Top Eco-Friendly Shops Share Their Sustainable Tips

As Earth Day rolls around again, it’s time to turn your shop more sustainably minded. If you’ve been looking for ways to do it, you’re in luck. We’ve put together key ways top shops have made the move to go more eco to inspire you.

“Sustainability in your printing operation isn’t one and done,” says Marcia Kinter, vice president of Government & Regulatory Affairs at PRINTING United Alliance. “It’s not just about getting an ‘eco-friendly’ product out the door. It’s an ongoing process that includes whether you offer good, safe working conditions and if you use pesticides on your landscaping. It’s a sustainable look at your entire operation.”

Printing industry guru Marshall Atkinson agrees, and tells shop owners he works with that the premise of shop-wide sustainability is the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. For example, when you see what you can reduce, that could be the amount of materials you use in a project, the number of steps in an imprinting process, or the number of papers in a work order. “This is something any shop can and should do,” he says. “So ask yourself, ‘What can you reduce across your shop?”

When you’re thinking about what you can reuse, that includes the boxes your T-shirts came in. “Some suppliers enclose their garments in a bag inside a box,” says Atkinson, CEO of Atkinson Consulting and co-founder of Shirt Lab. “That makes a fantastic trash can liner. If you have scrap T-shirts, use them for test prints or rags.”

As far as recycling, look far beyond soda cans, water bottles or packaging. “Are you recycling paper, hydraulic fluid or your old computers?” Atkinson says. “A lot of shops I visit have a pile of dead equipment that you can recycle as scrap metal.”

“The premise of sustainability is the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle.” Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab

Ultimately, Atkinson says that when you get into a sustainable state of mind, you’re always looking at how you can reframe your processes. “One, you’re doing your part to help the environment,” he says. “But you’re also going to experience a big financial gain since you are operating at a lower cost than everyone else.”

Top Ways to a More Sustainable Shop

Here are some key ways you can move toward being a greener shop, with input from the experts. “In 2021, you can’t run a business without having a sustainability strategy,” says Daniel Engen, cofounder of D2merch. “For us, it’s the core of our daily work, to try to make a difference in this dirty industry. Every dollar we throw at eco-friendly manufacturers is a small win for our earth.”

1. Start with your “why.”

“Is it a mandate from customers?” Atkinson says. “To save money? Because you care about the environment? You need to really understand your why, otherwise you and your team won’t continue on this green journey long-term.”

2. Stock eco-friendly products.

“We’re on our way to do a complete shift to only offer eco-friendly products,” Engen says. This is the time to look to sustainable brands like Hanes, Alternative Apparel, Gildan and BELLA+CANVAS for a selection of eco-friendly styles that span the popular apparel categories you’re selling. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a rep to learn what’s new or best sellers.

Then, stock those in your showroom, display them on your website, and be sure to present them as an option to every prospect who contacts you. Lots of buyers do want garments made from organic cotton or recycled materials. Plus, when you can tell the “eco story” of the brand supplying the garments, that makes an even bigger impact.

Here are some notable awards and efforts from some of our favorite sustainable mills: 

  • THREADFAST APPAREL has incorporated environmental consciousness into every aspect of its product development and sourcing. The company is transitioning to recycled polyester and sustainably grown cotton across all of its collections. In 2020, the apparel company met its goal of sourcing the recycled poly equivalent to 6 million plastic bottles. Threadfast’s 2020 recycled poly impact saved energy equivalent to 20,000 days of power for a home, along with the water equal to the daily water need for 265,000 people. Threadfast also uses Cationic dyeing technology, which targets one of the most critical production processes, fabric dyeing. To make it easier for clients, the apparel brand tags many of its collections with an “earth tag” to illustrate the garment’s sustainable attributes. For example, the “100% sustainable” collection includes apparel made with fabric components sources through top-level sustainability standards. The Ultimate Tee Collection includes basics made from cotton sourced through The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to support more sustainable cotton farming, along with recycled polyester. The Ultimate Tee heather styles are dyed using dyeing techniques that save water energy and CO2 emissions.

