Printing Cradle to Cradle: Visiting Gugler

Jon Derman Harris holds a deck of playing cards in each hand. In his left hand, "Merry Families", a bright blue kid's game. In his right hand, "Club of Queens", a purple deck of playing cards for adults.Photo credit © Gugler Kommunikationshaus / Jürgen Thoma 

Polar Embassy’s mission is to celebrate queer joy and zero-waste printers in Europe. You’re as likely to find me gushing over an inclusive game design as obsessing over how exactly paper and inks biodegrade. I became a product designer in the first place because I read Cradle to Cradle, so imagine how happy I felt to visit the Cradle-to-Cradle-certified printer of Polar Embassy’s entire portfolio of card games, Gugler Kommunikationshaus! I finally got to meet the friendly team that has been working with me for two years, and see firsthand how they create the most high-quality and low-waste print products I’ve seen.

In this post I’ll share my impressions of my visit to their campus in Melk, Austria. I sat down with Julia Stieböck from Gugler’s Product Development and Innovation department, and Birgit Baier, Gugler’s Environmental Officer, to learn more about what Cradle to Cradle (C2C) standards look like for a commercial printer in practice. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions on ways for us to further reduce our footprint, I’d love to hear from you.

First of all: what is the Cradle to Cradle Product Standard?

FSC. GreenDot. The Austrian Ecolabel. Cradle to Cradle Silver…. we walk you through these “eco-labels” on our Sustainability page, and I’ll go deeper into them in future posts. But I chose Gugler to print our first deck of Tarot cards because they were one of a short list of C2C-certified printers in Europe.

C2C is considered by many to be the strictest, most comprehensive environmental standard for product design and production. Certification is demanding - every two years, Birgit must provide Gugler’s paper trail of certifications for each supplier of paper, inks, staples, etc.. She must also document Gugler’s energy use (from photovoltaics on the roof and local hydropower) and the footprint of their outgoing deliveries. This accounting is enough to keep Birgit busy for two years but it lets me sleep well at night, knowing that Gugler’s printing practices have truly the lowest-footprint possible.

There are five aspects of the C2C product standard:

  • Material health
  • Product circularity
  • Social fairness
  • Water and soil stewardship
  • Clean air & climate protection

When Birgit explains the standard to people who are totally unfamiliar, she stresses three concepts: “material health, climate-friendliness, and recyclability”. Basically, the certified product can be easily recycled, it will not emit any harmful residues or pollution at its end of life, and it was produced with as little pollution possible.

Jon Derman Harris holds the Cradle to Cradle certificate for Gugler Druckerei. Behind him is a wooden staircase.Photo credit © Gugler Kommunikationshaus / Jürgen Thoma 

Gugler has been certified C2C since 2011 - what does C2C printing look like in practice?

I trust that their working conditions under Austrian law are fair, and from years of working together, I already knew that they only source papers from responsibly managed forests, and organic inks that harmlessly degrade in soil. But I still learned a lot about sustainable printing at scale from the visit. Inviting independent footprint auditors to scrutinise their every choice over the last three and a half decades has instilled a detail-oriented culture of data-based decision-making and innovative material choices at Gugler. That even extends to the design and construction of their buildings.

One building was built in 2000 from wood, glass, and clay. The second, built in 2017, is made of 95% recyclable materials and a full third of those materials had a previous lifecycle in another previous building! The walls are insulated with their own shredded paper waste. Photovoltaics on the roof provide energy year-round for their whole office, and in the summer they provide the local grid with enough energy for 30 homes. The production facility needs more energy, and for that they use 100% water Strom. Greenhouse effects heated the cafeteria, which serves vegetables grown on-site. Gugler walks the talk and we are proud to work with a partner so dedicated and detail-oriented.

Besides lunch (it was delicious), I got to see their warehouse full of papers of every type. To collect reliable certifications and reduce transport emissions, they first try to source materials within Austria; and if the right products are not available locally, they then look within Europe. The air is moisture-calibrated to be comfortable for people and optimal for paper and the machines. Once the paper is taken off the shelf, I got to see how it could be printed, stamped, cut, folded, stapled, bound, and packed. I watched an offset printer that could print 50k double-sided pages per hour!

Hold on… what is “offset printing”?

Instead of an inkjet or laser printer like you might have at home or at the neighborhood copy shop, offset printing works more like a stamp. To print large quantities of color images, four aluminium plates are laser-etched with designs that are each used to press one of the CMYK inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) onto the page. Plates are easily “erased” and reused. Corn starch is spritzed between the pages to keep them from sticking together.

Back to sustainability: Emissions and CO2-offsetting

Offsetting is a controversial decarbonisation approach. It gives people false license to continue business as usual, polluting with wasteful lifestyle choices. Worse, it offshores problems along colonial lines. More about the politics of CO2-offsetting here.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to C2C is because it’s more than just offsetting CO2. It’s an independent confirmation of a well-rounded effort to lower all waste from sourcing components and production itself, and it’s a commitment to transparency for the unavoidable waste that is emitted. I absolutely love that Gugler can provide me with estimates the total CO2 output of each project, precise to 10g. I choose to publish these numbers on our website and products, and I’d love to see all our peers in publishing do the same. It’s important that our customers have enough information to make low-carbon choices.

Gugler over-offsets by 10% their emissions via measures onsite and reforestation projects in the Global South. Julia made the good point that it’s important that climate mitigation and reforestation projects happen in the regions where people are and will be most affected by, and vulnerable to, climate change. They use certificates to comply with the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the most important global standard for the validation and verification of voluntary emission reductions.

It’s easy to recommend partners this good

Thank you Julia, Birgit, Gregor, Reinhard, and Jürgen for taking such good care of me on my visit. And thank you to the rest of the team for your consistently fantastic printing for us. They have always delivered excellent quality work, on time, and - the true test of a partnership - when the inevitable problem did occur, they took responsibility immediately and made it more than right. Their commitment to regenerative business practices is unmatched as far as I know, and I’m happy to keep giving them Polar Embassy’s business. Follow us on Instagram to stay tuned on what we create together next.

How to reach out to Gugler

If you have a print project you’d like to explore, reach out to Gugler here. Or if you have a concept for a game or zine that you’d like to pitch for Polar Embassy to publish, please reach out to me here.

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