In the spring and summer, lots of us have sustainability on the brain. However, running a sustainable (and profitable) print shop is an effort you should focus on all year round—as you aim to reduce, reuse and recycle, as well as create shop processes that cut down on your carbon footprint.
“When companies start going green, one of the top reasons they do it is because they save a boatload of cash,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “If you’re a responsible shop owner, you adopt sustainability as a business practice in part because it makes you more profitable. It’s about reducing waste, extra steps, labor costs and mistakes. Sustainability is congruent with better business practices. People who say sustainability costs too much just haven’t done the research.”
The effort to go green also gets repaid in loyal customers and productive employees. “The simple question is, would you like to have a business in the future?” says Ryan J. Kemp, founder and CEO of Pueo Consulting. “Younger buyers and Gen Z are reluctant to support companies that don’t honor their values. The same goes for employees, who want to work for a company that’s doing good in the world. When you embrace sustainability, you build in resilience and ensure a future-proof company.”
As a print shop owner, you might be wondering about the benefits of running a more sustainable shop. We’ve got the goods from sustainability experts! Besides helping the environment, you’ll become more profitable and future-proof your shop. We’re going to take you on a deeper dive into how the apparel industry affects our planet, and some key ways to add sustainable practices to your print shop.
Does Apparel Really Contribute to Toxic Environmental Issues?
When you think of polluters and businesses contributing to environmental problems, you probably think the oil and coal industry, or plastics manufacturers. However, the reality is that the apparel industry contributes significantly to pollution, coming in second only to the oil industry.
Let’s talk specifics:
- To manufacture the fabrics that go into clothing, 150 million trees are cut down each year.
- To make one cotton t-shirt, it takes almost 800 gallons of water. To make one pair of blue jeans, it takes almost 900 gallons of water.
- The clothing industry releases toxic chemicals and dyes that find their way into water systems, polluting local habitats and communities.
- While we associate pesticides with fruits and vegetables, it’s used most of all on cotton crops that get turned into t-shirts and other clothing.
- The heavy irrigation used in cotton farming leads pesticides to be dumped into rivers and groundwater, polluting our drinking water and food, earning cotton the designation as the “dirtiest” crop.
- While cotton’s problematic, that doesn’t mean that other fabrics aren’t as well. Polyester and other synthetic fibers make up 60% of all clothing. Many of these (including polyester) are made of oil derivatives and have a high level of microplastics, which release when the clothing is washed.
- The economic impact of the fashion industry is also widespread. More than 40 million people are living in “virtual slavery” by being forced into sweatshops. Many of these individuals are children forced to work long hours, with little compensation.
“When you look at the overall picture of what it takes to make a garment from scratch, to the decoration, to shipping to the customer, there’s a lot of room for waste,” says Brayden Jessen, CEO of Zome Design. “From wasted water or chemicals on the crops that produce the fabrics, to the wasted materials cut to make the garments, wasted threads, inks or chemicals to print or embroider a garment, and the waste in packaging and shipping to the end-customer. There are many hands touching every final product. If each company in the supply chain is mindful of the environment, even just a small change can have a huge impact on the final decorated garment.”
Don’t Ignore the Demand for Sustainable Fashion
If you’ve studied anything about Millennials, Gen Zers and their buying habits, you know their strong social values often fits what companies they support. “Sustainable fashion” is a term many of them are already familiar with and follow.
“If you’re a responsible shop owner, you adopt sustainability as a business practice in part because it makes you more profitable. Sustainability is congruent with better business practices. People who say sustainability costs too much just haven’t done the research.”
Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting & Shirt Lab Tribe
If you’re still not convinced this is becoming a major trend, then consider this 2020 statistic from The Business Research Company: “Around 66% of respondents said they consider sustainability when purchasing a… product.”
Others, including Sandra Capponi, co-founder of Good on You, have pointed out that COVID-19 has made people more aware of the issues around “fast fashion,” as opposed to sustainable fashion leading them to change their buying habits. But the bottom line is this: The demand for sustainable fashion is set to increase from $9.8 billion to $15 billion by the end of the decade.
