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The Going Green Interview: SGP Board Member Theresa Vanna

By on September 20th, 2013

Theresa Vanna is the Business Director, Graphics, for Transilwrap Company Inc., and has been involved with the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership since very early in the organization’s life cycle. She is now serving her second term as an SGP board member, and also sits on the SGP’s marcom committee, overseeing the group’s marketing and communications efforts. On the occasion of the SGP’s fifth anniversary, shortly before the cupcakes came out, Going Green sat down with Ms. Vanna at Print 13 to talk about the past, present, and future of the SGP.

Going Green: How long have you been involved with SGP?

Theresa Vanna: I started with SGP as a stakeholder, when they started the stakeholder meetings. I was real intrigued as to what they were trying to do, because I was the biodegradable product manager for a major manufacturer in plastics and what I was seeing was that the industry was wanting to go down the sustainability path, but they were wanting to go down that path in terms of products only. When they started the stakeholder meetings, I asked the company I worked for at that time to participate and they graciously did. So from there I became a board member.

GG: So the genesis of the SGP was in pursuing sustainability, not necessarily in terms of developing sustainable processes, but just in terms of creating sustainable products?

TV: The people that were involved in that original discussion, a lot of them were coming from the trade organizations, there were definitely suppliers in that initial discussion, and there were definitely printers. We were all coming to the table with different viewpoints of what the picture of sustainability really looked like. We had that open dialogue of saying, “OK, this is what the need is,” and we saw the different certification organizations out there and they seemed very one-dimensional. We didn’t think that being one-dimensional was going to be sustainable and wasn’t going to fit the bill for the different levels of people who should be involved in the sustainability movement. So there were different users that were really crying for definition.

GG: What were some of the early challenges you had in getting interest and getting traction?

TV: The early challenges were definitely economics. [SGP launched in 2008, just as the Great Recession was kicking into high. —Ed.] The economics were a huge impact because everyone wanted to talk sustainability and they wanted to walk the walk, but many didn’t want to make any kind of investment. Our biggest challenge as an infant organization was creating the ROI, making that very, very visible, and also helping the different levels of people we were communicating with to really understand that it shouldn’t cost green to be green. That really was the message that everyone was thinking at the time. So that was a huge challenge.

The other challenge was education, because there were so many organizations, there were so many certifications, there were so many what I want to call “eco-labels.” How do we channel our energies and have people look at us as truly a non-profit, independent, total-encompassing organization? We weren’t just looking at substrates, were weren’t just looking at air quality, or energy use. We were looking at the entire facility, so that was difficult.

GG: Was there a moment when you felt that you were starting to get momentum, when people started to catch on?

TV: I think the momentum has been within the last year or so. It’s only within the last year that we’re starting to see true discussions. What’s helped is the Adidases and the Starbucks and the different print buyers out there are being a lot more vocal about what they’re wanting.

GG: Is the impetus to become a sustainable printing company being customer-driven or is it top-down-driven within printing companies?

TV: We have a nice combination of both. Having the customers drive it certainly doesn’t hurt, but a lot of printers are going from the top down because sustainability is also part of lean manufacturing, it also goes hand-in-hand with their practices. When people start seeing the ROI just on simple energy usage, it makes them open up their doors and look at their processes and the way they do things. It’s out-of-the-box thinking. I know one company that said, “I hate to say this, but we may not really, really be doing this totally for sustainability.” He said, “When I start seeing the cost savings here, well, hell, I need to do it here, here, and here, too.”

GG: Have you found there to be any resistance within the industry?

TV: There has been some resistance, but I think it’s been resistance because of ignorance. I think any type of certification is going to have some resistance, but it’s going to be because of not really knowing what it is, what it needs, and what it’s doing.

GG: What would you say have been some of the important or notable accomplishments of SGP?

