Being eco-friendly works best when it is realistic

Theobroma cacao flower photographed by Nicholas Hellmuth.

I am not a member of Sierra Club nor am I a green fanatic. But I do grow my own chile peppers and I am trying to grow my own cacao for chocolate (but at 1500 meters elevation this climate is not a happy eco-system for Theobroma cacao, the chocolate plant).

Having witnessed an unfortunate increase in greenwashing by ink and media companies in the last two years, especially at trade shows in 2011 and 2012, FLAAR is gradually developing an informal list of eco-friendly corporations: manufacturers of inkjet inks, media, substrates, printers, and other parts of the digital printing workflow. For example, PE is generally considered more eco-friendly than PVC (vinyl).

Our program is to develop a series of publications to highlight the reality of truly being eco-friendly. A definition of Greenwashing, and a definition of eco-friendly will be part of our reviews during 2013. One good way to start is to understand eco-exaggeration.

It is good to start with some definitions of what is eco-UNfriendly

The idea is to have a standard list of truly unpleasant chemicals:

  • PVC vinyl is the benchmark for signage media
  • Full solvent ink is the benchmark for signage inks
  • And temperatures over 60 degrees C start sounding eco-iffy also

Gradually you can develop standards. But it is essential to understand reality: every ink, each substrate will have a weak point, an unpleasant chemical. The goal is to find as few as possible.

And, it helps to be honest about the balance of pros and cons. HP latex ink has advantages:

  • Ink is dry to the touch upon leaving the printer Compared with
  • Solvent ink has to outgas for many hours before you can laminate it

But latex ink uses an excessive amount of electricity, and is slow to cure. Many substrates can’t take the curing heat. If the good features are openly balanced with the downsides, this helps reach a more honest assessment.

What creates, and defines, Greenwashing, is when only the good aspects are heralded. Greenwashing becomes really blatant when the chemical components or other downsides of a product are ignored or are covered over with misleading jargon, such as the infamous “co-solvent” term; to attempt to hide the fact there are too many solvents to honestly call the ink “water-based.”

At the same time you define eco-friendly, it helps to make a list of the tricks used by Greenwashing masters

Cucurbita pepo Calabash floyer photographed by Sofia Monzón.

First trick is to invent new words; words that hide the full truth. Words that are southing to the soul. So calling solvents “co-solvents” sounds less sickening than calling these chemicals “solvents.”

Another standard trick is to compare your new ink to “water-based ink” as if water-based ink was fresh and pure like springwater from a cave.

In fact at least one brand of water-based ink (used by a major international Japanese printer brand) has more unpleasant chemicals than we realized.

Since we are working on a diverse range of other projects, our definitions of Greenwashing and eco-friendly are coming along bit by bit. Our first focus will be on PE (technical textile for signage) vs PVC.

Greenwashing claims can backfire and make your company look ridiculous

In the past two years, as Greenwashing has increased, some of the claims are so silly that it makes the manufacturers look rather ridiculous. The best way to avoid this is to encourage your PR agency to be realistic. In the long run eco-exaggeration can cause more lost sales than you expect.

Greenwashing occasionally is too obvious in trade show booths

Bixa orellana Achiote photographed by Sofia Monzón.

Greenwashing is more than claims in descriptions: what is even more “obvious” are booth displays with grass and flowers, and comparable visual tricks.

But if the ink curing requires less than 70 degrees C (and especially if much less). If the ink has fewer unpleasant chemicals than other inks, then it gradually deserves favorable discussion.

Snag here is that if the ink does okay at 42 degrees (rough general figure for eco-solvent ink), it suggests this ink is NOT really a latex ink and NOT really a true resin ink. To obtain the benefits of an acceptable latex or resin ink you do need temperatures of at least 60 degrees C.

This is a polite way of saying that any ink company which claims they have a latex ink that you can use in any Roland or any Chinese printer with DX4 or DX5 printheads, most industry analysts would not accept that claim. A potentially misleading claim of this nature is more than Greenwashing, it verges on misleading advertising.