“The sustainability of a garment is only 50% of the equation, though,” Atkinson says. “Be careful of greenwashing. How was the shirt made? Printed? Packaged? Transported? Those aspects can be ‘dirty.’ You need to know the story and make the case that the shirt is a more sustainable choice.”
Looking for eco-friendly apparel styles made in a sustainable and Earth-friendly way? alphabroder can help. Check out their new Sustainable Style Finder & Sustainability Glossary.
The Sustainable Style Finder & Sustainability Glossary will help you learn more about sustainability, learn what makes a style sustainable and help you find the sustainable styles your clients want.
Sustainable Materials, Sustainable Manufacturing and a Responsible Mindset are now searchable filters on www.alphabroder.com and www.alphabroder.ca. You can explore by product category or by brand, or all products.
Learn more about this initiative and find styles that you can pitch to your discerning clients today here.
How Decorators Can Make Their Shop an Earth-Friendly, Sustainable Powerhouse Brand
As we’ve said, shops that view sustainability as a cost rather than an investment haven’t researched enough. Here are some ways to get started.
1. Start With Low-Hanging Fruit: Shop Operations
The easiest way to move toward sustainability is to change the way you run your shop. To make your business “lean and green” focus on the three “R’s”—reduce, reuse, recycle.
“When you start going down a sustainable path, it’s all about reduction: labor, energy, time, costs and errors,” Atkinson says. “It’s your choices in your shop, like installing hand dryers in your bathroom. Then, you don’t need to buy paper towels and you’ll spend less time cleaning. It all adds up.”
Reduce: Look closely at your work processes and figure out where you can streamline your workflow. Observe areas like reducing your energy consumption. Put your lights on a motion detector switch. Also, talk to your power company for an energy audit to learn (and fix) your shop’s biggest energy-draining culprits.
Reuse: Where can you reuse materials in your shop so you don’t waste money or supplies? For instance, most shops have unused or misprinted shirts. Use them in place of shop towels or give them out as promotional items. Also, look at other items you throw away and see if you can repurpose them inside of your shop for other uses.
“When we have embroidery mistakes, we create patches to cover the logo,” Jessen says. “Many times, this is an even higher perceived value to the end-customer, while also saving a garment from ending up as brandfill.”
When Zome Designs has garments that can’t be saved, they use them for testing decoration methods. “When you receive a new order, you never know exactly how it’s going to decorate,” Jessen says. “Instead of having to order several extra new garments, we take a garment already in the shop, test all over it, and that saves new garments that would otherwise go to the end-consumer.”
Recycle: Find a good recycling company to partner with, and then create a recycling program that lets you sort and recycle everything possible—everything from common items like paper, cans, and cardboard, to more uncommon ones like computers, chemicals and equipment. Zome Design has blue recycling bins all over the shop to encourage recycling and make it easy for employees.
2. Consider Your Shop’s Carbon Footprint
One of the functions of Kemp’s company, Pueo Consulting, is to help businesses determine their carbon footprint and then find ways to offset it. “For example, if your company produces 6 kg of CO2e per t-shirt, you can look at different ways to offset it and lower that amount, like better energy generation and water consumption or waste disposal,” he says. “Or, you can help fund a global tree-planting project to offset your carbon footprint.”
We also advocate rooting your values to employee productivity and KPIs, so you can implement a broader policy and integrate it through your business processes for additional savings and benefit.”
On many levels, a print shop can make small changes to offset its carbon footprint. Atkinson suggests asking questions like: Did we remember to add our decorating supplies with our apparel order? Can we order our inks in five-gallon buckets instead of one gallon? Can our staffers carpool, take public transportation or work from home more often? Instead of getting on a plane to visit a client or attend a trade show, can you use Zoom?
Tip: Printing United offers tools to measure your operations to see your shop’s real carbon footprint.
