How to be Green(er)

We asked graphic designer Caroline Clark, co-founder of online resource Twig, to give us her recommendations for how you can work in a more environmentally sustainable way

As graphic designers, we care passionately about how our designs look, the paper they’re printed on and the quality of the print, but there’s one thing we don’t usually consider – how our designs impact on the environment.

Graphic designers are involved in the destruction of forests, we’re fuelling the need for oil, and we’re increasing air pollution by choosing petroleum-based inks. What’s more, we create much of the 12.5 million tonnes of paper and cardboard that gets thrown into landfill every year in the UK. However, by following this guide you can, at the very least, reduce the impact of your designs.

Caroline Clark’s new website for designers is at



Tips for format:
_ Does your project need to be this size or can it be smaller? A reduced format could save paper, ink, water, carbon emissions in distribution and it may even save money on postage costs.

_ Check paper size availability and press

size with your printer and paper supplier before designing your product. Many materials are available in a limited range of sizes which will limit the options for waste- and cost-effective formats.

_ The most waste- and cost-effective formats are A sizes, as all materials and printing presses are based around these.

_ If your product is likely to be around for some time, design it to be updateable.

_ Window envelopes cannot currently be recycled in the UK. Unless the windows have been cut/torn out, the envelopes will be removed from the waste paper when it is sorted. However, cellulose film for window envelopes is now available and, although this is not recyclable, at least it will biodegrade in landfills. Eventually.

_ Don’t print more copies than you need just because it’s not going to cost much more.

_ Make sure that the job has been proofed extremely carefully. This reduces the risk of a re-print or a job being pulled off the press halfway through.

Think about the timings, and try to plan as far in advance as possible:
_ Book time with your printer, and try to get quantities and paper agreed well in advance to stop emergency transportation of materials, especially if buying special order recycled paper.

_ Plan well for grouped, low cost deliveries.

The binding you choose can make your product pretty toxic and can also affect the recyclability of your design.

The most environmentally friendly method is wire stitching as staples can be easily removed during the recycling process and then recycled themselves. Singer sewing is not as good due to the cotton thread being more difficult to remove. The same goes for comb and wire-o bindings.

Glue is really bad news for recycling and can be pretty toxic, usually containing VOC-releasing solvents (see glossary).



There are so many different types of paper, all produced in such different ways, that it is difficult to summarise the overall environmental impact. However, if you follow this checklist, you won’t go too far wrong.

Look for:
_ 100% post-consumer waste (PCW, see glossary on p38)) or at least the highest possible percentage for your job.

_ Off-white or “downshade” – this means that the paper will have undergone less intensive processing.

Unbleached recycled paper undergoes fewer processes than other recycled or virgin fibre, and therefore uses fewer chemicals and less energy. However, any degree of recycled content, whether post- or pre-consumer and regardless of colour, is better than none.

If none of the above suit your job, then look for: 
_ FSC certified – if you’re buying virgin paper, then you can make sure that it really is from sustainable forestry by buying paper certified 100% FSC only. Paper that is certified FSC Mixed Sources may include pulp that is from non-FSC certified sources, although those sources are still required to meet certain standards eg no illegal logging. Treat anything that claims to be from sustainable forestry with caution.

If your paper originates from the UK or Europe, not only will you be minimising transport, but you can be sure that the paper won’t have been bleached using chlorine bleach and will be either ECF, PCF or TCF (see glossary).

Can you use lighter paper for your job? Avoid specifying heavier paper than is necessary.

See for lists of good recycled and FSC certified papers.




Foil blocking: Some say that this should be avoided due to the heavy metals involved (see glossary). However, if you’re covering only a very small area in foil, the effects on the environment are negligible.

Lamination: this renders a product unrecyclable and un-biodegradable and the lamination process emits high levels of VOCs. Use cellulose (wood based) alternatives.

UV varnishes: UV varnishes are mineral-oil based, they contain solvents, the process uses a lot of energy, and as if that wasn’t enough, they cause problems for the recycling process. If you still want to use a varnish, go for aqueous (water based) coatings instead. They come in matt and gloss finishes – the gloss is pretty shiny although not as shiny as UV varnish.

Vegetable-oil based inks: Conventional mineral-oil based inks (see glossary) emit low levels of VOCs as they dry and can result in environmental and worker health hazards. They also come from non-renewable resources – the main oils in non-vegetable based inks are petroleum-based.

Ask for 100% vegetable-oil based inks as many printers will be using only a percentage of vegetable mixed with conventional inks (typically 60% vegetable).

