Think about how many times you've started printing a document and realized there was a mistake. You try to cancel it, but pages are already spewing out the printer. Or another common situation: you don't want all those excess pages with photos, ads, and hyperlinks. You leave it in the printer bed. On a good day, someone puts the paper in the recycling bin. The majority of the time, however, the pages are tossed in the trash, only to pile up in a landfill unnecessarily.
One in six pages of printed paper is never picked up, and in the entire lifetime of a printer, up to 80 percent of the machine's carbon impact comes from the amount of pages printed.
Several years ago, Lexmark saw this enormous discrepancy in the printing industry, and decided to act on it. Customers were getting a lot more conscious about how much they were printing, while Lexmark and other printer companies focused all their marketing around helping businesses print more.
"We had this discussion of keeping on path we are going, which is encouraging people to print more, or get on a different side of the table and get them to print less," said CEO Paul Rooke. "Our DNA is customers for life, so we thought we should turn this headwind into a tailwind."
After that, they created a campaign and sustainability model around a simple slogan: "Print less, save more."
Creating a legacy of sustainability
In Lexington, Kentucky, surrounded by miles of thoroughbred farms on the outskirts of coal country is the Lexmark headquarters. Owned by IBM for many years, Lexmark was once a manufacturing giant for typewriters before they got into the printing business, so the inside is a typical old-school industrial space—large, protruding pipes and wide, cold hallways.
But the company's progressive efforts in sustainability are immediately noticeable. There are recycling receptacles in almost every room, ample outdoor green space, shared equipment and resources, and lights that can be turned off remotely when not in use.
Making these changes at the office also led the company to better understand and serve their customers' requests for greener products, according to Rooke.
"It's embedded now," he said. "In the early days, it was an internal struggle, and it really tests your convictions about the core vision and values."
Paper, the heart of Lexmark's business for decades, is a means of capturing and communicating information. But in the printing business, information gets trapped in paper. Companies are now trying to use a hybrid of digital and paper-based files and products, though the business world is slowly moving to drastically reduce paper usage.
"The cheapest page is the one you never print," Rooke said, adding that most competitors offer discounts on paper and other supplies if businesses print more.
With that mindset, the company created Print Release, a feature that can work on any smart printer or smart multifunction device. With Print Release, papers are not printed until the person scans into the printer with a badge or employee number. A list of possible print jobs pops up on the screen. The user can delete unwanted jobs or select certain ones to print at the time of arrival. If they never show up, the jobs are deleted automatically within a timeframe set by the employer.
According to Lexmark, the average paper savings through print release is about 30 percent. Many companies report savings as high as 50 percent when they use the feature. Print less. Save more.
Moving forward with other green initiatives
John Gagel, the corporate manager of sustainability for Lexmark, pulls a pen out of his coat pocket and sets it on a conference table. The pen, he said, represents another core value of Lexmark's: the life cycle of its products. It is made from 94 percent recycled ink and cartridges. Lexmark spent 10 years studying the raw materials and processes that best created the simple writing utensil, in an effort to more efficiently manufacture products and handle printing processes.
In its move to concentrate on unstructured data and new software for the digital age, Lexmark has spent money and time researching the life cycles of paper, ink, and material supplies that are used to make the hardware for printers. This life cycle includes manufacturing, distribution, and transportation, the use phase, and end of life. The key is to study these phases to more efficiently manufacture raw materials in the future and create longer-lasting, more beneficial products for customers. At the end of their life cycle, the products are then shipped back to Lexmark, where the raw materials are used in future products.
"We are the first company to close the loop on inkjet and laser supplies," Gagel said. "We want to give a device that has as small a footprint as possible."
This all ties in to corporate social responsibility, which Lexmark emphasizes on a grand scale as a company. They want to be known for more than helping people print less. The underlying goal is to be known as a thought leader and influencer in the sustainability movement. Lexmark was 55th on the list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens in 2013.
The company is a founding member of the Nature Conservancy's Corporate Sustainability Council in Kentucky. In 2012, Lexmark volunteers planted 6,000 trees in a local nature preserve and also works on watershed protection in the area. Recently, they partnered with a Coca-Cola plant in Lexington to reduce water waste by building rain gardens in the parking lot to capture run-off for washing the delivery trucks. The beverage company had previously been purchasing water.
Now, customers are realizing they can use Lexmark as a resource to become more green. Lexmark's overall Managed Print Services, which includes the Print Release system, grew 16 percent in 2013.
"There are three aspects of sustainability: products, operations, community," Gagel said. "We address all three of those, for ourselves and our customers."
In addition to Lexington, Lexmark has offices in Boulder, Colorado and Kansas City, Kansas, and a recycling facility in Juarez, Mexico, which is housed in a LEED Gold certified building. They also have an Environmental Protection Agency-certified recycler for the facilities. When the company tests new printers, they turn the test pages into molded cushions for shipping ink cartridges. The box that the cartridges are shipped in can also be used to mail them back to the headquarters, where they are reused.
As sustainability initiatives become increasingly ingrained into its corporate processes, Lexmark doesn't have to explain the "why" so much as the "how" and "what" to customers and other industry professionals, Gagel said. Now, they can create viable solutions for specific vertical industries—from food and healthcare, to insurance and banking—using the knowledge of subject matter experts (i.e., the Lexmark packaging department employees) to better those processes and products.
Of course, paper is still the lowest common denominator of transactions, Rooke said. But it's a constant effort that makes a difference. It creates a competitive advantage, at a time when everyone in this industry is starting to look at energy use.
"The approach to sustainability is a win-win-win," Gagel said. "It's a win for us, it's a win for the environment, and it's a win for the customer."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She writes about the people behind some of tech's most creative innovations and in-depth features on innovation and sustainability.