Move Your Company to a Greener Standard – the Why, What and How of Sustainability

Getting started with any new initiative is always difficult.  It’s easy to “talk” about something, much harder to actually “implement” the idea.  This holds true with pushing your company into a more sustainable direction.  You can’t swing a dead cat without bumping into another article, blog, TV news show, or talking head giving us facts about how someone, somewhere is saving the planet and millions of dollars by adopting a greener way of doing business.

But for the average small business that seems like a pie in the sky pipedream.  They are working hard just to find new customers, get orders shipped and meet payroll.  Let’s not even start the discussion on healthcare.  So how can “green” compete for attention with all of that?

First, it starts with a simple conversation.  What can you do, and why do you want to do it?  Is it because it’s the right thing to do?  Is it because your customers are starting to ask about it or demand more from their supply chain?  Is it because you want to create bigger margins by lowering your operating expenses?  What is driving this bus?  Get a few like-minded folks with your company together with some coffee and sit down and detail your needs and objectives.  Get to the “Why”.

Maybe it isn’t time to write an official policy yet, but once you have the why listed, you can start with the what.  “What” as in what you can do about it.  Every company is different, but a lot of the low hanging fruit for sustainability initiatives all center on a few things: energy reduction, recycling, reducing landfill, reducing the carbon footprint, continuous improvement and efficiency, and reusing materials in some way.  What interests you and makes sense for your company?

The third leg on the sustainability stool is “How”.  How is more difficult as it involves work.  You are already busy.  Adding more to your plate can be a non-starter for some.  This is where developing some SMART goals can help.  As you may know already, SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.  To get started with your “How”, develop your SMART goals with your team.  Don’t write this yourself, use your workforce to develop the plan as they will be the ones that will assist you in implementing it.

For example, let’s use the number one sustainability goal for most companies, energy reduction.  Writing a SMART goal centered on this topic could look like this:

Specific – we want to reduce our overall energy spend by 20% for the year.  Last year we spent a total of $50,000 on our electricity, natural gas, propane, and water consumption.  20% of $50,000 would be a $10,000 a year savings.  To achieve our goal, we would need an average reduction of $833.33 a month.

Measureable – By listing the goal of the combined utilities of $833.33 a month, you can easily get that on a spreadsheet and as the bills come in, determine if you are meeting your goal or not.  Be sure to also look up previous years spend on these consumables and get that down on the spreadsheet to use as a comparison.

Achievable – Is this goal achievable?  You don’t want to set your goal too low – say for our example at 1% reduction.  Nor can you go too high – for example 80%.  Make your goal something that is lofty, but a target that you can hit.

Realistic – Similar to achievable, but more grounded.  For our scenario, maybe energy reduction isn’t a good choice as you don’t own your building or have little control on how you can change energy consumption.  A realistic goal is something that you have direct control over.

Timely – Also listed sometimes as Time Driven.  Your goal is specifically for one time period.  In our example, it’s a one year based goal.  As time goes by, you’ll see the results of the effort you are putting into your goal.  Is it working or not?  What can you change to make it better?

To close, building a sustainability program takes good communication, effort and drive.  It is easy to get sidetracked, discouraged and confused.  If it was as easy as checking the mail, everyone would do it.  The payoff of getting your program built is huge, so it’s worth the struggle.  There are plenty of resources, help, information and assistance out there for you.

Not sure where to start and need some help?  Contact me at and I’ll be happy to assist you with your efforts.

Basic Sustainability Tips for T-shirt Print Shops – Here’s the Easy Fruit You Can Pick

Most t-shirt printing shops that I know are only concerned about one thing – getting that particular day’s orders printed and shipped.  Thoughts about building a sustainability program seem very earth-crunchy and usually too foreign to contemplate.  Maybe it’s too big of a project to start, or maybe the shop is too small and limited on resources.  However, it’s really pretty easy if you go into it with the right mindset.

