In the 1980s, John Popely, director of Anglia Print, sported a green Mohican hair-do and spent weekends lying down on roads in protest against nuclear power.
Two decades later, the hairstyle has gone but Mr Popely is still campaigning to protect the environment — this time through running a green-friendly print company in Beccles, Suffolk, which uses vegetable-based inks based on linseed oil from the UK, instead of petroleum.
“Globally, petroleum is a big hitter,” says Mr Popely. “It’s a heavy pollutant so we should be using less of it.”
Conventional printing inks historically contained metallic substances such as cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury, which can be harmful to press and print workers as well as polluting the air.
Vegetable inks are more expensive but Mr Popely is keen not to pass costs to clients. “We make enough of a profit and that’s what matters,” he says.
Vegetable inks first became popular during the 1970s oil crisis but never really took off because the quality suffered. Now, most of those problems have been resolved, says Mr Popely.
Located around 10 miles from the site of the Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk, Anglia Print has installed waterless printing presses, which avoid the use of water or the toxic chemicals used in traditional printers.
It also reduces the production of volatile organic compounds, which create potentially poisonous vapours that can be harmful to human health in the long run.
Everything the business produces is done with the environment in mind.
Mr Popely has also set up Anglia Print’s own eco-friendly heating system, which recycles heat from the company’s PCs to keep the building warm and has, since 2008, had a zero waste-to-landfill policy — making it one of the first companies in the UK to have done so.
Although Mr Popely’s ambitions for the £300,000 a year turnover company are increasingly commercial, its biggest clients remain in line with his beliefs. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Green Party, Norwich City Football Club and the East Anglian Air Ambulance — which Prince William flies — are all regular clients, though none accounts for more than 5 per cent of sales. The business produces everything from short runs of leaflets to full colour brochures and books.
Vegetable inks emerged during the 1970s oil crisis but never really took off
It also has post-printing capabilities, such as folding, stitching and mailing — all from the one unit. It supports local theatre groups and charities by donating about £36,000 a year, and employs three people, though hires in extra staff as needed.
Mr Popely’s decision to make the business one of the first environmentally friendly printers in 2002 was not met with unanimous approval. Most people thought the idea was “bonkers” so it was “quite a risk”, he says.
He had been working for publishers, including an apprenticeship as a book binder, before taking over the business from his father, who ran the company as a “local jobbing” company, servicing parish councils, schools and local businesses.
But once word spread that the company planned to be green-friendly, it attracted the attention of every environmental business in the country wanting to sell their products.
“The announcement prompted all kinds of people to come out of the woodwork and start selling to us,” he says. “We had every quack in the country chasing us until we found our feet.”
Mr Popely took out a second mortgage on his house but the gamble has paid off. Now his business is one of just 11 printing companies in the UK to have received Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (Emas) certification for its green credentials and draws clients from throughout the country.
Emas is a voluntary standard that was developed by the EU. It aims to recognise organisations that go beyond minimum legal compliance with environmental standards. It requires accredited organisations to produce regular environmental statements, which are independently checked.
The printing industry has been hard hit by the downturn, with fewer people employed and fewer newspapers and magazines sold. This means it is “hard to call where any business is going to go,” says Mr Popely.
“The business is hugely competitive but we produce work for all over the country,” he says. But he likes it because “every job is bespoke; and you never know what you’re going to get”.