TV: First of all, we survived five years! Amidst the economic turbulence that’s been going on in the industry, I think that’s incredible. And we have 52 printers, and over 95% have been re-certified. Our patronage is growing. We have 25 patrons and we have 3M, we have Dupont. And I think personally, as a board member, our greatest accomplishment is that sustainable messaging is now being unified. It’s no longer thought of as one-dimensional, so I think that in itself is a huge landmark.

GG: Do printers approach SGP or do you go out and contact prospects? What’s the trajectory for getting involved in the certification process?

TV: We definitely approach printers. You look at our newsletter, you look at where we’re at, we’re at the RILA [Retail Industry Leaders Association], the Retailers Sustainability Conference, because what we want to do is apply pressure there to go to our printers. We’re definitely doing a big outreach to printers. But the graphic communication industry is known as being walkers and talkers, so through word of mouth people hear of us. So when we approach them, they’re familiar with us. And having competition that’s certified helps. You get printer that says “Wait a minute. So-and-So has a Cadillac. I’d better get one.” That helps, too.

GG: What have certified companies seen as the major benefits of certification? Is it the lean manufacturing, being able to recoup and cut costs?

TV: The different things that printers will say they are totally ecstatic about are definitely the ROI, the cost savings that they’re starting to experience. What they’re seeing in their energy costs, in their waste disposal, and their employee buy-in. Understanding that part of being sustainable is that you have to have a safe, pleasant work environment for your employees. So seeing all of that, the morale of their people, the training of their people, and being able to easily progress into more sustainable and more lean manufacturing practices.

GG: A lot of people look out there and see this alphabet soup of certifications and eco-labels. What should anyone look for in a certification program, whether it be SGP or anyone else? What are the criteria they should use?

TV: First of all, in a manufacturing environment or facility, what do we look at? We look at, “What will it do for us? And what is the depth of the benefits that I’m going to attain by doing this?” And it is difficult and it does take time, but again if you look at what the ROI is, it’s totally worth the investment.

GG: We’ve seen a lot of greenwashing in the context of “Go paperless—save a tree, save the environment.” Is SGP pursuing any initiatives—or should they—to help combat these misperceptions?

TV: We’re right now working quite a bit. One of the challenges, and one of the things that our members are asking us to work with them more on, is the supply chain, is to be able to help them in getting their suppliers more on board as to what they need to get rid of that greenwashing. “Give me measurables.” Education is the key instrument of what I call “weaponry.” When you’re going to turn around and define sustainability, you have to be educated and we want our printers to be educated and challenge their suppliers, challenge those comments, challenge those statements. Look at the quality of our patrons. Those patrons are leaders, they’re leaders in that they want to be challenged. If my product is sustainable, I want to be challenged in how is that product sustainable, what does that really mean? And in what areas and in how far?

GG: What are some of the major challenges you still have to face?

TV: Definitely getting more recognition in different aspects of the graphic communication industry. There are still different pockets of what I call “printing processes” that aren’t totally familiar with what we’re doing or where we’re at. Our challenges are to create more buzz among the patrons and among the suppliers out there to help with the education of our certified printers. I think also the print buying community…to get them to not just talk the talk but walk the walk. There are still some out there that want sustainable products and support sustainable practices and then you look at what they buy, and what’s in their store environment.

GG: Where does the SGP see itself in the next five years?

TV: Bigger! We’ve had a lot of discussions on expanding the certification in other areas, not just the graphic communication industry, but maybe some other sub-categories of that industry. I work for a company that would love to have someone certify them as a supplier, to see what we’re doing internally and have some certification out there, and there are some other suppliers who feel the same way. There’s so much auxiliary support for the graphic communication industry. It’s not just printers, so why not help them as well? I think of it like Pinky & the Brain: we’re going to conquer the world!

Our community has been a great support. Like I said, from the beginning until now the SGP is still an exciting venture, it’s still exciting, it’s exciting to talk about, it’s exciting to be a part of it. It’s still fun and exciting.