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Making Your Decorated-Apparel Shop More Sustainable: Part 1

The first four of 10 actionable options for reducing your screen-printing, embroidery or heat-transfer decorating company’s environmental impact and promoting eco-conscious practices

By Nicole Rollender, Contributing Writer




March 29, 2024

If you’re a print shop owner who’s curious about the benefits of adopting sustainable practices, now is a great time to start on the path toward a greener, cleaner and more profitable future for your business. Going greener and cleaner pays off in the form of loyal customers and happy employees. Younger buyers, in particular, prefer to work with companies that share their eco-friendly values. Same thing with employees who want to work for a company that’s making a positive impact on the wider world.

T-shirt Screen printing shop

Make sure you educate your entire team on what exactly your company’s sustainability goals are and why they matter. Photo by Cultura Allies – stock.adobe.com

Increasingly, the industry is realizing there’s no single solution to the problem of cleaning up its act. Instead, what is needed is an attention to everything from fiber sourcing to the inks used and supply-chain practices in addition to the way the industry does its actual decorating. In Part 1 of our two-part series on how to make your shop more sustainable, we’ll look at four great ideas for how you and your shop can make a difference. In Part 2 we’ll take a look at six more, making it an even 10.

1: Start with “Why become sustainable?”

Running a sustainable (and profitable) print shop is an effort you should focus on year-round as you aim to reduce, reuse and recycle, as well as create shop processes that cut down your carbon footprint. To be successful, though, you need to know why you want to move in this direction.

“What are your prime motivators?” says veteran designer and decorator Marshall Atkinson, principal of Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “Lower costs? Customer demand? To be more effective by doing things right the first time and eliminating errors? To be more Earth-friendly? Government regulations? Everyone on your team needs to be in alignment with your purpose and goal, otherwise you’re going up the mountain yourself.”


Atkinson recommends starting with the outcome you want and then reverse engineering it by writing a business plan. “A year from now, what do you want your sustainable shop to look like?” he says. “If you know the end point, it’s much easier to build.”

Case in point: Brayden Jessen, owner Zome Design says he is currently focused on educating his team about why it’s important to have a sustainable approach to business. “It can be tough when not everyone cares,” Jessen says. “This is why I start with an education-approach first before implementing more rules.”

2: Evaluate your apparel-decorating materials suppliers

Are you working with responsible vendors who can give you clear information about their eco-practices, including how the apparel is manufactured; information about its supply chain and labor practices; and what the apparel is made of? If not, it may be time to have those conversations with your suppliers about their products as the focus on sustainability becomes more important across the board.

Blank apparel manufacturer

A big part of running an environmentally sustainable, socially responsible business is working with vendors that also prioritize sustainability and fair-labor practices. Photo by Ekaterina – stock.adobe.com

The apparel industry is experiencing a transformation due to individual brand programs, voluntary certification programs and government action. “Legislation being considered in the United States and passed by the European Union has raised the stakes because the mandates are driving accountability for environmental impact and human rights,” says Gary Jones, vice-president of environmental, health and safety affairs and the Printing United Alliance. “One of the approaches gaining attention and traction is a concept called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which holds producers accountable for managing their products after they have reached their end of life. The goal of EPR is to reduce waste, promote recycling and encourage better product design.”

As an example, Jaime Ann Carnes, owner of Only Stitches, says she makes a point of seeking out more responsible vendors both as a part of the day to day and as she continues to grow her business. “I work with suppliers that have eco-friendly or recycled products for environmental safety,” Carnes says. “I actively seek out American-made products to uphold our commitment to domestic economic vitality, while also ensuring they’re not made with exploitative labor practices such as child labor or unfair working conditions.”

The following is a list of questions you could ask existing and potential suppliers to determine which align best with your values:

Is your apparel higher quality? To keep clothing out of landfills, it stands to reason that you’d want to decorate and sell more premium pieces. If sustainability is a goal, look at what materials the apparel is made with, for example, U.S.-grown organic cotton or blends made from recycled materials.

What’s your average price point? When you hear that the materials or garments being sold are “cheap,” it’s a cue to dig deeper. Ethical and sustainable fashion often comes with a higher price tag. Many brands dedicated to minimizing their social and environmental footprint offer clothing at a premium that customers are willing to pay.

Where and how is the clothing made? What are the vendor’s brand values? To ascertain a brand’s commitment to ethics and sustainability, ask about the origins and production methods of their clothing. Regrettably, not all apparel suppliers are forthcoming with such details, so look for transparency in general before ordering from them.

Is the vendor certified by third-party organizations? To ensure fair working conditions and environmental standards across every facet of the supply chain, see if the vendor has certifications from reputable organizations. These certifications and quality marks play a crucial role in verifying that their products are crafted with smart use of energy and resources, as well as minimal impact on people, animals and the environment.

How much does it cost to ship the blanks? When managing a substantial apparel project or an online store with large-scale printing needs, consider ordering in bulk to capitalize on potential shipping savings and less energy usage.

If you align with more sustainable apparel brands, include that information in your marketing and sell sheets to showcase your shop’s sustainability practices. “As the experts, it’s on us to educate our employees and customers about the importance of buying sustainable products,” Jessen says. “Your conversation should shift the perception of the items you offer, elevating them beyond mere trinkets and disposable items, toward products that resonate with customers on a deeper level, becoming integral to their brand narrative around sustainability.”

3: Reduce, reuse, recycle your apparel-decorating materials

An especially effective way of elevating both your own environmental awareness and the awareness of everyone else in your company is by viewing your shop operations through the lens of reducing, reusing and recycling.

REDUCE: “This means use less of everything,” Atkinson says. “You might commit to reduce your energy usage by 20 percent, so start by getting an audit of items you can change from your energy company.”