  • HanesBrands has been recognized as one of the 2021 World’s Most Ethical Companies by Ethisphere, a global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business practices. The mill is one of only two apparel manufacturers being recognized among 135 companies spanning 22 countries and representing 47 industries. The company was recently named one of the 100 most sustainable companies in the nation for the second year by Barron’s and earned a leadership level A score, following two years at  A-, in the CDP 2020 Climate Change Report. HBI is also the only apparel company in history to earn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award.

Plus in fall 2020, Hanes announced wide-ranging 2030 global sustainability goals that include a commitment to science-based environmental targets, a goal of improving the lives of at least 10 million people, and addressing the use of plastics and sustainable raw materials in products and packaging. The goals launched via a new sustainability website, designed to increase company transparency and reporting on key metrics, including diversity, human rights benchmarks and risk assessments for investors.

  • Alternative recently committed to incorporating sustainable materials into 100% of its product line, starting with replacing all virgin polyester with recycled poly. The brand will also expand its eco offering with modal triblend, hemp and recycled cotton. Looking forward, Alternative pledges to replace conventional cotton with sustainable cotton, and in 2023, 100% of its product line will incorporate sustainable elements. And new for 2021, the brand released its Eco-Cozy Fleece Collection, made from 7oz 77% Combed Cotton/23% Recycled Poly. Recycled poly offers a number of eco-benefits, including using 59% less energy to produce and emits 32% less CO2. It also conserves non-renewables, and diverts PET waste from oceans and landfills.

  • Gildan placed 32nd overall among The Wall Street Journal’s ranking of the Top 100 Most Sustainably Managed Companies in the world. Gildan was second among only three apparel companies included in this top 100 ranking and was also the only North American apparel company on the list. The apparel manufacturer also claimed the sixth spot among the top 10 global companies for innovation in its business model. The company also owns and operates the facilities where a majority of its products are made so it ensures sustainable product manufacturing.

  • BELLA+CANVAS’ sweatshop-free facilities uphold the highest factory and workplace standards and are platinum certified through W.R.A.P. The brand uses solar-powered energy to power its manufacturing facilities as well as efficient dye machines (that use eco-friendly dyes) that require 7x less water than the average. Then, they recycle any water that’s used. And we love this part: BELLA+CANVAS generates virtually zero waste, since they recycle everything that can’t be turned into a T-shirt, converting the scraps into baby bibs, upholstery stuffing and dog bed filling, among other things.


Tip: Create marketing materials that show your customers at a glance the different sustainable apparel mills you stock, with some select product recommendations. You can also include key details like how the apparel mills make their products and what materials they use, along with their overall sustainability practices. “That’s part of my job now: teaching and training my customers to take that more eco-friendly option,” Engen says.

3. Consider your inks.

Some shops choose to exclusively use water-based inks, since they believe that while the inks still contain chemicals they’re a better alternative for eco-friendlier printing. “We use both water-based and plastisol inks, since they all come in better options than the older, hazardous formulations,” Engen says.

Atkinson says there are pros and cons to both types, based on the reduce, reuse and recycle premise. For example, water-based inks have a shorter shelf life, since you need to use or lose them, whereas you can reuse plastisols. “Water-based inks also need to spend more time in the dryer,” he says. “A plastisol design has to be heated till 320 degrees. If you use a low-cure ink, it’s 270 degrees. That means you’re using and spending less in energy to cure your shirts.”

“The first thing to do is to ask why you’re turning an eye toward sustainability. A mandate from customers? To save money? Because you care about the environment? You need to really understand your why, otherwise you won’t continue on this green journey long-term.”

Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab

That’s why it’s a smart idea to reach out to a reputable inks supplier like Ryonet to learn about the different options, for the ones that make the most sense in your shop. “Ultimately, you want to look at your process, waste and error rate,” Atkinson says, “so you need to see what inks work within that.”

4. Buy used, rather than new, when you can.

Let’s say you need new office or conference room furniture. Have you considered buying used from another business, or checking out Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist? “It’s easy to hit the Amazon button and order stuff,” Atkinson says. “ But if you’re truly committed to sustainability, what are you doing with your business that’s about reusing someone else’s stuff, which is also recycling?”

