The print industry leaves a huge carbon footprint – but an Oxford firm is changing all that. Mark Piesing pays a visit.
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If the workers at Seacourt want crisps for lunch, they have to take the packaging home with them. There are no rubbish bins in their offices, nor on the factory floor – none at all. This isn’t the only thing that’s different about this printing business, hidden away on a busy industrial estate in Oxford. Used teabags, for example, go to the attic of the building and into a giant wormery, which turns organic waste into a nutritious liquid that can be poured on to local allotments.
The printing industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. But here the noise and stink of heavy machinery are long gone. Instead, there are large, grey computer-like boxes that look as if they belong in Silicon Valley – hi-tech machines that work without chemicals and water, and use light to dry their products in an instant.
Then there is Seacourt’s use of 100 per cent renewable energy; the row of electric cars plugged in outside; the time the company spends visiting suppliers in France and the Czech Republic just to help them reduce their impact on the planet. It even pays for plastic to be recycled that would usually go to the dump. The list goes on. None of its waste goes to landfill, and the carbon footprint of your house is bigger than that of its factory – and it still turns a decent profit.
Seacourt is not a trendy start-up but a business founded more than 70 years ago. It has just won the European Commission’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (Emas) award for being the first zero-waste printing company in the world. This is on top of three coveted Queen’s Awards in sustainable development.
These awards have attracted a slew of A-list eco-friendly clients such as Planet Organic, the Woodland Trust and even the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change. “The award from the European Commission is a massive thing because it tells us we matter – keep up all the good work,” the managing director, Gareth Dinnage, tells i. “It tells our clients that we are doing exactly what we say we are doing – and this is important for the reputation of their brand.”
However, in the wake of the Brexit vote, should we care what the European Commission says? “Climate change doesn’t stop at our borders,” says Mr Dinnage.
In June, Seacourt went a step further, being certified by the sustainability adviser ClimateCare as having gone “beyond carbon neutral” in offsetting its entire operational footprint plus an extra 10 per cent.
“What’s unusual about Seacourt is that they are not a start-up or part of a big business,” says Frederik Dahlmann, an assistant professor of global energy at Warwick Business School. “They have clearly put in a lot of labour and effort over time, and seem to be collecting awards almost on an annual basis. It is clearly an important tool to convince customers in a very competitive market that sustainability is achievable.”
According to Mr Dinnage, Seacourt’s journey to what it calls “net-positive printing” holds many lessons for companies that want to follow the same path. It all began with an epiphany 20 years ago when the directors were invited to a conference on sustainability and print, at a time when few other people were interested. Although initially unenthusiastic, when they heard that the printing industry was the fourth or fifth-largest polluter in the world, they thought they had to do something about it. “At that moment in 1996, everything changed,” says Mr Dinnage. “We couldn’t unhear this information. We could either act upon it or not act upon it. We decided to act.”
Key to the success of Seacourt has been its revolutionary new technology. It wanted a waterless printing press, incorporating blue-light LED technology, but this was a challenge. “We spoke to four or five of the leading manufacturers, and no one wanted to build it. They just didn’t get why we wanted it. “In the end, we did find a Japanese manufacturer who did, and a company in Reading who could help us design our own dyes. Over 12 months we built it, and that’s what our third Queen’s Award was for.”
Working with Jake Backus, the managing director of the management consultancy Empathy Sustainability, Mr Dinnage also tries to spread Seacourt’s influence down the supply chain – even if it’s not always welcome. “Has anyone ever told us to bugger off?” he says. “Yes, they have, but we don’t work for those people. Not everyone gets it.”
Printing is known as a very conservative industry, but all the same, there has been a change in attitude. “Today people want to work with us because they share our values and beliefs. It’s all about waking up in the morning and feeling good that you are making a difference”. Even in how you wrap your lunch.
In the end, says Mr Dinnage, “my responsibility as a business owner is that if I can find a way to reduce our impact as a business then I have to do it, for the sake of our society.”