How to be a Green Sign Company

Mike Santos

Over the past several years, “being green” has been a buzz phrase that has touched virtually every industry. While the commercial building industry has taken off with sustainable design concepts that have emerged from the United States Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, the sign industry at large has struggled to not only define sustainability but to relate green concepts to everyday business.

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Many sign companies exhibit a growing interest in being green but don’t know where to start. Plus many people have shifted their attention away from issues perceived as soft—green practices being one of them—to focus on keeping business afloat and avoiding the need for massive layoffs due to the current economic situation.

So the question one often asks is, “How do I make my sign company green?”

While there’s no smoking gun, there are three key areas of a sign business that need to be focused on to be considered “green:” Internal operations (how you operate your business from within); supply chain (your partners and the goods you consume); and goods produced (the products/services you deliver to your clients).

Internal Operations

The first and most important step in the path to sustainability is getting the buy-in from within the organization. While implementing change takes strong leadership at the top, many ideas come from within a company. For example, the concept of developing an internal green team has taken shape over the last several years and has spawned a wealth of new and innovative ideas.

“We have a Green Team of volunteers from within the company,” says Beth Gillispie, president of Acorn Sign Graphics, a sign fabricator in Richmond, Virginia noted for sustainability. “These include designers, production people, shipping people, and sales people and represents all facets of the company; so when someone has an idea of how we can do something better, it’s often the Green Team that champions it.”

Gillispie explains that, in the three years since their Green Team was established, the company has incorporated the use of recyclable and biodegradable shipping items that have been championed by the shipping team. This new sustainable mindset from within the company fosters an environment where employees now challenge everyday operations and actually look for alternative ways to build and design projects.

Often a green approach can be cost-prohibitive during the initial evaluation. Another way to look at expenses is as a challenge that stimulates creative thinking for your team. Asking questions and challenging the traditional ways of doing things increases a team’s knowledge about products and allows new solutions to be found.

Supply Chain

The next part of the green evaluation is the supply chain. While growing up, many of us were told by our parents that we are defined by the people we hang out with. While we struggled to accept this as a child, the merits of this statement ring true in our business world everyday. “We have our suppliers trained that we want to use environmentally friendly products, and we want to know about any new products,” says Gillispie.

In the last few years, there have been many companies that have brought green products to market—some legitimate and some not so legitimate. Recycled content in plastic substrates is readily available, along with recycled content in aluminum extrusions, mechanical fasteners, and printable substrates. Many ink manufacturers even offer a recycling program for their ink cartridges.

Goods Produced

The last piece to the puzzle is to produce green signage and develop new products and systems that, while meeting your clients’ needs, are recycled and have a minimal impact on the environment. The goal is to start internally, work through the supply chain, and create meaningful partnerships that provide you with the knowledge and tools to build systems and products in an environmentally conscious way.

The ability to tell a legitimate green story in today’s market is also a crucial part of business. It’s also important to have actual product offerings and the ability to handle large or small projects that require a sustainable approach. “A lot of the projects that have been happening in these tough economic times have been civic projects—schools, government, etc.,” says Gillispie.

People and clients have also become much more energy conscious and are looking for direct savings on all products, including signage. This is an area that allows you to provide value and a sustainable solution that fits the specific needs of your client.


Although the concept of being green sounds great, many companies struggle with the idea of implementing sustainable practices. Some will say that their specific niche doesn’t allow for sustainability or that their specific clientele isn’t interested, so therefore they aren’t interested.

A great example of a difficult green scenario is a shop that fabricates neon. One could argue that neon has mercury and therefore can’t be seen as green. But what if this rhetorical neon company truly believed in the concept of engaging their staff and running their internal operations in a sustainable way? This company leverages their supply chains, recycles everything from scrap to shipping goods, and eventually develops a material reclamation program in which all of its products are properly disposed—allowing zero mercury into the environment. Not only does this company keep its tubes out of the landfill, but it also buys carbon offsets with UPS for each package shipped.

Becoming green starts with someone willing to take a step back to look at ways to improve upon every aspect of operation. Interestingly enough, one of the big reasons that the green movement has had success is that there’s money to be made and saved by being more responsible in the ways we operate our business.

An SEGD green paper, which was published in 2007 by the SEGD Sustainability Forum (formerly SEGD Green Committee), outlines many useful methodologies for being green in EGD (which is primarily signage). It details ten things you can do now to be green in EGD:

   1. Don’t segregate sustainability from design.

  2. Specify locally sourced, sustainable materials that can be recycled.

  3. Integrate green communication strategies.

  4. Do more with less. Design for less waste.

  5. Design easily recycled modular components.

  6. Use screws instead of glues for assembly and mounting.

  7. Use low-VOC paints and energy-efficient lighting.

  8. Get to know one green product at a time.

  9. Ask questions and share information on the SEGD Green Resource Guide.

  10. Integrate green standards for fabricators into RFPs.

The key here is an ongoing strategy that’s unique to the longevity, maintenance, and durability needs of an EGD project. But regardless of project specifics, professionals can immediately improve the sustainability of any project by taking these aforementioned steps. b

Mike Santos is director of sales and product development at Nova Polymers, Inc. ( in Fairfield, New Jersey.