“One issue we see is companies often add a person as the head of sustainability who doesn’t really have much expertise in that area or their view of sustainability is quite limited,” Kemp says. “Part of your investment toward a more sustainable operation may be to partner with a consultancy of experts with diversified experience to help you embody that sustainability ethos into your company DNA: set up processes, create an entirely integrated model and train your employees.”
3. Look at Your Printing Processes & Preventative Maintenance
If your goal is to be more efficient and print better, you’re starting off in a sustainable mindset. Atkinson points out that if you improve your printing process, you’re avoiding rework and saving costs. “If you can make better screens, use half the ink, and print more in less time, that’s sustainable,” Atkinson says. “If you’re double-hitting your underbase printing on black, it’s not sustainable. Sustainability is a craftsmanship journey, as well as discovering a leaner way of working.”
“When we have embroidery mistakes, we create patches to cover the embroidery logo. Many times, this is an even higher perceived value to our end-customer, while also saving a garment from ending up as brandfill.”
Brayden Jessen, Zome Design
Another part of this is measuring your time and results. “Otherwise, how do you know if you’ve improved something?” Atkinson says. “When you make tweaks, things get better, stay the same or get worse. When you chart and post your results, your employees get excited and get involved in making positive changes.”
Zome Designs also uses earth-friendlier decorating supplies like water-based screen printing inks that don’t need specific solvents and harsh chemicals to clean up. The shop also has a specially designed drainage trap in its screen reclaim room to catch the sludge before it goes down the drain. For embroidery, they use Madeira’s Polyneon Green thread line. “If you can choose a sustainably sourced garment, match it with sustainably sourced decorating supplies, this is each part of the supply chain doing a small part to help affect a garment’s overall impact,” Jessen says.
Also, in the vein of printing processes, any business owner will tell you that you have to take care of your equipment, or it’ll die at the worst possible time. But it can also be important for the environment. Plan to: Talk to your employees to ensure the equipment they’re using is working at peak performance. The idea here is that your machines should not be draining energy needlessly, working so hard that the process takes longer, or leaking steam, oil, or other possible pollutants. If you’re thinking about investing in new decorating equipment, get the skinny on buying new equipment here.
4. Get Certified
Another practice to consider is to get an industry-standard certification for your business. This means that you’ll see what other shops are doing and have an independent auditor give you feedback on how to make your company more environmentally friendly.
For instance, you can work towards your certification with the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership via Printing United. With this program, an auditor will analyze your shop’s workflow, and then tell you what you need to do to reduce your carbon footprint and earn your certification. You can then use this certification to build a marketing plan promoting your business as environmentally friendly.
Atkinson, who’s taken two shops through the Printing United certification, says to prepare for hard work for about a year. “It’s worth it, but you need to start with your why and get your employees on board,” he says. “If they’re not excited about it, you’ll fail. You also need to build in time for them to work on their processes, or it won’t work. Figure out early on who’ll be responsible for the different steps and how much time you can dedicate to the effort.”
5. Find New Packaging Materials or Mailers
If you have an online store, chances are you’re sending out a lot of single-use mailers that end up making a lot of trash. There are a couple of steps you should take to prevent this. One is to make sure the mailers you use are recyclable and encourage your customers to do just that. But, another great idea is to invest in biodegradable mailers. These can be composted and broken down so that no refuse gets left behind. “Again, it’s all about your choices,” Atkinson says. “Is your cardboard recycled? How are you packaging your apparel? Do you polybag your t-shirts? Do you use hang tags?”
6. Try On-Demand Printing
In the past, the way the industry worked is that you designed a t-shirt or similar product, printed up hundreds or thousands of them, and then put them in a warehouse to await being ordered and sold. This led to the need to power and maintain a separate warehouse along with the waste of unsold products that eventually have to be destroyed or recycled.