A balance of pros and cons is what counts

No ink, no media is perfectly eco-friendly. The goal is to do as well as possible given the circumstances, given the reality of chemistry and the laws of physics.

Greenwashing is very easy to spot in product packaging

white tailed deer buck doe in AutoSafari Chapin Guatemala photographed by Nicholas Hellmuth.

If a product packaging is green color; has grass, leaves, trees or flowers. This often smacks of Greenwashing. Greenwashing examples of this kind are all too obvious.

But if your product has fewer unpleasant chemicals than solvent ink; if your substrate is less eco-unfriendly than PVC vinyl, then an eco-friendly packaging is understandable.

So PE as a technical textile is less harmful than traditional vinyl.

It is essential to define what really is eco-friendly

To define Greenwashing (the exaggerated claim of a project being eco-friendly) it helps to define what is truthfully really eco-friendly. We are already working on this all during 2012. The impetus was the conflicting claims of latex ink: it repeatedly exaggerates claims that it is eco-friendly but it uses too much electricity. Use of excessive electricity is about the most eco-UNfriendly thing you can imagine.

Bixa orellana Achiote photographed by Nicholas Hellmuth.

Most ink chemists do not accept latex ink as really a water-based ink; most inkjet ink chemists smile (or smirk) when they hear that claim. Latex ink is generally considered simply a different kind of solvent ink: less harmful in some aspects than full solvent ink.

So we began to prepare comparative charts to show that just because an ink is lacking horrible VOCs does not automatically make it eco-friendly.

Not having VOCs merely means it is perhaps less carginogenic. Or simply say “has fewer VOCs than full solvent ink.”

It is a long process to list your standards in part because even inks and media that have an eco-friendly aspect have one or two downsides. This is why it helps to have a comparative tabulation, or a + to – row of definitions: + on one aspect simultaneous with perhaps a minus on other aspects (Sepiax resin ink is plus on lacking most solvents but a tad minus in needing higher curing temperatures than almost all kinds of solvent ink; only HP latex ink requires significantly higher curing temperatures than AquaRes ink).

It is best to have one set of criteria for inks and a related but distinct set of criteria for media and substrates. In other words, PE as a technical textile is general considered more eco-friendly than most traditional signage substrates. So our project is to list what is accepted as eco-friendly about PE and compare it with what is considered eco-UNfriendly about PVC.

FLAAR itself has a long-term green interest

Ardea alba Garza blanca in Monterrico Guatemala photographed by Jaime Leonardo.

In the 1970’s Nicholas and FLAAR were the primary mover to get a large section of the rain forest of Guatemala declared a national park (Parque Nacional Yaxaha-Sacnab). We worked five seasons in tandem with government organizations such as FYDEP (including from US parks service) to get this area protected. Several years later several groups of Guatemalan citizens and organizations enlarged the area protected through the work of FLAAR. Today all this is a popular destination for visitors from around the world.

On our family farm in the Ozark Mountain area of Missouri we strive to practice eco-friendly lifestyle (such as not dumping garbage in the springs and rivers; not slaughtering all the game birds and deer; etc).

So we can speak of eco-friendly reality based on actual track record, especially with respect to tropical eco-systems in Mesoamerica. and show our long-range interest in eco-systems, especially related to plants and animals.

Indeed our work in wide-format inkjet printing is to assist local museums and local organizations in learning to utilize digital technology to showcase their museums and the achievements of their local organizations. We appreciate the assistance of ATPColor of Milano, Italia, for printing the images of cacao for a cacao festival in a small town in the center of the cacao-growing zone of Guatemala.

During 2013 we will continue our reviews of how to avoid Greenwashed products. For example, I would tend to be skeptical of any vinyl claimed to be eco-friendly. PVC and eco is a contradiction of terms.

Posted November 2012.