The other part to this conversation, Kinter says, is how you’re recycling in your shop and if you give customers an option to drop off used shirts they want to discard. “The end-of-life conversation surrounding your products is part of the new circular economy,” she says. “If you can take back any apparel and dispose of it responsibly, people want to know about it.”

5. Take a critical look at your packaging.

Since most shops get regular shipments of apparel and hard goods to decorate, you’re sitting on a lot of boxes. Are you reusing them when you ship out decorated goods? If not, are you recycling them? Have you swapped out plastic packaging for brown craft paper to line them.

“When I get a good amount of boxes, I break them down and list them online as free moving boxes,” says Jillian Haney, owner of The 37th State. “I also use them to reship out decorated goods.”

“Sustainability in your printing operation isn’t one and done. It’s not just about getting an ‘eco-friendly’ product out the door. It’s an ongoing process that includes whether you offer good, safe working conditions and if you use pesticides on your landscaping.” Marcia Kinter, PRINTING United Alliance

Some shop owners even create their own package filler: For example if you use Fast Frames for embroidery, throw the transfer sheet into your shredder after you cut and hoop the sticky stabilizer for the frame. The same goes for the blowout paper for sublimation, if there isn’t too much ink on it.

Engen does this on a small scale, but also has an eye toward the big picture. “When we need 10,000 shipping bags, we pay more to get them as a bio-product with the correct certifications,” he says.

6. Appoint a sustainability chief or start a Green Committee.

If you’re a smaller shop, literally today you could appoint one of your staffers who’s passionate about environmentally practices to be your sustainability director. “We have that person in our shop right now,” Engen says.

That eco-focused staffer can look for opportunities for your shop to be more sustainable, like swapping out your cleaners for more eco options or switching to washable rags, rather than paper towels. Or, if you use paper plates, switch to real dishes and forks that you wash. Your new sustainability chief can also act as your customer-facing rep, posting on social media about your efforts or attending local chamber of commerce meetings to let other business owners know what you’re doing in your shop. 

Atkinson recommends that you start a sustainability committee in your shop if you’re a medium to large-sized firm. “You should include people at all levels of your organization,” he says. “That includes the CEO and CFO, who can make financial decisions, to managers and employees who care. Otherwise, your eco-efforts just become barking orders that people aren’t invested in.”

A green committee allows you to focus on one major project a year, whether it’s to measure your carbon footprint or build a recycling program for all of your materials streams. In a shop that Atkinson worked in, his team worked to reduce a weekly dumpster pickup to once a month. “This didn’t happen overnight,” Atkinson says. “Pick a project and then work time into your staff’s schedules to work on it. You don’t want them to feel like, ‘Great, this is one more thing I need to do today.’ This is how your program will fail.”

7. Get an energy audit. 

Atkinson recommends contacting your local utility company to get a free or low-cost energy audit of your business. “You should call as soon as possible, since it can take a couple of months for someone to come out, and then another few weeks to get the report,” he says. The rep will look at your energy bill, your lighting, your windows, your HVAC and more, and give you a list of what you can change. “The good news is that then you’ll know what you can work on, and sometimes you can fix things with grant money or low-interest loans,” he says.

“In 2021, you can’t run a business without having a sustainability strategy. For us, it’s the core of our daily work, to try to make a difference in this dirty industry. Every dollar we throw at eco-friendly manufacturers is a small win for our earth.” Daniel Engen, D2merch 

Atkinson worked with a larger shop that had a rooftop air compressor to get an air line leak survey. The team paid $500 for the survey, but then received a grant for $250 for getting the survey. “They use a gun to measure sound in high-frequency pitches that you can’t hear to identify where air is escaping,” he says. “In total, we found 30 holes we fixed right away, reducing demand on the compressor.”

Even better, for every leak they fixed, they saved $600 annual costs per leak. “That means we saved $18,000 that started with a $250 survey,” Atkinson says. “Plus, the electric bill went down. All of these things that you fix add up and you’ll reduce your operating costs.”

