No justification for braving the gap

Is sustainable media production an inflationary trend? In a guest article, Rüdiger Maaß, the managing director of the Association of Media Production Executives, shares his view on the challenges and the future of ecology in the print sector.

fmp-Ruediger Maass

A guest article by Rüdiger Maaß, the managing director of the Fachverband Medienproduktioner e.V., the Association of Media Production Executives. The f:mp. aims to tackle the new challenges of media production caused by current technical and social changes. For example, on 17th and 18th November the Media Mundo congress takes place in Dusseldorf with the motto „rethink sustainability – economic motivation for sustainable media production“.

It seems that the integration process towards sustainable media production has come to a standstill. It is still true that far fewer than 10 % of all printing companies show a convincing commitment to environmental protection. What we lack are concepts and clear strategies for a sustainability triad – and not only in case of print providers.

It really is a paradox. Consumers want to see more ecological and social responsibility in these sectors. The market for organic as well as fair-trade or regionally produced goods is growing steadily. On the other hand, a huge number of companies use the term “sustainability” in the widest variety of contexts. This means that many companies “pledge their support for sustainability“, but they do not all refer to the same thing.

Of course, there are numerous showcase companies which not only live up to this consumer requirement but are very serious about their own responsibility. But communication does not come into play. For media production specialists, brand owners and print buyers, it is still very difficult to find partners in the media industry whose products and production are really sustainable.

A crucial problem certainly is the wide variety of labels, seals and certification processes. Sustainability labelling shows more and more signs of uncontrolled growth. In this context, it is often difficult to identify clear strategies of individual print providers. The situation is fully underlined in a study by Print & Media Certification Ltd. entitled “Printing, Standards for Sustainability and Communication”. In a survey of European print providers, only 7.3 % of all participating companies stated that their sustainability message is communicated properly.

According to the survey, especially the smaller print providers shy away from their first steps on the route to sustainability because of the allegedly high cost of standardisation, for example. This is confirmed by a representative survey, which was carried out by druckdeal.de among more than 2,500 print buyers and featured in the “Nachhaltige Medienproduktion” (Sustainable Media Production) magazine published by German Publishing Group, GPG, in summer 2012.

Admittedly, many certification processes are not only demanding as such but also cost money. But the crucial factor really is that the associated change processes often have a far-reaching impact in the companies. In this context, it is often overlooked that the impact may lead not only to ecological but also to concrete economic advantages – and should therefore be one of the prime motivations in a situation of shrinking margins.

301 years of sustainability

As long as 301 years ago, Carl von Carlowitz coined the term and developed the modern philosophy of sustainability. With such a high-calibre anniversary, we could suppose that this idea has meanwhile been implemented adequately, and that it has mostly become established in the sectors. Far from it. Many aspects of the concept providing the basis for sustainability still seem to be in their infancy. And this also applies to the communication sector. Sustainable media production inspires many people, but it overtaxes just as many.

There simply is no generally valid guideline for producing at a particularly high level of sustainability. There are only definitions of the objective, which show the way towards approaching this matter. In addition, companies also have to implement totally different and seemingly much more important projects. As a result, sustainability continues to slide further and further down in their hierarchy.

Another stumbling block is the individual and its behaviour. Sustainability and climate protection require an active change of behaviour, and only very few people are ready to do that. After all, there are no legal requirements (yet). Everything is based on voluntary action. And who really likes to make changes voluntarily?

The economic approach

In addition to active environmental protection, there is another powerful justification for sustainable activities. After all, the second column of sustainability is economy. In the graphic industry, there are a wide variety of options for working and producing more economically. The most effective and quickest wins will probably be realised in the areas of energy efficiency, standardization and an optimized input of resources.

The gains realized as a result will have a direct impact on a company‘s success, and environmental protection will be a positive side-effect. There will be less consumption of resources such as energy, paper and printing inks. These factors will already have a positive effect on earnings. But at the same time, these mechanisms of action will also enable a lower rate of complaints, higher customer satisfaction and last, but by no means least, a perceivable change of the company‘s image.

Does anyone have a clue?

Sustainability means future. Establishing this idea in the sector probably is the most important task of the few players promoting sustainability. They must not tire in communicating the relevant topics and must not miss any opportunity of publicising the inherent potential of a sustainable conduct of business activities.

Furthermore, it is necessary to develop simple and effective processes, and recommendations to demonstrate the sustainability aspects of the entire decision-making and development process in the media to print buyers, media managers and deciders. This does not require a new meta-standard, which would have to tout for recognition yet again. But it is the task of sustainability missionaries to enable a meaningful credible navigation through the jungle of possibilities.

The insecurity of sectoral players becomes more and more obvious, when they discuss the term ‘sustainability’ as a stumbling block. When the printing industry wants to stay in the game in future, a transparent, open debate must be launched – to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of a sustainable conduct of business. Settling these questions within the sector will considerably facilitate any communication with the target groups.

The tasks and potential responses

A professional facilitation of the dialogue between industry, associations, organisations and companies is primarily ensured by specialist congresses and trade fairs. In the context of related platforms and professional bodies, there are meetings of associations, print companies, environmental agencies, institutes, businesses, experts and environmental service providers such as recycling companies. This is where they start talking to each other. And even if no generally applicable results are available at this time, the constructive process has already produced initial models for action, which are suitable for participation.

Especially f:mp. – the Fachverband Medienproduktioner e.V. (Professional Association of Media Production Executives) – has played a key role in defining sustainable media production as a term, and, thanks to its Media Mundo Initiative, it has established itself as the “Green Round Table” for the media sector. Consequently, the sector also assumes some degree of responsibility for an important process for the protection of our environment while taking the principle of economics as well as social responsibility into account. Sustainability is not an easy task, but it can be done.