Some inks go one step further by reducing the levels of environmentally damaging drying catalysts such as cobalt. However, this means that they dry more slowly than conventional inks.

Fluorescent colours: Unfortunately these are not available as vegetable-oil based inks.

Metallics: Metallics are also not available as vegetable-oil based inks and contain heavy metals that impact on the environment (see glossary).

Screen printing: the inks used in screen printing contain a higher percentage of solvents than conventional litho inks as they need to be more liquid. As a result, they emit more VOCs.

_ Avoid lamination 
_ Water-based coatings are less harmful than UV varnish
_ Ask for vegetable-oil based inks




There’s little point in worrying about foil blocking if your printer is delivering the product in an old fume-belching lorry to the other end of the country. Here’s a checklist of what to consider when choosing a printer:

_ Do they have EMAS, ISO14001, FSC or Greenmark certification?* (see glossary) 
_ Do they use waterless or low-alcohol printing processes?
_ Do they measure their carbon footprint?**
_ Do they use renewable energy? 
_ Choose a printer with a press that can run enough inks for your job on one press pass. This avoids multiple passes involving more ‘make-ready’ waste, more clearing up, more energy and more chemicals.
_ Do they use vegetable/water-based inks? 
_ Are they local?

* Please note that environmental performance will vary even amongst printers with the same environmental accreditations due to the fact that some have been working at reducing their environmental impact for longer and will have made more progress.

** Be aware that carbon neutral status is not always a good indication of environmental performance. There is currently no regulation in this area and so carbon neutral status can simply be bought through offsetting schemes. Please ask your printer and paper suppliers what they have done to reduce their carbon footprint.

See for a comprehensive list of environmentally accredited printers.

There are some huge environmental advantages to printing digitally:
_ you can run a job as and when needed
_ re-printing costs no extra, so there is no need to print 5000 extra copies in case you run out 
_ no make ready waste

_ Digital inks are currently difficult to remove in the recycling process. 
_ Ink cartridges are often sent to landfill (as well as adding to our over-crowded landfill sites, the ink residue will leach out).
_ The choice of paper can be limited to approved papers, which are rarely recycled or FSC certified.

See for more about print and the environment.


What is it?
Waterless printing is basically sheet-fed litho printing using different printing plates and a method of transferring the image to the paper without using water.


Removing water from the process means that you also eliminate the problem of achieving the correct balance of ink and water on press. It also eliminates the need for IPA (see glossary).

At present only a few printers have tried waterless, all are listed in

Benefits of Waterless Printing:
_ Improved colour consistency throughout the press run
_ Greater colour saturation
_ Lower dot gain, therefore higher screen rulings can be used and more detail can be printed
_ Better results on uncoated paper than with conventional litho printing
_ Faster make-ready time meaning less paper and ink is wasted
_ Improved registration
_ No VOCs (see glossary)
_ Conserves water
_ More environmentally friendly

Most benefit gained when printing:
_ Flat colours
_ Long print runs
_ On uncoated and stocks
_ Corporate identity work (as colour consistency can be maintained across different stocks).
_ Fine and very detailed print

_ It can be more expensive than conventional litho printing
_ Some say that the same effects can be achieved by stochastic printing
_ Others say that clients will not notice the difference and that conventional printing is good enough





More from CR

2823 Text Messages and 60 Postcards

Last year, New York-based designer Nicholas Feltron took 2721 photos (5.8% of which were posted on Flickr), played 26,059 tracks in iTunes, had 859.5 drinks (293 of them being Stella Artois) while visiting 94 New York bars and read 3761 book pages

We Print… Football’s First Green Programme

Manchester City are the first football club in the UK to produce their match day programme in an environmentally sustainable way. Gavin Lucas asks Anthony Rowell of the club’s printer, Polar, about the project

Edited Highlights

Jonathan Ellery at his debut London show
The subtle alchemy of the editing process will be familiar to most designers and art directors. Browns’ Jonathan Ellery has translated his own fascination with it into three personal projects, all of which are brought together at his debut London gallery show, Unrest, which opened at The Wapping Project earler this month and was featured in last month’s issue of Creative Review.

How To Be Green(er)

In the UK alone, 12.5 million tonnes of paper and cardboard is thrown into landfill every year, much of it created by graphic designers. We asked Caroline Clark, founder of the Lovely As A Tree website and a graphic designer herself, for her tips on how print designers can lessen the impact of their work.

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency