How Sustainable are Print Communications?

By Chris Wadsworth

With business’ increasing awareness about the need for sustainable practices we need to look at what impact print communications have on the environment.

The death of print?

With the advent of websites and other digital media many enthusiastic technophiles were prophesying the death of print but despite this new competing media brochures, magazines and books have kept going strong. The reason for this is that people like paper. It’s tactile, convenient to use and accessible which makes print design a powerful medium. In fact international research has shown that 73% of consumers choose to read print even when the same content is available online and 59% of consumers pay more attention to print ads than online advertising.

Many businesses recognise the benefits of delivering printed communication into the hands of their customers and prospects to convey their message and get a competitive advantage. If designed well brochures and other printed marketing collateral are easy to read, present a professional image and can be structured to deliver information very effectively.

Sustainable awareness

The most recent threat to the printed document is the increasing focus on sustainability issues and the perception that it is not environmentally friendly to print on paper. Over the past decade or so the paper and print industries have made some big changes to ensure their activities have minimal impact on the environment and in some instances they are helping the environmental cause.


Since 1993 two organisations have been formed that certify the sustainability of forestry, paper and print companies. PEFC is a European body and FSC originates from the US. Both ensure certified companies’ operations fulfill sustainability standards and allow a paper trail to be traced from the end printed product back to the raw materials that created it. Printed material that uses paper from a certified mill using pulp from a certified forestry and printed by a certified printer can proudly display the relevant certification logo.

Truly sustainable

Paper is one of the world’s most sustainable products. Forests created by the paper and timber industries act as carbon sinks that help repair the environmental damage created by other industries. With paper being made from the offcuts and scraps from the timber industry wastage is minimised and sustainability optimised. Thanks to the paper and timber industries the forested surface of the earth has, on average, increased about 340,000 hectares a year over the past 10 years. It is estimated that the developed world now has 25% more trees that at the beginning of the 20th Century. Along with the use of vegetable based inks and other sustainable printing practices the whole process of creating a printed document can be truly sustainable.

Print vs digital

The general perception is that digital media is more sustainable than print but when you consider the production, energy use and disposal of electronic equipment it starts to become complex and less straight forward to assess. To illustrate this a study by the Swedish Royal Institute for Technology states that reading a newspaper can consume 20% less carbon than reading news online.

Recycle, reuse

50% of paper worldwide is fed back into the paper making process with New Zealand leading the way with a recovery rate of 78%. The start to finish sustainability of paper is unsurpassed as a material with recovery rates set to increase in the future. Recycled paper is not however always more sustainable than paper made from virgin pulp. It depends mainly on the energy sources, de-inking processes and other practices employed by the paper mill or pulp manufacturer.

Sustainable future

For companies looking to implement sustainable practices there is nothing to prevent them from using the benefits of printed collateral to promote their business and products. By displaying the PEFC or FSC logos on printed material they can also communicate their commitment for a sustainable future to their customers which itself is a competitive advantage for many people.

We must all remember that to make the printed word truly sustainable the end user must play their part and make sure printed documents are recycled when they are no longer needed.

Figures and data in this article sourced from:
Deloitte’s State of the Media Democracy Survey, 19 March 2009
CEPI Forest Committee
ICFPA Sustainability Progress report 2009

Posted 16 February 2010

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