The role of printing industry associations
An association is any organised body of common interests, so in every walk of life you can find a representative association, usually more than one. Just as there is at least one magazine title for every conceivable hobby, so it is with industry associations. And like magazines, industry associations have a commercial imperative: collecting membership fees in order to fund their activities.
The fees can be very small or very large, but mostly you need to apply to join in order to find out just how small or large they are. This lack of transparency is why many printers, including some extremely large companies, do not appreciate the value of associations. They may be right, particularly when it comes to tricky topics such as national wage bargaining, or unaccountable but expensive government lobbying.
Industry associations exist to look after the interests of their members. This means helping with such things as health and safety guidance, employment law, training, wage agreements and lobbying government to ensure that industry interests are properly represented. For printers, their associations provide a source of understanding and guidance on general laws as well as how they might apply to a printing company. This requires industry associations to invest in the expertise that can most benefit members, providing a specialist resource which will support member companies.
Many associations are collections of smaller local or sector-specific associations. Germany's bvdm, the BPIF in the UK and FESPA all follow this model, which in some markets has been extremely successful. At best it provides a mechanism for broad investment into the industry. At worst, the mechanism doesn't work at all and becomes a bit of a one-way street. If industry associations are to give good value to printing company members, they must be accessible, affordable, proactive and energetic.
Print industry associations, like any membership organisation, can only be as good as their members make them. However, leadership is perhaps the most important role a print industry association can play. By far the most outstanding example of printing industry leadership is FESPA, the Federation of Screen and Digital Printers Associations. This group has 26 European members, plus ten associate members outside of Europe. FESPA invests in industry studies, technological and knowledge resources as well as providing a range of industry events for members. For instance in FESPA's 102 pages the Planet Friendly Printing Guide explains the importance of environmental awareness in the printing industry, along with chapters on emissions management, waste control and best practice for environmental controls. This comprehensive document is available free to members and is funded by the association.
FESPA has reinvested over €1.6m (£1.3m) of membership fees and revenues from trade shows back into the industry since 2005. The money is spent on local projects to educate association members and their customers, and of course to stimulate the market. This has helped to raise the profiles of screen printers and digital printers (wide-format and otherwise), increasing market awareness of the technologies and helping to generate new business.
At the other extreme there are still too many associations tending towards opacity. The printing industry has been steadily withdrawing support for those organisations that appear to be moribund apart from their interest in collecting fees. Associations can no longer get away with sitting back and are expected to follow the lead of the likes of FESPA and Intergraf. This Belgian organisation is an international confederation that represents 23 national printing federations in 20 European countries. Intergraf's job is to promote the printing industry and to make sure that its interests are protected through lobbying at the EU level.
Industry associations have changed in line with the evolution of the printing industry. Printers now provide diverse media services rather than just ink on paper. BPIF chief executive Kathy Woodward is focused on communicating this message. Having been 'in print since the late 80s and out for five to six years before coming back to it, I'd always had the impression of the BPIF [that was] a relatively narrow view of what it does and what it represents,' she says. This perception is not unusual, which is why industry associations such as the BPIF are working to communicate much more noisily with print's many markets and the companies serving them. Woodward is 'passionate about getting the [BPIF's] six regions and eight interest groups to deliver what the agenda should be. [We are] pulling from these different input areas and turning it into a knowledge transfer to shape the services we deliver'.