The basic trick that everyone needs to learn is that you can’t do it all at once.  A fully functioning sustainability program can really help your business and actually add some much needed margin back into the bottom line if built correctly.  I get asked constantly about building sustainability programs, and here are my top “go-to” recommendations to get started:

Start with a Sustainability Committee.  You can’t do this alone, and you certainly don’t want to be the energy police and go around the shop yelling “Turn That Off”!  The only way to have success is to build it from the ground up.  Gather as many interested people in your company together as you can and form a committee.  This group should include production staff, office staff, managers and most importantly, your company ownership.  There’s an old adage that states “Man supports what he helps create”, and this certainly applies to a sustainability program.  Your committee should meet more frequently at the beginning, but once established maybe once a quarter is all that’s needed.  Initially, here are a few of the things that should be discussed:

  1. Goal Setting.  Brainstorm with your group and find a few things to work on initially.  These could be projects such as starting a recycling program, lowering your energy consumption, or just some basic research into what resources are available to you locally.  Set some SMART goals (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, & Time Based) and assign due dates.
  2. Divide Up Responsibilities.  Everyone in your group will have a different interest or skill set.  Play into that and have them work on things that interest them.  If two heads are better than one, how valuable would eight be?  What if everyone was to tackle one or two things?  Think about how much progress you can make!!
  3. Set a Meeting Schedule & Method of Reporting.  Look at a calendar and decide your meeting schedule for the next year.  Also decide on how the committee will communicate to each other and the company as a whole about the program.  Buy a bulletin board and start adding important things to it about the program as you progress.  This could be minutes from your meeting, results of the program, or maybe just articles about sustainability that are a topic of interest.
  4. Make It Fun.  What are you going to do as a group to make the project fun so everyone can get involved?  If you achieve your goal will you have a pizza party or other celebration?

Measure.  Start a spreadsheet or two.  Remember you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  If you have some data from previous years, get that down on your spreadsheet as a baseline.  Build different spreadsheets around energy consumption, trash pick-up and recycling, or shop consumables (ink, emulsion, chemicals, etc.)  If you can, normalize your totals with the amount of work performed for each time period (week, month, year, etc.) by using the amount of impressions printed.  This is important as if you are busier one month or year than another, you naturally will be consuming more energy or materials.  What you are looking for though, is to show how efficient that work really is.

Get an Energy Audit.  Whether you own your shop space or are just renting, getting an energy audit is probably the number one task to start when building your program.  Your local utility company has an auditor that they can send out to your facility to review your shop.  They will poke around the building and then come back to you with a report on your yearly energy consumption and usually will have a grocery list of things you can do to help conserve energy in the future.  These guys dance cards are usually full, so be prepared to get in line…but it is worth the wait.

Get City, County and State Help.  These days you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a governmental sustainability program.  They are in existence to help you and add support to your program.  Often, they have money to spend on retrofitting lighting, windows, HVAC or other items for your building.  These could be outright grants of money or zero/low interest loans.  Thinking of adding some equipment to your shop?  One of these entities may help you with the purchase if you can prove that it will save energy.  You won’t know unless you ask, so get busy!!

Be Receptive to New Ideas.  Most of the time shops are bombarded with sales people wanting to pitch their newest thing.  I know my phone and e-mail is jammed every day with folks hawking their wares.  The funny thing is that sometimes these guys have something that you haven’t thought of before and may need…and these can be part of your sustainability program.  Instead of thinking “we don’t need that, we’ve been doing it the old way for years”, get out of your own way and listen to how new technology could help you.  I’m not going to pitch products here, but let me tell you that I’ve found at least six things in the past year that we’ve switched, added or changed that have made a huge impact on our sustainability program and have increased our margins.  You won’t know unless you listen.

The Three “R”s.  Think about starting your program based on this easy to remember guideline – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  1. Reduce.  Reduce the amount of consumables you are purchasing and using.  Using some Lean thinking, examine your workflow and processes and try to see what you  can change to reduce the amount of material you are using, energy you are consuming, and steps it takes you to do your work.  It’s basically an efficiency mindset.  If something takes five steps to do, how can you achieve the same task in three?  What can you do to reduce your energy consumption on a daily basis?  Small things add up quickly here.
  2. Reuse.  What can you reuse around your shop so you won’t have to purchase new?  The easiest example is always shop towels.  Why buy new when you can use defective or misprinted shirts?  Can you reuse cardboard boxes or drums for something?
  3. Recycle.  More than just soda cans…  You can recycle light bulbs, cardboard, paper, batteries, chemicals, computers, office furniture, metal, old equipment, ink, plastic, and other materials.  The trick is to find how to do it in your area.  To build our recycling program, it took nearly a year’s worth of effort to find a recycling partner that would help us achieve our goals correctly.  But in the end, the wait was worth it as they make the program very easy.  You just have to keep plugging away!

