April 22 is Earth Day. It is a special day for the planet. Woohoo!

It was started in 1970 by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson as a response to the disastrous effects of a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. He announced the idea as a “national teach-in on the environment”. Fast-forward 47 years later and his vision now is a global-wide event that is observed by over a billion people. To learn more about Earth Day celebrations, click here.

Green has long been the color associated with this movement and being eco-friendly. It makes sense to tie that color in with that thought. Color theory suggests that green is healthy. Thriving. You know, leaves on a tree and all that. You can’t escape the iconic symbolism.

For the decorated apparel industry, we have many definitions of green. PMS 347 is a green. Kelly is a green. Organic, recycled, or modal fabric content is green too. Shops even market that they are “green”. (Some more suspiciously so than others. Hmmm.)

But that’s not what this article is about. Because of Earth Day, I want to make a compelling case for you to run your shop in a more eco-friendly manner. For businesses of any sort, the only green that is respected is the green of money.

Which makes sense, of course. Despite our altruistic intentions, money does make the world go around. Injecting sustainability into your business can help the world go around better. And help your bottom line too.

Who doesn’t want that?

Business and Marketing

Before we get too far into some money saving sustainability tips, I’d like to point out that your customers care about this. Except they don’t. It’s weird.

I wish I could say that people will pay more for a sustainable item, but that’s not reality. Many people will, and that’s wonderful. On the whole, though, the majority of customers value competitive pricing more.

Sustainably produced items only win the sales war when they are the same ballpark price as a competitive item.

You know this is true just based on your own experience. When all product features or benefits are equal and the price is the same, the sustainably-produced item will be the one chosen. It’s just a better story, so people go in that direction. People want to make a better choice, but they just don’t want to pay more for it.

Companies that can offer sustainable products at a competitive market price have a distinct selling advantage. Is that you?

The trick, of course, is to figure out how to build that.

As garment decorators, this is something within your reach if you only apply some effort. Any work dropping your operating costs with a shop sustainability program earns your company more money.

As my Uncle Bill famously says, “Money greases the skids of life.” Sustainability matters more when there are dollar bills attached to it.

Garment Choices

At this time there are more sustainable garment choices than ever.

Patagonia was the first apparel manufacturer to use recycled polyester content for fabric in 1993. Since then, more have followed and there was a big wave of companies heading in this direction around 2008.

The most prevalent use recycled polyester RPET from plastic bottles and are mixed with cotton for a better 50/50 shirt blank. These are great to print on and have a good hand feel. Brands such as Royal Apparel and Anvil have a good selection of styles and colors.

Making a lot of noise these days is the use of modal, a form of rayon, which is fiber made from the cellulose content of beech trees. Ryonet’s new apparel blank project Allmade uses modal as part of their fabric content, as well as organic and recycled fibers. It also has a great social backstory as well, as it supports workers in Haiti.

Organic cotton apparel is also booming. Brands like econscious, Royal Apparel, and Alternative Apparel, have done great work in offering a diverse line-up of blanks.

Of course, those above aren’t the only ones available, just the most popular or newsworthy. What do you use? Chime in!

Putting It All Together

Don’t think that being a sustainable apparel decorator makes business sense?

There are a few noteworthy companies that not only are using sustainable blanks, but are handling the decoration as well. They have done a great job building their company around the core tenet of sustainability.

A fantastic example of this is TS Designs with their Cotton of the Carolinas program. Not only do they grow the cotton, produce and dye the fabric, and sew the shirts, but they decorate with their own unique process as well. It’s the whole package. What is really unique is that they offer the ability to track your t-shirt back to the farm where the cotton was grown. How cool is that? This is rockstar, cutting edge, sustainability thought leadership.

SustainU is another company doing great things. They use recycled cotton and polyester to make their own shirts too. These are then used to print in-house program orders for clients, most notably Major League Baseball team t-shirt clubs. I love their home plate inspired packaging too.

What You Can Do

For most shops, those full spectrum programs seem out of reach. What can just a “normal” shop do to get going?

Easy. Just start.

A sustainability program is all about making better choices for continuous improvement. For the most part, it’s common-sense thinking and asking why. For apparel decorators with a busy shop schedule, most of the time the focus is just on getting orders completed and out the door. Not much thought is placed on the “how.”

Listed below are some easy-to-manage ideas you can do in your shop to improve your environmental performance. Plus, you’ll save money. Green thinking means money.