At Zome Design, for example, Jessen added motion sensors to all the new light switches in any areas that aren’t occupied full-time, like the sewing department, ink-mixing area and conference rooms. Along these same lines, Lisa Lemonick, owner, Scrappy Dappy Doo, installed motion-activated lights in her warehouse in addition to solar panels on the roof. “We see energy savings from these efforts,” she says.

Similarly, at Only Stitches, running an energy-efficient shop includes turning on the air conditioner only when needed, using natural light by keeping lights off during the day and shutting down computers nightly. Finally, there’s Liz Hennings, owner of Fast Track Products, who has been doing her part to help out by installing a programmable thermostat to save energy during her shop’s off-hours.

Atkinson also recommends taking a close look at how you do things and where you can streamline your processes or workflow. For example, can you eliminate sending invoices and paper checks? Can you use an air dryer in the bathroom instead of paper towels? Can you track and eliminate any errors you’re now making in your decorating processes as a mean of reducing wastage? “If you’re a truly sustainable shop you’re a profit monster because you’re doing stuff the right way the first time,” he says.

REUSE: Where can you reuse items in your shop, so you don’t waste money or supplies? Lemonick’s shop, for example, has two bins for misprinted or “oops” garments: one for donations to charitable clothing organizations and the other bin for test sews, test screens and for cleaning rags. Similarly, Hennings reuses misprinted or defective apparel for stitched sew-outs or print samples. She also donates any apparel her team doesn’t use to local charities, including sending discontinued jackets to a coats-for-kids drive.

On the consumables side, Atkinson notes decorators can mix unused inks to create a very dark black ink for other print jobs. “That way, you can use all the ink you paid for,” he says. “Vendors like Wilflex will also let you recycle ink that you’ve got sitting around.”

Finally, look at other items you might normally throw away and see if you can repurpose them in your shop for other uses. “We give away any furniture we’re no longer using, or my husband repurposes the materials,” Carnes says of her own company’s efforts in this area.

RECYCLE: “Everyone goes to ‘we recycle plastic bottles,’ but recycling is much more than that, including batteries, cell phones, computers and beyond,” says Atkinson. “Can you shred and recycle those file cabinets of paper? Can you clear off that skid of items that hasn’t moved in two years and donate them to someone? There’s lots we can do that we often choose not to do.” To take your shop’s recycling efforts to the next level, try the following:

1: Find a reliable recycling partner and establish an initiative to sort and recycle a wide array of materials from your shop: Whether it’s everyday items, such as paper, cans and cardboard, or less common things, like computers, chemicals or production equipment, ensure everything possible gets recycled. Hennings, for example, says her company recycles

Recycling electronics decorated apparel shop

A great way of being Earth friendly is recycling your company’s outdated electronics, as opposed to just sending them away to the dump. Photo by Photographee.eu – stock.adobe.com

all its paper, cardboard thread cones and any and all packaging through her local garbage company. For its part, to encourage recycling Zome Design placed blue recycling bins all over its shop and warehouse. “We noticed a high uptick in our team actually recycling products when we made it easier for them by putting them right next to the other trash bins,” Jessen says of the success of this initiative.

2: Donate or repurpose computers and other electronics: To cut down on waste, Carne’s Only Stitches donates all its old computers to schools or libraries, while Lemonick sends its old computers to a recycling center. “We save most of our old computers and tech equipment for spare parts,” Jessen says. “We’ve borrowed a power supply or other part from one computer and moved it to another computer that needed a part.”

3: Make it possible for clients to return used apparel to be recycled: S&S Activewear recently partnered with the Give Back Box’s recycling program as part of its ongoing drive to reduce textile waste. “We felt it was incredibly important to work toward a solution that makes sense for our customers and industry,” says Kayla Lindy, ESG Specialist, S&S. In practice, Give Back Box provides a straightforward, easy-to-use platform for donating textiles, making it possible for individuals and organization of all sizes to contribute to a charitable cause at the same time they’re promoting recycling through the use of reusable shipping boxes. According to Lindy S&S hopes to include 25 percent of its customer base in the program within the next year with an ultimate goal of 100 percent participation. For more on the S&S partnership, visit givebackbox.com/ssactivewear.

4: Streamline your decorated-apparel processes

If your goal is to be a more effective and better printer, then your streamlining efforts will, almost by definition, be sustainable economically as well since you will be avoiding rework and saving money. “If you can make better screens, use less ink and print more in less time, you’re on the right track,” “Atkinson says. “If you’re doing two passes of white underbase on a dark shirt, and then by using better screens you’re doing just one pass, that’s a more productive way of working. Remember to always track and post your progress, so your whole team can see if you’ve improved your time.”

Interestingly, Jessen noticed that a huge sources of waste in his shop results from having to redo orders because of poor instructions on the front end, like listing incorrect Pantone colors or sending inaccurate proofs. As a consequence, he says, “We’re always improving the level of detail on our work orders and customer proofs. The balance is in not having so many details that our staff won’t read them in the hustle of production or that customers’ eyes will glaze over. We can prevent a lot of rework with better-quality work orders and more accurate proofs.”

The other key here is to regularly maintain your equipment, so it doesn’t go down at the worst possible moment. Ask your employees to report any machine slowdowns or issues as soon as possible. “We have a monthly and weekly routine of maintaining our equipment that ensures it works at peak performance,” Lemonick says.

Nicole Rollender is an award-winning writer and heads up copywriting and content-creation firm STRANDWritingServices.com. For the rest of Nicole’s top 10 sustainability practices, be sure to check out the second part of this two-part series in the upcoming Aug.-Sept. issue of Impressions magazine.