Letters From The Earth

Are you sincere?

October 8, 2008

Over the last several years, every printing and packaging trade publication has had countless columns, articles, and editorials on the "greening" of our industry. Not to be outdone, Labelexpo, American version, had the same plethora of green product presentation in September. On a stroll through last month's show, an attendee could see a message about sustainability at almost every exhibit. This was the year of "eco-label," it seemed to me. Even Tarsus, the show sponsor, had a section devoted to green products. Gather on the Green had small enclosed cases with products developed specifically for Labelexpo '08 that met green packaging standards and certifications. The cynic in me suggests that Tarsus wanted to be politically correct with this initiative. Not only did they charge a pretty hefty fee for exhibiting but they put the exhibit in a space that no one would want and no one could find.

At last, I think, most of us have the message. The consumer wants "green," which means that our customer, the end user, wants "green." Trickle down is finally occurring. The questions that I think we need to ask are:
-    Are the changes and product development sincere?
-    Will consumers, hence end users, pay more for green?
-    Does our industry's perception of green really address the primary problem?

In my view, you can gain certification for sustainability standards pretty easily. Sure, you'll have to make a few changes. However, using paper that meets FSC standards or has a percentage of post consumer fiber is pretty simple. If your customer wants it, you do it. Is this a sincere change? Is the reason for change genuine? Are you, your suppliers and customers truly committed, even if it means you will lose the business with P&G?

Do you really think Wal-Mart, Staples, Unilever, and P&G will pay more for FSC paper? What about using film that has a percentage of regrind, that doesn't process as well, that won't print as well? What about the use of vegetable inks that won't give you the cosmetic effect required by P&G? Oh, it meets sustainable packaging requirements but P&G won't use it. Are you really committed?

I once asked a large retail organization if it would pay more for friendlier adhesives in their pressure sensitive labels if performance was equal. The answer was "no," and I mean an emphatic "no way." In this case, the retailer wants green but won't pay more for green. The retailer wants more sustainable packaging but will not help to drive change by paying a premium. Adhesive technology, like all technologies, can be friendly – at a cost. How can we drive change if we don't have commitment and support from every part of the supply chain to develop the change?

In the case of friendly adhesive technology we need volume to become competitive. A better answer from the retailer, in my view, would have been a qualified "yes." The solution is to undertake a development project for the use of friendly adhesive technology over a defined period of time, to allow industry to phase in low volume, high cost, adhesives so their products become competitive. This concept mirrors the program that the United States Postal Service used to develop benign adhesives for the pressure sensitive stamp.

Does green, as preached by publishers and Labelexpo, really address the two key problems, energy and carbon? I don't think so.

In a recent issue of Pollution Engineering, Editor Roy Bigham suggests that our whole world revolves around those two words. Think about it: Both fossil and renewable materials are dependent on energy and carbon. Our entire industry is dependent on energy and carbon. The ultimate actions we take, both private and public, affect the future of companies and individuals alike. According to the Energy Information Administration, non-hydroelectric renewable sources will show more growth than fossil fuels during the next 20 years. Coal and liquid fuels, on the other hand, which include both fossil and biofuels, will still provide the bulk of our needs. Take a look at the graph below. This shows the projections of energy growth through 2030. If we don't improve our current technologies to control emissions, if we don't support change, we will only increase the volume of emissions into the atmosphere. Then what have we accomplished?

Historically, our approach to reducing emissions, which we know cause greenhouse gas, has been to ask everyone to control and reduce. This hasn't worked. Look at the Kyoto Treaty. Many of the member countries have failed to meet their quotas and those that have were successful only because of significant economic downturns rather than investments that would orchestrate change. We need new technology, just like we need to use friendly adhesives regardless of where the financial stimulus and support comes from.

In the US state of Illinois a coalition was formed to test technology to trap CO2 gas and control emissions of fossil fuel fired power plants. The project was called FutureGen. So far $50 million has been spent, $40 million from government grants. The projected costs for completion of the project were estimated to be more than $1.5 billion, and so in January the testing was quietly stopped.

The government can spend $800 billion to bail out greedy banks and investment companies but they won't back new technology that will reduce carbon and create new forms of friendly energy.
I don't get it. If we are truly committed to change, if we want green, if everyone in our industry publicly claims they are truly sustainable, why won't our leaders support the use and development of technologies that will affect substantive change? To be sure, we are better than we were. The challenge in this "march to green" is sincere and genuine commitment, not political correctness. TLMI's LIFE initiative is part of that commitment. It will be interesting to see how many of our industry leaders will join that process.

Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.