Energy reduction is the number one cost savings and environmental impact choice you can make in your shop. The great thing about this point is that there are tons of resources available to help you.

Start with reaching out to your local utility company and ask to schedule an energy audit for your business. This is usually a free service that is offered for commercial accounts. They will send a professional energy expert to your shop and poke around to find all the places that you are losing money by being wasteful in your building. The auditor will look at your HVAC, air compressor, equipment, lighting, windows and other areas. In a week or so they will send you a nice report that details all the changes that you should make to reduce the energy consumption.

It’s a grocery list.

Doing the ideas they have detailed can directly impact the amount of money you are spending every month for utilities. Better yet, they may even have fully funded grants or low-interest loans that you can apply for to help achieve some of the items on the list. This is great for changing your lighting, improving your heating or air conditioning, installing better-insulated loading dock doors or even an air compressor leak survey. I’ve done this in several shops and the payoff is huge. I once obtained a $86,000 grant to help pay for acquiring a new DTG printer on the energy savings basis alone. The money is out there.

When shops ask me what is the idea that will have the number one impact on saving money, this is what I always recommend. Look up the number to call and schedule an energy audit today. Stop throwing money out the window.

Idea List

If you are just a DIY person, here are the top things you can do to make a difference in your shop with your energy:

  • Look to see how energy is being used. Do your press operators come in daily and brainlessly flip on all the flash units as part of their morning routine? Are you flashing the ink on white shirts “just because”? Don’t scoff. I’ve seen it. Pay attention.
  • Do you have a problem in turning off the lights in the supply room, ink room or bathrooms? Use motion sensors. This is a great idea for the seldom-used inventory area too.
  • Switch your lighting to high bay LED. Check in your vicinity to see if there is grant money available for this for manufacturers, as this is common. Tip: LED’s work great with motion sensors!
  • Look to see how your shop is insulated, especially around doors, windows, and your loading dock doors. Dock sealers are a great way to prevent major heat or air loss while you load/unload a truck.
  • Hear that hissing noise with your equipment from air leaks? If your shop sounds like a bed of snakes, that’s the danger signal that you are wasting money. Every. Single. Day. Replace those worn parts on that equipment to seal up those leaks. Every leak you hear is about $500 annual cost for electricity for your air compressor to keep up the demand for constant pressure to the press. It adds up.
    • If you do the Energy Audit, ask if they provide grant money for an Air Compressor Leak Survey. I’ve done this before with an independent contractor. It cost about $500, and the grant money covered half that. They use an ultrasonic listening device to pinpoint tiny cracks in the air compressor lines. In one shot they found 27 micro leaks that caused an estimated $4700 amount of electricity to keep the air pressure to the equipment constant. Would you pay $250 to save $4700?
  • Natural gas dryers are efficient pieces of equipment; however, your usage may not be. Check the actual cure temperature with the ink using a donut probe. Plastisol ink instantly cures when it reaches the recommended temperature from the manufacturer. Usually, this is 320 degrees. Heating your shirts any amount over that isn’t curing it any better. This could be introducing other challenges such as dye migration into production too. I’ve seen shops set their dryers at 380 or 400+ degrees. This amount of overkill isn’t helping your print cure any faster. Use the donut probe, check weekly, and dial in the best temperature and belt speed for your shop. Professionals set standards for their shops, and using a donut probe to dial in the cure temperature is one of them.


Consumables are all the products you use in your shop to produce your orders. It’s the ink, emulsion, spot remover, de-hazer, thread, pellons, tape, markers, labels, and anything else you use. Go to any trade show or read an industry magazine and you’ll find a dizzying number of choices available. Everyone has favorite brands, and I’m not going to argue one over another.

However, what I’d like to point out is a method for you to consider how you evaluate these products to make better choices for your shop. For consumables, it all comes down to one word:


Either the product handles the task it was designed for, or it doesn’t. Believe it or not, increasing your labor or doubling the amount of product needed when using a cheaper product to achieve the desired outcome doesn’t mean you are saving any money. Often, paying a little more is worth it.

Don’t step over a dollar to save a dime.

