A license to print


The weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

As the graphics industry’s technological infrastructure comes together, brand owners are driving project designers and printing companies more assertively. But brand owners themselves are under pressure: retailers increasingly sell own brand goods, local producers serve slow food markets and upstart entrepreneurs in all sectors chase market share previously controlled by entrenched brands. Brands must also contend with the changing expectations of consumers. A central concern is the perception that brands have a responsibility for environmental impacts.

The perception is that brands are responsible for the sources of packaging and signage waste, so they should also be responsible for dealing with it. For consumers, the argument’s a means of offloading guilt and guilt’s a contributing factor for large companies’ increased environmental engagement. Environmental responsibility is good for business as well as for the planet.

The idea that consumers expect something more from their brands is nothing new. Brand engagement used to be about leading consumers who wanted to be cool or sporty, or elite or trendsetting or conspicuously wealthy. Brands appealed to consumer aspirations and their herd instincts, so they created images they hoped consumers would want to emulate or at least embrace. Whatever the brand wanted to embody for target markets, it was always about identity and persona. People wore clothes that flaunted a brand logo. They bought chic products from suppliers whose carrier bags were also chic, signalling to the chicness contained and the unquestionable chicness of the person toting the bag. Printers did very well out of the luxury packaging sector in particular because high production values reflected a brand’s posh image and customer aspirations. Printed material had specific quality expectations that matched the brand’s defined identity and lead the conversation with consumers. But this is changing.

Consumers are no longer willing to signal their identification with a brand purely on the basis of self-image and aspirational ambitions. Today they expect brands to reflect social values and high on the list is sustainability. A subtle shift in the contractual terms linking brands and consumers is occurring and power is moving closer to consumers. Today’s brands must embody something more than identity hints, and increasingly this means proactive and visible social responsibility, particularly for managing environmental impact.

What this means for the graphics industry isn’t entirely clear. However the use of more sustainable materials and production processes in printed materials is an obvious benefit that brands can communicate. They can also boast the recyclability of printed matter and the sustainability of paper’s raw materials. And they can use ISO 21331 to demonstrate the sustainability of their media investments. This document provides big brands with a means of declaring the recyclability of their communications media and encourages brands to go with print over electronic alternatives.


Laurel Brunner