Talk to People and Share Ideas.  In your local community, industry forum, LinkedIn group or any other network you may have there are folks that are either thinking about starting a sustainability program or are already doing something.  Share ideas and tips.  What worked and what didn’t?  How did you get started?  Was the local chamber of commerce helpful?  Who did you call?  Remember you aren’t in this alone, and networking and building your program with the help of others is a good thing.  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and it is 100% ok to copy someone else.  There isn’t a test and you don’t get any extra points for being an original.

Equipment Preventative Maintenance.  This is not only critical to the life blood of your shop, but makes perfect sense for sustainability too.  Make sure every piece of equipment is fully functional and operating at peak efficiency.  You should have an equipment log and perform regular maintenance checks to be sure everything is working at peak efficiency.  Replace broken or missing parts.  It seems obvious, but you would be surprised at how many of your staff just “live with” the challenges with their equipment every day instead of speaking up and getting things fixed.  Your managers should be on top of this and constantly asking what is needed or how they can support your teams.  Use your eyes and ears when walking the floor and take notes about what could be corrected.  Something not look right?  Leaking oil?  Hearing the hiss of an air leak?  Don’t put up with those problems – get them fixed!!

Sign Up for Certification.  If you are going to build a program, you may as well do it right and follow best industry practices right?  What are the top shops doing?  One way to find out is to sign up for and work towards getting your shop certified as a sustainable printer with a third party auditing system.  The benefit is that you will learn the skills and guidelines for doing things the right way, and know at the end of the program you can market your company as a certified green printer.  My recommendation is to go with the certification from the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership; or SGP for short.  (   The SGP program is extremely robust and will mentor you all along the way towards their certification.  When you are ready, an auditor will come out to your shop for two days and examine your program.  If you have achieved your goals, you can be certified as a Green Printer and use this label to market yourself.  It is a way to differentiate your company in the marketplace, all the while building a best in class program.

Market and Publicize Your EffortsDon’t keep your program a secret!  Shout it out at the top of your lungs and let everyone know what you are doing!  Use social media, your newsletters, even discussion with clients and vendors.  The more you discuss and promote your program, the more valuable and impactful it will become.  Success will keep feeding it, and you’ll start to see some intangible benefits.  Remember, always be truthful.  Don’t exaggerate and use real science and data when discussing your results.  Don’t worry if someone else has better numbers, it’s important to view your program as its own entity and that it is always getting better.  The more you celebrate sustainability at your shop, the better results you are going to get.

These are just some initial ideas.  The trick is to just get started and score some easy wins.  If you would like some help building your program, you can contact me at and I’ll be happy to consult with you on how to get started.

Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee


Recently the owners and top executives from Visual Impressions “graduated” from the initial class of a project entitled Scale Up Milwaukee (  This was a very interesting class that was taught in four two day sessions by different professors from Babson College in Boston.  It was organized and led by Dan Isenberg, who is a professor of entrepreneurship practice at Babson and frequently writes for Fortune magazine.  The premise was simple, instead of focusing on start-up companies why not teach existing and successful thriving companies the skills and focus to grow their businesses and take them to the next level?  Who wouldn’t want to participate in that?

For me, there were a number of key take-aways and enlightened moments.  One of which is that if you get a bunch of top executives in a room for a few weeks you quickly learn that all of them have similar challenges.  Employee problems, hiring problems, customer retention issues, what do we do next questions, how do we challenge the competition questions, etc.  You are not in this alone.  It was interesting to note that if you look at a company, any company, and think they are perfect and running smoothly you would be wrong.  They are probably struggling with the same challenges that you are facing every day.  During the class, I loved the interaction and “here’s what we did” comments that were freely given during the discussions.  Lightning in a bottle…

A good chunk of the class was devoted to understanding the current state of each company, and actually focusing on where you want to go, what are the next steps, and developing a game plan for execution.  This fostered a lot of internal discussions at Visual Impressions; that are still continuing actually.  I think a lot of companies miss out on this growth opportunity because everyone is just focusing on getting through their day, getting through their week.  Shipping the orders in front of them keeps the blinders on.  Sure, there is always loose talk about next year or next quarter…but actually drawing up a game plan for execution?  Usually that doesn’t happen with growing businesses.  (Notice I didn’t use the phrase “small businesses” – thank you Dan!!)