Idea List:

This is how you should be evaluating the choices you are making in production. For example:

  • Ink should have good thixotropic qualities for smooth printing and opaqueness. Cheaper inks may be harder to control, cover less and require more strokes for the print. Higher performing inks may mean better throughput rates, printed with less effort. If you are evaluating ink performance, be sure to use comparisons where the only variable that is changed is the ink.
    • Everyone wants a “better white”. This is the most asked question everywhere and is the foundation for so many challenges with the print. You can do your own side-by-side testing by setting up a “print on a worst-case scenario” in your shop (printing on a cheap red 50/50 shirt would be mine). Print a sample of each white ink you want to test. Label each with an A, B, C, etc. Post these up on a wall for comparison with your staff, customers, even your ink salesmen. Which one wins?
  • Mesh, Emulsion & Screens. As crazy as it sounds, screens are often the most overlooked part of screen-printing. A properly tensioned screen has a tremendous impact on the overall success of the print. Yet, a good number of shops don’t spend much time worrying about the screen room. How would you rate this in your shop? For example, when was the last time you checked the tension of your screens with a tension meter? How is your reclaiming process? Are you properly coating the screens and achieving a superior EOM? This is sadly such an overlooked area for being so critical to the success of the printed image. Are your worst employees kept in the screen room because you don’t know where else to work them? What problems do you think that introduces?
    • Having to double stroke your ink on press for better coverage? That may also be a sign of poor screen room craftsmanship or even using the wrong mesh count for the job. Dig into this and find the answer.
    • Quality screens mean better craftsmanship, throughput and fewer challenges with registration or other issues.  It is the keystone to the entire production event.  Most press problems are due to screen-room failures.  Keep track of your challenges and resolve them.
    • Upgrade to “S” mesh for a better ink deposit with same mesh count as the threads are thinner, so the openings between are wider. More ink flows through the screen during the stroke. This type of mesh works wonders for underbase screens.
  • Plenty of printers use tape in their screens to block off areas, seal the edges or to cover up pinholes (which is another issue, see above). Super cheap tape shreds easily when you try to apply it, and it difficult to remove later. When you stop to consider how much time you actually waste dealing with picking at tape on a screen with your fingernail, investing in some research to find the right tape product to diminish the time needed to handle tape could be extremely beneficial to your production team.
    • Sustainability bonus on tape ““ can you work to eliminate this from your shop? Every time you are applying tape to a screen, you will have to take it off a short time later. Can you use less, or find a way to not use it at all? If you add up the constant labor used to either apply or remove the tape in a shop it gets to be a big number in a hurry.
  • For embroiderers, using the cheapest thread on the market might make a lot of sense to the accounting team, but when you triple the number of thread breaks or have to run the machine at a slower speed, that cost savings value drops off the cliff quickly.

The Three R’s

Effective change in your shop can also come down to the three R’s of sustainability: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Implementation in your shop with these can make a positive change for the better. Let’s take a look.


This sounds simple. Just use less stuff. Get going by asking “why” when looking at your processes. As in, “Why are we doing it that way”? For example:

  • For programs where you continually print the same design every week, you might consider just saving the screens in a rack instead of reclaiming them.
  • Still mailing invoices? Switch to billing using emails or online invoices to handle that task without printing statements and using up cash for postage. Don’t think that invoices are costing you a lot of money? Look to your general ledger and see what you spent last year.
  • Can you stop using paper? Or at least, use less of it? Before you print that email so you remember what to do, consider finding a different way to remind yourself of that thought. Use a to-do list, write it on a whiteboard, or maybe even a sticky-note could work. If you must print, consider changing the printer settings to use both sides of the paper.
  • Get a programmable thermostat and lock in the settings to one temp. One of the biggest energy wasters is the constant thermostat war with staff. One person turns down the temperature, while the next person turns it back up. Set it to 78 degrees and make it so nobody can change it.
  • Reduce the amount of shop dorm refrigerators in the shop. How many of these do you have in the building? One for each department? Consolidate into a big Energy Star rated unit for everyone. How much money are you spending so your staff doesn’t have to walk 50 feet to get a Coke?
  • Got vending machines? Many shops have a big bank of these. They are nice for the employees to grab a convenient snack or drink. However, the vending machine company doesn’t help you with the utility bills to place them there. Newer units have LED lighting, are ultra-insulated, and even have motion sensors to power down when nobody is around. Talk to your supplier about switching out these older units for the newer energy efficient versions.