Need more inspo? After another energy audit, Atkinson worked with a team that changed out its lighting with a free grant and saved $57,000 the first year.

8. Invest in a water-filtration system.

Unfortunately, your washout booth might be filtering pollutants into your local water system. That’s because when you flush out the sink, you send emulsions like inks, oils and photo polymers right into the pipe-and-sewer system. Besides harming the environment and wildlife, you could be degrading your pipes, which can be costly to fix.

If you add a water-filtration system to your sink, you can remove a lot of the solids and chemicals that can ruin your pipe and act as pollutants once they leave your shop.

Tip: Clean your screens and squeegees thoroughly, which helps keep inks and chemicals out of your water-filtration system. Plus you can recycle your inks.

9. Invest in computer-to-screen (CTS) technology. 

This more expensive technology is on lots of shop owners’ (including Engen’s) wish lists. CTS technology helps screen printers save time prepping screens and eliminating the needs for costly film positives. You’ll save on pre-press time and even free up space in your shop that’s taking up shelf space for film storage. 

10. Consider becoming a certified sustainable printer.

The Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) offers a third-party audited sustainable certification program for all types of printers. “While the process takes about a year, you can get certified as a sustainable printer, which is huge in your marketing efforts,” Atkinson says.

To get extra help with this effort, PRINTING United’s peer-to-peer network offers resources like a monthly webinar with pertinent topics like how to measure your carbon footprint or write a sustainability-focused mission statement. “We help printers get SGP certified by first talking to them about what sustainability means,” Kinter says. “How is your entire print shop operating? Have you taken the time to look at what they’re doing to decrease their carbon footprint and expand their sustainable practices?”

SGP offers benchmarks for printers founded on three pillars: societal, environmental and economic. “You’re doing lots of things, like considering your energy usage and talking to your customers about the most sustainable options,” Kinter says. “You look at your entire facility’s footprint and make the choices that make the most sense for your company, based on your customer mix and employees. And the cherry on top is that you get a third-party certification verifying your sustainability efforts. Printers need to be a part of the sustainability conversation and solution.”

What to Do Today

“Your sustainability efforts need to be holistic and across the board,” Atkinson says. “Since some of these efforts are complex and time-consuming, you can’t stop short.”

Here are three things Atkinson recommends to begin:

  • Just start. “This seems obvious, but if you never start, you’ll never get results,” he says. “You don’t want to say you’re sustainable, but then be borderline greenwashing if you’re not really working according to a plan.”
  • Create a dashboard (or use SGP’s) to measure where you are now and your results over time. “That shows evidence of your success over time, especially if you’re showing a cost reduction or savings,” Atkinson says. You can also print out posters to hang in your shop that showcase these results. “Reward your team for their efforts and results, with pizza parties or special bonuses,” he says. “People want to do the right thing, so a reward is just extra icing.”
  • Volunteer on Earth Day (and other times of the year). At even the most basic level, print T-shirts with your shop’s logo and an eco message for your employees, and then go out as a team to collect trash near your shop. “You can put it on social media and tag your employees to show how they’re helping at the local level,” Atkinson says.

Ultimately, remember that there’s no “I” in your team. As part of a shop team effort over five years, Atkinson and his crew reduced the overall cost per impression by 9 cents. “We changed a lot over those years,” he says. “We met monthly and committed to the ongoing process,” he says.

“This shift toward conscious sustainability is coming big time,” Engen says. “Those shops that don’t transcend in time will lose.”

If you want to run an efficient, high-functioning business, pay attention to your data. “Every equipment vendor will be able to give you ‘average ink costs’ or ‘average operating costs,’” says Alison Banholzer, owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse. “But these vendors aren’t operating in your location. In fact, many of them aren’t operating shops at all. They run highly optimized samples for the sole purpose of selling equipment, not apparel or promo items. Once you’ve purchased equipment, be methodical about tracking your production numbers, throughput yield, and actual costs. You must ensure you’re truly making a profit.”


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