I took copious notes, and I’m not going to publish them here, but I do want to share some key insights and points that were made during the lecture series as I think many companies could use some direction when thinking about growth.

As I stated, the basic idea about the class was focusing the thought process on developing a plan for growing your existing business.  Every business owner is an expert on their own business and understands their market, customers, pressures, and competition.  Using what you already know, think about these elements and try to envision what would make a successful strategy for the business.  Choose the least risky:

  1. Current Product to Current Market.  This method strives to build more on capturing market penetration with your current business model.  How can you take what you already have and bring in more sales, and capture more of your existing market?  You should consider how well your company performs currently, and what you need to do to strengthen your infrastructure to build on your success.  You should also consider your competition; as they aren’t going to give up their business without a fight.  Also, what are the current challenges with your current product?  Can it be improved?  Can you build more margin somehow?
  2. New Product to Current Market.  Think about how introducing a new product to your current customer base might increase your sales.  You already have customers and successful relationships, so what can you bring to them to bolster your sales?  What is the cost for entry with a new product?  How quickly can you bring it to market?  What do you need to do in house to handle the new sales?  What is the potential downside for adding a new product to your business?
  3. Current Product to New Market.  Think about how you can take your current sales and find a brand new set of customers.  You don’t have to invent anything new, but you do have to expend energy and maybe money finding, recruiting, closing and handling a new set of customers.  What do you need to accomplish this?  Would you need to hire a new sales force?  Increase your current infrastructure?  How do you locate the new market?  What are your competitors doing?
  4. New Product to New Market.  This is the riskiest, as you are basically launching a rocket into outer space and hoping for success with untried products and markets.  To pull this off, you need to quickly grasp and comprehend factors that are going to either lead you to success or failure.  You may need to make adjustments often and early.  Be quick and nimble in your decision making.  Here’s where the phrase “fail fast” comes into play as you don’t want to drain unnecessary capital chasing your tail.  However, the reward for success could be higher and lead to even greater opportunities down the road.  Are you willing to roll the dice?

So, what would you do?  Pick one (or more) of these and develop your strategy.  Be sure to have a crystal clear strategy surrounding the plan that details expectations, investment capital, job duties, estimations on metrics, and the most important “how will you know if you are successful” statements.  Use SMART goals.  (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic & Time Based)

Another great point that was shared during the discussions was how to handle objections.  You want to get to “NO” as fast as you can, as there is opportunity with NO.  NO is a natural part of the buying process, and presents a good opportunity to learn about your customer, your product or your company.  NO says your client is listening, and outlines their concerns.  If you address the concerns, you can get to something better…which is a YES.  Some factors of NO:

  1. Misconception.  Maybe the customer doesn’t understand the product.  Think about how you are presenting the product, its value and how the customer will use it.  Do they comprehend all the facts?  Make it easy for them to understand the benefits, and take away any misinformation.  How are you currently educating your customers about your product?
  2. Skepticism.  Maybe the customer is too cautious or uncertain that your product will work the way it is supposed to.  Demonstrate your product and show the benefits.  This is your opportunity to show them the value and build the trust that they need to say YES.  Make it obvious.
  3. Real Drawback.  Maybe the customer is correct and your product doesn’t meet the challenge that they need it to perform.  Here’s your chance to redesign it or add new features to the product to get to YES.  Or, do you have something else to offer that would work?  Here’s your chance to learn from your customer.
  4. Real Complaint.  Your customer may have had past experiences that are influencing their decision.  Ask more detailed questions and find out the circumstances.  Build your case that your product will meet or exceed those challenges.  Handle the complaint first.  Empathize.

The lesson here is how do you handle your NO’s?  What do your customers say?  Write down their objections and find the counter-argument and develop the strategy to get to YES.  This could be with more education about your company, or maybe you have to change something with your product offering.  Boil it down and focus on eliminating anything that gets in the way to the YES sales statement.

Our team at Visual Impressions is working to develop our strategy for 2014 based on the lessons learned during this class.  Can you guess what that strategy might be, based on the two points outlined above?  By the way, our stated goal during the class is to shoot for an 18% sales growth over the next year.  We used conservative numbers, and really looked at a lot of factors to determine that number.  I’m very optimistic that we can hit our target.  Of course, I’m not going to publish that strategy – loose lips sink ships – but over the remainder of the days left in 2013 we will be diligently refining our plan and working on executing it with gusto.  This is where things get exciting!!