Think about all the things you can be reusing in your shop. Is this something that you push? Here are some ideas:

  • Many t-shirt manufacturers ship their blank shirts to you packed in large plastic bags inside the box. These make great trash can liners.
  • If your clients require repacking orders into a new branded box, you can reuse the old one for other orders. Keep these on hand for future use.
    • I’ve also heard of some shops that sell their boxes to moving companies. Check around and see if this might work for you.
    • One shop uses the supplied boxes and turns them inside out, then brands them with their own logo. Free branded boxes! #winning
  • Need to expand your office? Instead of buying new office furniture, there are plenty of second-hand office furniture companies out there. Most of their wares are in good condition and sell at a fraction of the cost of new.
  • Ban plastic water bottles in your shop and provide your staff with their own insulated, reusable ones.  Brand them with your logo on them.
  • Start you own victory garden if you have a strip of land by the shop and grow vegetables or flowers.  Use your shop’s coffee grounds and lunch waste and set up a composting station to feed the garden.  Use the crops for your own benefit or donate to the local food bank.  This makes great social media content material.
  • After a year or two, the number of blank shop samples can get a little crazy.  Consider decorating these for a local philanthropy or using them for shop staff shirts.
  • Defective or misprinted apparel can be used for shop towels, rags, test prints and other uses. (Not that you make any mistakes…)


Here’s what most people are familiar with in sustainability…recycling. However, it’s more than just getting your soda cans in the right bin.

  • Fluorescent light bulbs, hydraulic fluid, batteries, computers, phones, paper, glass, scrap metal, plastic, and all sorts of stuff can be recycled. Check with your local waste recycler to see what you should do with it. Always properly dispose of items.
  • The more material that you recycle, the less is going in the trash dumpster. Some shops get picked up a few times a week as they have so much waste volume. Working on a recycling effort can reduce the amount of material that goes in the dumpster, which ultimately means you can narrow that pickup to once every two weeks or even once a month. Depending on your waste hauler, this could have a significant impact on your tipping fees.
  • Some ink manufacturers have formulas to mix one Pantone color of ink out of another. You can turn a bucket of PMS 186 into a bucket of PMS 202 easily. This is a great way to free up those shelves of ink that are crammed full of buckets nobody is using. That’s money sitting there on those shelves. Use it!
  • Another great tip is to mix a “Special Black” that can be used for sponsor backs or other uses where the black hue isn’t as critical. Take a five-gallon bucket and fill it halfway with your normal black. Then add in all of your assorted weird dark colors of burgundy, navy, brown, purple, etc. Anything but pastels or light colors. Mix this all together with a power drill blade. It will look and appear black, but isn’t.
    • Take this “Special Black” and mix with 50% or more of Curable Reducer to make “Smoke” ink. This makes the absolute best drop shadow color you’ll ever use, as it shades the garment but is translucent. On a red shirt, it will look burgundy, on a royal shirt it will look navy. Absolutely amazing on any heather shirt color. Try it!

SGP Certification

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about using your sustainability program as a marketing tool. You can’t effectively do this without proving that you are doing things correctly.  Sorry, but you aren’t a sustainable shop if you just sell organic cotton t-shirts, or only recycle your soda cans and water bottles.  While that’s nice, it just isn’t good enough.

The best way businesses can demonstrate they walk the walk is by getting their sustainability program audited by an independent third party. This certifies that the program meets or exceeds established industry standards.

The Sustainable Green Printing Partnership is the expert in print sustainability certification. Getting this certification is the tool you need to market your program as the industry best.  Shops that are SGP Certified save an average of $43,857 per year.  What would you do with that money?

SGIA has a great program called the Peer-to-Peer Network, which is a class that teaches shops how to be sustainable. It’s free to members. Groups consist of a dozen or so shops and meet every two weeks with an online webinar. By the end of the program, your shop will have essentially built everything needed for the SGP certification audit. It couldn’t be simpler.

Being sustainable is more than just using an organic or recycled content apparel blank.  That’s only a half-effort.  Want to leapfrog over your competition?  Connect all the dots on your sustainability program and marry the power of becoming an SGP Certified printer with using the more sustainable apparel choice.

Green Thinking Means Money

Can you make Earth Day last longer than a single 24 hour period once a year? Want to add thousands of dollars to your bottom line? Just remember one thing.

Green thinking means money.


“More businesses should be following Apple’s stance in encouraging more investment in sustainability.” – Richard Branson

“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.” – Kim Collins

“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” – Helmut Schmidt