“The simple question is, would you like to have a business in the future? When you embrace sustainability, you build in resilience and ensure a future-proof company. You create loyal buyers, and also attract and keep great employees.” Ryan J. Kemp, Pueo Consulting
Now, digital printing and customization allows for more options when it comes to printing on demand. “On-demand printing is highly sustainable,” Atkinson says. “Before, we’d print 1,000 shirts and sell 400. What happened to the 600? Now, we can put a design online, and sell and print 400, with no waste. We only decorate the shirts we sell. That’s the essence of sustainability.”
More decorators are evaluating whether adding a POD revenue stream to their shops makes good business sense. If you’re curious about adding printing on demand to your shop, read The Rise and Staying Power of POD.
Zome Designs uses alphabroder’s MPACT contract decorating free-freight program, which allows the shop (and their contract customers) to order as few as one blank and have it shipped to them for free. “This enables us to offer on-demand embroidery, heat transfers and sublimation for our online store customers,” Jessen says. “There’s no wasted inventory on our shelves and we only produce what’s actually ordered.”
Find the Right Supplier Partners
It’s important that you work with responsible vendors so your business can become more environmentally responsible. “Today, business is about stakeholder capitalism,” Kemp says. “If your print shop relies on t-shirt manufacturers, you can’t claim you’re sustainable if those manufacturers aren’t. We start at the end of the stakeholder chain, with the shirt wearer, and work all the way back to how the shirt manufacturer treats the cotton farmers. It’s false marketing to call a product sustainable if it’s not. Younger consumers want more transparency to tell a beautiful brand impact story.”
Here’s a list of questions you should ask your potential suppliers:
- Is your apparel durable and high quality? Keeping clothes out of landfills and in the hands of those who’ll wear the garment until it’s threadbare is the goal.
- What material is the clothing made of? Look for linen, organic cotton, or hemp, or blends made from recycled materials
- How much does the apparel cost? If they tell you the material or the clothes they sell are inexpensive, you have a reason to want to ask more questions. Ethical and sustainable fashion can cost more. A lot of fashion brands that reduce their social and ecological impact also sell clothing pieces at a higher price.
- Who made the clothing? To check if a brand is ethical and sustainable, ask where and how their clothes were made. Unfortunately, not all apparel brands and retailers are transparent with this information.
- What are the vendor’s or brand’s values? See that their values reflect your own before you do business with them.
- Is it certified by third-party organizations? To guarantee solid working conditions and environmental standards in every step of the supply chain, look for certifications from third-party organizations. Certifications and quality marks are important to ensure that textile products are manufactured with responsible use of resources and the least possible impact on people, animals, and the environment.
- How much does it cost you to ship the apparel? When you’re working on a big apparel program or an online store where you might print thousands of shirts, try to order in bulk. “You won’t be bringing in one shirt at a time, so how can you reduce the amount of orders and energy it takes to move things to your shop?” Atkinson says. “It’s about the choices you’re making in the big picture.”
So, Again, Why Does Sustainability Matter?
“Remember, the biggest myth is that it’s all about the shirt, since it’s so much more than the shirt you’re decorating,” Atkinson says. “That’s just one small part of it. It’s layers of an onion: How can we do it better? What are you willing to do in your shop?”
There are several reasons why sustainability matters including:
- It helps create a positive future based on our actions today.
- It lets you streamline your business and become more efficient.
- It allows you to market your products to a whole new target group—the environmentally and socially conscious.
- It keeps your business current as the government will eventually start regulating industries to prevent further destruction of the environment.
- It’s the ethical thing to do.
Be Proactively Sustainable in Your Shop & Feel Good About the Rewards
These days, the news is rife with stories talking about how our current environmental crisis is reaching a tipping point. When you throw in social injustice and unrest, it may seem like we’re living in truly chaotic times. But by taking a stand for your business’s values and working on sustainable processes and products, you may help stem the tide and make your corner of the world a better place.
“A lot of getting started is your shop’s why,” Atkinson says. “Is it to help the environment? Be more profitable? More efficient? Have less rework? Move jobs through the pipeline faster? Stop thinking about why you can’t do it and think about why you can. Don’t climb the whole mountain at once. Start with one thing, and you’ll get there faster than you think.”
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