positive difference, as they cut down on the use of oil, and are renewable.  Papers made with renewable energy send a message that an organization wants to reduce its carbon footprint and support a green economy.  Those terms, recycled, vegetable-based, and renewable energy, all are easy to understand and therefore end consumers of print and marketing collateral feel comfortable around these terms.  If they feel comfortable around these terms and believe they know what makes them green, they will continue to ask for papers and printers that meet these standards.  FSC, on the other hand, is difficult to understand, and the green attributes may not be immediately obvious.
  3. The combination of the difficult economy and the perceived greed of the Forest Stewardship Council. It is not surprising that FSC grew dramatically in 2007 and 2008, when the broader economy was stronger, and the environmental movement was top of mind.  However, as printers fell on tough times, FSC continued to charge large annual fees from printers to allow them to maintain their individual plant certifications.  One printer told me the following: “Look, I’m a small company – we do $3-$4 million in sales per year, and when I had to sign up for FSC certification in 2008, and spend $10,000-$15,000 to make this happen, with ongoing overhead expenses, I did it.  I thought it would be a cost of doing business, and that I would lose business from eco-minded clients if I wasn’t FSC certified.  When sales fell in 2009 and 2010, I appealed to FSC to get a reduction in my fees, as I was facing the choice between paying my FSC bill or my payroll.  FSC wouldn’t budge, so I didn’t renew, as I was more interested in protecting my employees than I was in paying what I saw as an FSC tax.  I haven’t noticed a sales drop off due to this decision.”  After hearing this, I spoke to several other printers, many of whom no longer maintain their FSC certification, as they said the costs outweighed the benefits.  Some questioned the mission of FSC, with one saying it seemed to be an “overhead-heavy organization” that “charged small printers large fees to pay for their bloated staff.”  I found this large organizational chart on their website which did not contradict this assertion.

In some sense, printers have been FSC’s sales force.  Once printers became certified, they sold FSC as an incredibly valuable brand, and one that all companies that wanted to send a green message should strive to put on their printed pieces.  Now that many of these smaller printers have declined to renew, FSC has lost a powerful constituency that will not continue to spread the word about FSC.

One other constituency FSC has partially alienated is designers, due to their strict rules around usage of the term “FSC.”  Several years ago, if an organization wanted to explain their green choices with words instead of symbols, they were allowed to do so.  As an example, if they printed a brochure on Neenah Environment PC 100, one of my favorite green papers made from 100% post-consumer recycled content, at an FSC-certified printer, they could use a simple sentence like “Printed using FSC-certified 100% post consumer recycled content.”  Now FSC no longer allows this, and insists that the term “FSC” only be used along with its official logo.  FSC is clearly trying to build awareness of its brand, but this shouldn’t be the responsibility of the end user.  I have seen this rule cause designers to sacrifice the use of the “FSC” term.

FSC is a worthwhile organization, and serves a good cause.  However, I believe its lack of obvious green benefits relative to other green elements like recycled paper is hurting adoption.  More than that, however, are the large fees charged to FSC’s sales army (printers) during this recession.  Those, coupled with strict rules around design, are a sign that FSC may have overplayed its hand in the marketing communications industry, and its best days are behind it.

Green Tips for Marketing Success: Part 4 of 4 (Green Printing)

As I have written about on several occasions, my firm, Grossman Marketing Group, put together our 100 Tips for Marketing Success this year to mark our 100th anniversary.  21 of the 100 tips involve sustainability, and were broken into four categories: 1) General Sustainability, 2) Green Promotional Products, 3) Green Design, 4) Green Printing.  I am pleased to share the green printing tips below:

Let your colleagues, customers, donors and other constituents know that you are fully committed to environmental stewardship by using some of the following best practices in green printing.

  1. Encourage your constituents to either share or recycle the printed piece. Sustainability is more than the materials you use—it also involves the lifecycle of your item.
  2. Consider using chlorine-free paper. The best papers to use are bleached using an oxygen-based process, thus avoiding the creation of chlorine-related pollution.
  3. Use vegetable-based inks when possible. Not only are they generally refined in the United States, but they also reduce our use of petroleum, the majority of which comes from foreign sources.
  4. Consider papers with a high degree of post-consumer content, as they require fewer resources (energy, water, etc.) to produce.
  5. When using eco-friendly papers, make sure to explain the environmental benefits derived from these choices. These calculations should come from a third-party source rather than a calculation from an industry source. For a great example, please see www.papercalculator.org.
  6. Use renewable energy (like wind or solar power) in the production process. It is good for the environment and resonates well with the vast majority of Americans.
  7. You can make your collateral more environmentally-friendly without sacrificing quality or adding cost! For example, our house sheet of coated stock is 55% recycled with 30% post-consumer waste, and will not cost your organization any more than the non-recycled alternative!

I hope you have enjoyed reading these suggestions.  To download the full set of 100 tips, please click here. Many thanks for your interest!

