The definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results...

Marcus Timson

Marcus Timson, Director of FM Brooks and co-founder of the EcoPrint Europe Live 2012 event, explains why it is imperative that print businesses move towards sustainable business models.

"Print’s got a dirty image, but then so did the car industry. The car industry is undergoing a major eco-revolution, so why can’t we?

It was Albert Einstein who said, “It is the definition of insanity doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”  He is absolutely right about the definition of insanity.  If you do as you have always done, then you will certainly get what you have always got.

This statement bears particular resonance at present.  There are no longer any guarantees that our economies will grow. The seemingly endless post-war economic growth cycle has very much levelled off.  Economic systems are not facilitating growth.  Those living in mature economies are now – for the first time – facing the possibility that their standard of living will not improve.  In fact, they may well have a lower standard of living than the previous generation.

The global protests at the injustice of the financial systems are another indicator of the desire for a root and branch change. The financial markets are still very fragile across the developed world, and whatever happens, the false economies of the past no longer work.

And print, like any manufacturing industry, is in the firing line. Print businesses need to change and marry their operations with sustainability.  Failure to do so could mean disappearing margins, increased toxic waste, failure to align with customer demands, breaking the law by non-compliance, constriction of revenues and very little profit generation. Frankly, it doesn’t make for good business.

I think sustainability equals common sense. The principle of creating a business that is focused on sustainable growth is hard to disagree with. The global financial breakdown and the companies and institutions that no longer exist provide a great example of a non-sustainable model. Many of the banks were trading with money that didn’t exist and were taking unreasonable risk, without any concern for the resulting fallout. This is both arrogant and insane. The politicians failed us again and once more we are on the brink of yet another recession.

I am suggesting that for sustainability to be successful it must be economically robust and grounded in reality. An economic model that is grounded in reality needs to be allied with a clear understanding of what success looks like and where the business is heading.  Each print company will need a vision, a plan and must then take action.

Things won’t just get better by themselves. Many businesses wait for things to improve and for economic confidence to return before being positive and proactive. They key is doing something!  It’s obvious that a vital ingredient of growth is action. By restricting decisions and limiting actions, growth is suffocated.

But what exactly is sustainability?  Sustainability is creating an enduring model that lasts for generations - a model that sustains and endures.

Firstly, a business must be economically sustainable.  Nothing is sustainable if it isn’t profitable. The social and environmental benefits of any action cannot be realised if the commercial success of the business doesn’t have the most important billing. I get frustrated with people who believe that sustainability is about saving the planet and hugging trees. The environmental and social benefits arrive as a result of good business practice. The commitment to responsible, good business will have an outcome that is beneficial to the environment and to society as a whole.

The Cradle to Cradle book by McDonough and Braungert is a great source of inspiration for anyone who wants to make sense of sustainability. Written by a German chemist (Braungert) and an American architect (McDonough) it tackles what the essence of sustainability has to be. It challenges the notion of the trend for recycling as just being ‘less bad’ as opposed to ‘good’. They claim that recycling could place a respectable sheen on a bad process. They successfully distil what the business of sustainability has to be in order for our community to continue to thrive into the future, for countless generations.  The essence of Cradle to Cradle is as follows:

  1. Design and make a product with the right materials in the first place
  2. Reduce the amount of that material, and then
  3. Reuse those materials
  4. And lastly, recycle materials when they can no longer be reused.

The concept for Cradle to Cradle is quite simply about designing a product correctly in the first place. It’s about designers understanding what materials and processes they need to integrate into a product at its inception. If the vision, design, process, structure and materials are right at the beginning of the manufacturing process then our entire system will be more ‘cradle to cradle’ and less ‘cradle to grave’.

The cradle to grave process was established during the industrial revolution when the power of mass manufacturing and consumption was driven at the expense of the social and environmental concerns of the planet and community. The human race’s industrial brute power could and would beat the law of nature. And now it is broken.

The authors of Cradle to Cradle point out that it probably wasn’t intentional to create a system like this. More a case of rabid economic growth, powered by awesome industrialisation, without realising the damage that was being caused by these actions.  The focus was on the creation of wealth for the owners of industry.  In the modern world, those paradigms have shifted and a more balanced approach is coming to the fore.  I think this is being given further impetus with the relative fragility of the financial markets and the general distrust of the finance sector.

So let’s take a look at one of the major institutions of the industrial world, the US car industry. Henry T Ford - a man with innovation running through his veins - was able to mass manufacture motor cars (making them affordable to the general public) at his River Rouge plant in Detroit.  An engineering revolution and a consumer revolution, all in one.  This approach to manufacturing was very positive for Ford and the people who worked for him - Ford was generous with his employees - but the process wasn’t necessarily good for the environment. In fact it was very bad.

Fast forward three generations and focus on the work done by Bill Ford, Ford’s current CEO, and Henry’s great-grandson. If we take a look at the River Rouge plant now, we see one of the most sustainable manufacturing plants on the planet, featuring the world’s largest living roof.  Ford is now in the top 25 US most sustainable companies. Bill Ford understands that in order to manufacture a healthy product, it must not detract from the social and environmental conditions that it inhabits. In fact it must contribute, through a cradle to cradle approach. The bottom line is that this sustainable approach is good for business. And Ford is making good, healthy money, by the way.  Ford is the number 1 US car maker and the only one that was strong enough not to need a government bail-out during the banking crisis. Bill Ford's commitment to sustainable business and innovation has generated successful results. That should be inspiring for any business.

The examples of manufacturing businesses that have adopted sustainability and making significant performance advances are not flukes or unique cases. The US Top 25 lists household name companies who are now demanding that their supply chains align with their pledges for sustainability. These top brands won’t want to buy toxic print.  It is therefore crucial that the print industry gains inspiration from the experiences of other industries. We need to look outside of ourselves and apply some logic to our businesses and some vision into the future.  To reiterate Einstein, it is the definition of insanity to do the same things over and over again and expect different results.

There will always be a market for cheap. But that road is getting dirtier and dirtier and more risky too.

So can print go through a successful eco-revolution?

I think we are well on our way..."

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