Why Sustainable Design?

SGP has partnered with Re-nourish, a non-profit of graphic design professionals that have developed tools for sustainable graphic design, as a pathway to providing more information on this important element of the printing process.

To design a project sustainably, there is no quick one-size-fits-all approach. The most sustainable design is a combination of balancing the choice of materials and production techniques with your efforts to stay well informed which will result in a more responsible product.

For example, using 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper is only a small step toward developing a sustainable project. Take a moment to consider vendors used, ink, coatings, laminates, adhesives, energy consumed, the location and manufacturing practices of the facility where the product is manufactured, and the transportation costs. Sustainable decisions require us to consider the environmental, societal, cultural, as well as economic impacts as we move toward sustainable design.

The answer to a more sustainable design is Sustainable Systems Thinking. In order to solve the design problem, one must visualize the scenarios to locate where in the system both positive and negative impacts occur. For instance, a designer may select a more sustainable printing operation, but choose a non-certified virgin tree fiber paper stock sourced from an unsustainable forest management or paper manufacturer. That choice in printer may save thousands of pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. However, this is offset by a negative outcome in the system might be the destruction of a forest and the creatures that depend on that ecosystem for survival. It may also result in displacing indigenous people whom rely on that forest for their livelihood. There are many factors to consider in a sustainable system.

Ask yourself: Is a poster, book or website the best solution? If so, who will see it? Where will it be? Are there other options that would be more effective for the audience, culture or end user of this product?

Designing for Print

If you have decided that a printed piece is your best communication tool, there is no correct way to design for print nor is there an exact recipe to follow when measuring your sustainable options. A key to success is finding the right balance that takes your most important variables into consideration. Size, substrate, materials, end-use, disposal or reuse should all be carefully considered during the conceptualization phase and throughout the design process.

Print Process

After you have selected printing as the chosen pathway from design to product, are the print process, and ultimately the printer. Your final product will often determine the type of printing platform. The type of printing employed, be it commercial printing, wide format digital or flexographic, is critical as all enjoy the use of different substrates as well as ink systems. Again – no one size fits all!

When selecting a printer, consider that you are selecting a sustainability partner. SGP certification criteria require printers to consider design aspects of their projects, so working with a certified printer makes sense!


There are hundreds of papers and substrates to choose from when designing for print. When considering your substrate, there are multiple questions to consider into your decision-making, such as: Where is this product going to go? How long does it need to last? Will it be outdoors or indoors? Does my customer have a specific substrate in mind?

Right now, the only single attribute certifications available to consider are those for paper based products. Consider using 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper. This paper uses no new trees and paper made from this waste stream consumes less energy, less water, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions (US EPA). Re-nourish, SGP’s partner organization, advocates the use of agriculture residue paper (wheat straw for example) – which may or may not be available in your local area for you to consider or use.

Remember, the Federal Trade Commission has issued its revised Green Guides to Marketing. This can be an excellent reference resource as you move through the maze of substrates.


As with substrates, the type of ink chosen for your project is critical. And, the ink type depends on the substrate and print process needed to produce the job. There are several considerations that need to be taken into account with inks that include key parameter such as volatile organic content (VOC), hazardous air pollutant content (HAP), heavy metal content, and recyclability.

All SGP certified printers are required to demonstrate that they are using inks with low heavy metal contents. In addition, as part of the certification requirements, printers are asked to perform an air emissions assessment which requires them to identify possible VOC reduction projects and inks are included in the assessment.

There are low VOC inks systems suitable for use by every major print process – but remember; your ink selection is not only tied to the printer – but to the substrate chosen. Work with your certified printer to identify the best solution to your project.

Consider End-Use Options

Each printed product has its own end of life options and strategies. What options can you offer your customer? Communication with your printer during the design process can not only help to reduce waste during production, but also end of life disposal options. Will the product be recyclable? Can it be repurposed? Reused? Are there take-back programs available? Does your printer have an active in-house recycling program?

These questions not only spur discussion, but also help you, the designer, as you move forward.

Tools and Resources

By partnering with Re-nourish, SGP is able to offer these online tools and resources to the design community.

The Re-nourish Project Calculator
An online tool that helps you design from the press sheet backward so that you can make the best decision available on the final size of your printed piece. It’s important to remember that just because a client requests a specific size doesn’t mean that is the best solution. By using the Project Calculator you can input various trim sizes of your printed piece while the tool displays in real-time how many can fit on a specified press sheet. The tool also provides paper-saving tips to maximize your paper use and minimize waste, saving money and resources. Show your client the savings you calculate and make a difference towards sustainability. Give it a whirl!

The Re-nourish Greener Paper Finder
An online database of over 300 paper lines that meet Re-nourish’s sustainability standards. The viability of a paper was determined through factors such as the quantity of recycled content, type of fiber, bleaching process, energy used in manufacturing, third party certifications, and independent research. Any paper made with tree fiber listed on Re-nourish contains over 30% postconsumer waste recycled paper.


About Re-nourish
Re-nourish is an online tool advocating awareness & action for sustainable systems thinking in the communication design community. We are, at the moment, just two people who want to make things better. We believe that ‘good design’ values people, the environment, and improves lives. Instead design is currently on an unsustainable path centered on overconsumption, waste, and ignoring the natural systems around us. Re-nourish aims to help the practicing communication designer, educator and student make positive greener and pragmatic design decisions. Our tools and resources are created to be straightforward and implementable now. Our case studies, articles and blog provide inspiration and knowledge to help designers implement more sustainable strategies.