Green Tips for Marketing Success: Part 3 of 4 (Green Design)

Here’s the third of four installments of our green marketing tips.  These originally appeared in our our 100 Tips for Marketing Success, which we published earlier this year to mark our 100th anniversary.  The two tips below focus on green design.

Sustainability can help drive the design process. Where possible we help our clients create marketing pieces that require fewer natural resources to produce.

  1. When designing a piece, always consider how the item will be produced. When sustainability is important, use colors that work well with vegetable-based inks on recycled paper.
  2. By designing a lighter, smaller piece, you can save energy, freight costs, as well as reduce the amount of paper used. This can also help keep postage costs down if the piece is being mailed.

A leading industry publication. Graphic Design USA (GDUSA), featured our design group, Studio G, for its sustainability expertise late last year.  Here’s a link to the collection of agencies included.  Here’s a link to download the profile of Grossman Marketing Group that GDUSA published.

To download the complete set of 100 tips, please click here.

Green mail in a down economy

Target Marketing recently published an article titled “The Return of the Green Mail Debate,” which I wanted to share.  The article’s premise is that during this economic downturn, sustainability is less important to marketers, and that once the economy rebounds there will be more interest from companies in being green in their marketing efforts.

I believe this message is a short-sighted one. As I have written over the past couple years since the economy started to dip, companies that slash their commitment to sustainability to cut costs will suffer long-term consequences with customers who are increasingly demanding that organizations they buy from do business in socially-responsible ways.

The writer, Ethan Boldt, does try to segment marketers into various buckets, based on their (or their customers’)  interest in sustainability and how this impacts their marketing decisions:

  1. Marketers and organizations that do not care about green, regardless of the economy
  2. Organizations that always care about green, regardless of the economy
  3. Marketers that care about green, depending on their target markets

I do agree that sustainability is more important to certain companies than to others, depending on the markets that they serve.  However, the writer and some of his subjects imply that a barrier to “green mail” usage is due to its higher cost structure and that only once economy rebounds will it make a comeback.  This article fails to mention that people can be greener about their mail without it costing their organizations any more money. The fact that people can use wind power, soy-based inks (if printed offset) and certain types of recycled paper without any additional cost, is crucial to understand, as there is a rampant misperception in the marketplace that going green costs more. If people work with the right production partner, they can go green in a way that does not have a negative impact on the bottom line.

Marketers need to be sensible about watching expenses, especially when the economy is still weak.  However, if there were better education in the marketplace (from the U.S. Postal Service, the Direct Marketing Association, etc.) about ways to go green at no extra cost, I am confident that not only would marketers make more sustainable choices, but customers would come to expect that mail be done in a green way.  These would be positive developments, and would help ensure that direct marketing leaves less of a footprint on our fragile planet moving forward.

Graphic Design USA Survey on Impact of Environment on Design and Purchasing Decisions

gdusa-dark-logoGraphic Design USA Magazine published its annual survey on printing trends in the design industry this month.  The survey includes a page titled The Impact of Environment Matters On Your Design and Purchasing Decisions?”

It is very clear that environmental issues are very important to designers and end-clients alike.  Here are the key points made:

  • Cost is always a concern, as there is a perception in the marketplace that environmentally-friendly papers cost more than typical products
  • “Green” printed products are often used to support a broader organizational mission that includes sustainability
  • As long as quality is not compromised, environmentally-friendly papers are preferred

I am quite proud that my colleague, Brendan O’Hara, was featured prominently in the survey.  Brendan is a team leader at Grossman Marketing Group and manages some of our most complex print projects, and is well versed in the broad array of environmental issues facing our industry.  Here’s what Brendan had to say:

“I spec FSC, windpower, carbon neutral, soy-based inks and recycled papers a lot. We are a very ‘green-oriented’ company. Even if the customer does not specifically request these printing attributes, we offer them as a value added option.”

Here’s a link to the entire page.

Direct Mail Insight: Green Envelopes and the Big Picture

bigstockphoto_Mail_Box_With_Letters_2482928Last month, Target Marketing Magazine published an article on trends surrounding environmentally-friendly envelopes – I was on vacation at the time so I didn’t get a chance to pass it along then.  Here’s a link to the article.

As I’ve written on a number of occasions, “green” envelopes are an important part of an organization’s marketing and communications efforts (we have already sold more than a quarter billion envelopes made with 100% certified wind power over the past couple years).  In fact, they are often the first component of a direct mail piece that a recipient sees, and it is important to take that opportunity to send a values-laden message through the materials/inks/energy that are used to produce the piece.

Obviously, using green practices for direct mail should be just one of the many sustainable business practices that organizations employ – otherwise they could be accused of greenwashing.  However, given recent developments in technology, mailers can make their pieces more environmentally-friendly without adding much, if any, cost, which removes the most critical barrier to adoption.  Research has demonstrated that consumers want to buy products from companies that do business in an environmentally-responsible manner.  Marketing collateral is one way for organizations to demonstrate this commitment.

Here’s a link to the full article.