Most people will tell you that they care about saving our forests and conventional wisdom has been to demonize the print industry as the major culprit behind “killing trees.” In face of that common belief, Dick Kouwenhoven, President and CEO of Hemlock Printers, and his team set an audacious goal: to become the “greenest printer in the world.”
Hemlock has done it! In 2009 the company was named the “Most Environmentally Progressive Printer in Canada” for the fourth consecutive year and received the “International 2008 Heidelberg Eco Printing Award for Most Sustainable Printing Company.”
Founded more than 40 years ago, Hemlock generates sales of more than $31 million CDN and the company’s 180 employees deliver high quality commercial offset and digital printing services and online print procurement and management solutions.
GMC: People perceive the printing industry to be antithetical to “green” business. When Hemlock started down this path a few years ago, how did you arrive at the decision to become the greenest printer in North America – and the world? Was the impetus to “go green” a top-down or bottom-up movement? Both?
Hemlock Printers: The original focus came from the top down, but it didn’t take long for a very active internal group to take over. We really kicked off our green focus in 2004 with our Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. While it’s fairly common to printers now, we were an early adopter and that lead us to think about sustainability as a business strategy.
FSC certification ensures that wood for paper and other forest products come from sustainably managed forests. We needed to communicate the advantages of certification to a market that didn’t know about it or understand it. So we looked at how we could turn it into a wider strategy for the company.
That led us to create the committee that developed our first environmental policy. As we set our goals to reflect the values of the company, the committee said “let’s set the standard internationally for green printing, for environmentally progressive printing.” It came out of a sincere desire to be a responsible business and to address our environmental footprint.
That was an ambitious goal; it seemed a little beyond the scope of where we were then. As we thought about it, we said why not? Why can’t we be? Our final decision was that if we do it we might as well do it really well. It actually happened!
We didn’t go into it as a marketing strategy or a desire to different our company, but a desire to lead the industry. We’re pleased to see other companies – both other printers and our clients – focused on sustainability too.
GMC: How can a company make a business case for sustainability initiatives? How did you go about it?
Hemlock Printers: We’ve discovered that initiatives driven by a desire to be green often have a positive financial impact. There are many instances where we’ve discovered that what is good for the environment, also saves money.
There are really two parts to a business case. First is the cost side. By concentrating on “lean manufacturing” you can measure results through waste reduction and process improvement. For example, by changing some of our processes, we’ve cut our waste pickup from daily to twice weekly and that saves us $10,000 to $15,000 a year.
The biggest improvement recently has been our filtration system. As a company we had to deal with a variety of waste chemicals, water usage, and discharge issues; those have been eliminated. We invested $70,000 on the system and the labor savings alone have given us a one-year payback.
You discover these things as you go along. If you try to build a business case to save money, you might never attempt projects like these.
The other part of the business case is the revenue side. It’s harder to measure, but initiatives like Zero, our Carbon Neutral Printing Program, and our FSC endorsement are all stories the sales reps can use to differentiate us as a company. How many companies respond because we are a green company? That’s hard to document.
It’s a combination of elements – quality, pricing, and environmental sensitivity – that all come together. We are seeing more requests for proposal (RFPs) that have environmental specifications where we are measured against other companies. We know we’ve been awarded contracts in part because of our environmental initiatives.
We’ve learned from, networked with, and shared practices with other companies in our community to broaden the effect of these programs. We readily share what has worked for us and where we have found the biggest impacts.
GMC: How do you measure the results of your green initiatives?
Hemlock Printers: Hemlock is a small company, but we measure as much as we can. We measure our waste reduction and our carbon footprint, and track the kind of paper we buy.
It’s a concentrated effort, we write down what we’ve accomplished, put some metrics behind it, and then report the results.
With our new carbon neutral program we need to collect as much information as we can, especially for paper purchases. We have a reporting system to know how many jobs we’ve done in order to know how many offsets we have to purchase. To do that requires that our suppliers give us precise statistics for all the paper purchased.
We measure what we can without getting obsessive; it’s part of our everyday process so we don’t have to search for the data when we want to report our results. It’s already there.
GMC: How have you embedded your green goals into your incentive and reporting structure, into your corporate DNA?
Hemlock Printers: We don’t actually incent our managers to be green; it’s just part of the way we do business.
It is important that our environmental values be incorporated as a high level goal within our mission statement. We have an environmental policy, but it hasn’t been embedded in the mission statement yet. It’s in practice but it hasn’t really be articulated to all stakeholders.
There is always more we can do. We’ve been focused on external initiatives as we launched the carbon neutral program. Now we want to bring it back to an internal focus and communicate more with our staff, like we did in the beginning. It’s an ongoing thing.
GMC: How do you work with designers to help them design for the environment, to make their products more recyclable or reusable?
Hemlock Printers: The question of recyclability comes up regularly. We try to steer specifications to materials that can be recycled. Most fiber-based materials can be accepted in to the regular recycling streams.
For example, we’ve encouraged our lamination supplier to stock a biodegradable lamination. Many printed products require some kind of laminated coating to give them strength and protect the image; unfortunately most laminates are not recyclable.
Working together we can offer a cellulose-based product that is only slightly more expensive than traditional plastic. Developed for window envelopes, the film has been turned into a laminating film.
We also regularly have creative professionals in Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) and students in local design programs come and tour the operation. As part of those tours we give presentations about green printing concepts and designing with the environment in mind.
Most recently, in partnership with GDC we’ve initiated a scholarship program. The criteria are still being developed but the intent is to have students submit actual projects to compete.
GMC: Is your “greenness” a marketing strategy or is it the message that underlies your marketing strategy?
Hemlock Printers: Hemlock is regarded as one of the best printers in North America; we are really an exceptionally good printer who happens to have green in our DNA. We certainly don’t say, “we’re really green and we deliver approximately what you want…”!
We definitely communicate our environmental achievements but it isn’t our strategy to say we are green first. We keep our focus on our quality and core products.
People don’t buy a product just because it’s green. When the choice is between two similar products, they will select the one that happens to be greener. The criteria are quality and price, but also green, not green first or instead of quality and price.
In print services, you buy quality and price first. If we focus too much on the green aspect, we are almost encouraging a response that has a very short life.
To learn more about Hemlock Printers, visit their website.