Case study: Bringing CSR to the printing sector

23rd Feb 2007

By Neil Davey, editor

Modern companies have a responsibility for their products from cradle to grave (or should that be manufacturing plant to recycling point?). By extension, however, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t also take responsibility for the way that they market such goods. Businesses spend a lot of money on printed marketing matter, for instance, and know they now have to start doing that with an environmental hat on. Yet by and large the printing industry is hardly a paragon of environmental virtue. For this reason, Polar Print Group has carved out a reputation as something of a pioneer in the sector. Built on a foundation of social and environmental responsibility for its own peace of mind, Polar’s ethical strategy has since expanded to encompass its relationship with its customers – and the printing industry at large.

“There are lots of companies in the printing industry that aren’t prepared to change their ways,” says managing director David Gask. “They are too busy fighting for work and trying to supply it at a price that makes a small profit and enables them to retain market share. They haven’t looked at the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is: How do you impact on other stakeholders? How do you manage your relationships and what do you share in common? Do you have a concern about the environment? Do you care about the planet? And it is about having a client community of like-minded people.”

Historically, Polar was what Gask describes as an “old school” printing company – boasting traditional technology and processes and home to management with a long history in the business. But a management buy-out in 2004 saw the business fundamentally reposition itself, with corporate social responsibility (CSR) taking a prominent role in its strategy.

“The MBO was the catalyst to change,” Gask says. “Climate change to us isn’t just about the environment. If you think about the last 15 years, there has been a big climate change – a climate change in attitude. The directors of a company have a strong moral obligation to look at the way that its business conducts business for the benefit of all. There are lots of people that are now much more conscious of the climate change that has taken place with regards to accountability, transparency and CSR. And people that have a strong sense of CSR want to work with likeminded people.”

Polar racked up accreditations relating to environmental management, establishing itself as a carbon balanced company and subsequently becoming the first UK printer to receive the PAS75, a kitemark for customer service excellence. With CSR becoming an important consideration for an increasing number of organisations, this CSR-related customer service has indeed proved an attractive proposition.

“Corporate governance is now on most order of agendas,” explains Gask. “There are bosses who have perhaps never been involved in print buying before and who are now mindful of the whole notion of supply chain integrity and are asking: ‘What do we do? Where do we buy it from? And how sensibly do we buy it?’ Taking responsibility for the supply chain is what we do. We are taking responsibility for where the resources have come from (the raw materials), we are taking responsibility for any third parties that we use in the production process, we are obviously responsible for what we do within our own operation, but effectively we are taking all that responsibility with the customer - we are sharing it.”

Unique selling proposition

Appealing to the ethically-minded community (its slogan is “printing responsibly”), today between 30-40 percent of Polar’s clients have a CSR stance. And with CSR being at the forefront of its customers’ concerns, the printer works to nurture peace of mind. Both its CSR officer and its systems manager are qualified auditors, for instance, who visit Polar’s supply partners to confirm CSR credibility. This credibility is then often communicated on the printing matter for the benefit of Polar’s customers. Gask uses the example of one of the company’s clients, Rossborough insurance brokers.

“Rossborough sees it as a unique selling proposition. It sends out a lot of marketing collateral to prospective customers or existing policy holders and now all of its printed matter is endorsed with comments regarding how it has been printed using environmentally credible processes on sensible stock. It sees it as being a win-win - it is doing something positive about the environment and it is also an opportunity to deliver their message to its prospects or customers in a more meaningful way.”

Polar’s CSR philosophy extends right through its relationships with customers, and it actively engages its clients in dialogue regarding how they can improve their own corporate social responsibility initiatives. “There are obviously clients that are already well informed about what the CSR issues are, but if they are unaware we will take proactive steps to explain some of the options and why they should be considering some of the issues and what we can do to be more responsible working together,” says Gask “We aim to help clients meet their corporate social responsibility in the printing of their marketing collateral. So we are saying to them: ‘if you are concerned about your CSR then the issues you should be considering are, for instance, type of paper - in terms of environmental stock - and the printing process.”

This strategy has proven increasingly successful in recent years, with clients now numbering the likes of Cancer Relief UK, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, FTSE for Good, Comic Relief and Manchester City Football Club, with whom Polar has worked to produce the UK’s first environmentally-credible matchday magazine.

But it is also about who it doesn’t deal with, and Polar actively selects its clients as part of its CSR policy. “If we printed for Benson & Hedges or Gallacher, Cancer Research UK wouldn’t be too chuffed about it,” says Gask. “It just doesn’t fit.” He points to an organisation with a similar approach. “The Co-operative Bank decided to step away from a number of accounts because they didn’t fit in with the bank’s ethics. They can’t afford to have relationships with people that fly in the face of what they stand for. They won’t support investments in tobacco, deforestation or anything that is climate damaging and so on. So these days it is also about looking at things more deeply.”

Whether it is the company’s policy of selecting its clients, its customer dialogue or its own ethically-focused practices, Polar has demonstrated that CSR can be a valuable stepping stone to customer management. “Customers expect quality and service and want it at a sensible price,” concludes Gask. “We are building in many other motivational reasons to deal with us. And those motivational reasons are the fact that we do everything very ethically with a good social conscience.”

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