Build Your Business:

How Green is Your Green?

March 3, 2015

With consumer spending on the decline, many companies are desperate to boost sales and see jumping on the “green” bandwagon as the perfect solution. Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of things, spending a little extra on green products may make customers feel better, but it may not have as much of an earth-friendly impact as the consumer hopes.

Labels claiming items to be “natural,” “eco-friendly” or “organic” are often inaccurate, inflated, unsubstantiated or otherwise misleading. Such deceptive practices even have their own term in the world of eco-marketing: greenwashing.

Though some greenwashing is done with the intent to deceive, in many cases there’s just a difference of opinion as to what qualifies as natural, green, eco-friendly, environmentally safe, etc.

Because of the lack of official guidelines, consumers have adopted their own interpretations as to what constitutes an eco-friendly product or service. For the average person, green generally means a product is good for the environment in some form or fashion, but in reality most have no clue exactly how it fits in. It could mean many things:

The materials that compose the product didn’t come from rain forests
No synthetic compounds or chemicals were used
The manufacturing process didn’t threaten endangered species
Production didn’t use vast amounts of energy and/or water
No petroleum-based products were used
Carbon emissions associated with manufacturing or operation were kept to a minimal level
The product conserves or minimizes power consumption
It’s easily recycled
It uses raw materials that were sustainably farmed
Doesn’t contain or produce toxic chemicals

Few if any products meet all of this criteria, typically falling into no more than one or two so-called green categories. In fact, many eco-friendly products can be unfriendly to the environment in just as many ways as they are friendly.

For apparel decorators, it really comes down to education and a setting of standards. When evaluating just how eco-friendly a garment is, you should look at how the fibers were created, how the fabric was manufactured, how it was decorated, and to what extent it can be recycled. Because no single process or product is totally free of harmful environmental effects, you will need to educate yourself so you can balance out the different elements in figuring out what processes provide the best scenario in terms of green.

A good starting point is to take a look at fibers that are used to create an apparel product. They typically can be broken down into two distinct categories — natural and synthetic.

Natural fibers come from vegetative and animal sources including:
Cotton — vegetative
Bamboo — vegetative
Hemp — vegetative
Silk — animal
Wool — animal

But just because it’s a natural fiber, doesn’t mean that it is environmentally friendly. The key is to find organic products.

Organic fibers are made from materials that are raised or grown without the use of chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides or other substances. To gain organic certification, a farm must have been inspected by an accredited certification organization using strict national or international standards. Farmers raising organic fiber follow standards that nurture the soil or animal from which it comes and do not use toxic insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. The Organic Trade Association website offers a complete definition of the standards for certified organic fiber processing.

The most common organic fiber used in apparel is organic cotton, which is grown without pesticides from plants that have not been genetically modified. This is as opposed to standard cotton production (still a natural fiber, just not organic), which depends on high levels of agrochemicals and accounts for 16% of the world’s pesticides. In addition, the chemicals used in the processing of non-organic cotton can pollute the air and water.

True organic cotton production uses crop rotation instead of agrochemicals and artificial fertilizers, and biological pest control instead of pesticides. Though organic cotton has less environmental impact than conventional cotton, it costs more to produce. The same standards for organic cotton production apply to other natural fiber production.

But the organic label can be misleading, as many clothing manufacturers market organic clothing that use harsh dyes and/or bleaches for coloring and various chemical additives to aid in processing and preservation for transportation.

Synthetic fibers are produced by man-made processes with the most common forms being:

Though synthetic fibers generally are petroleum-based and not bio-degradable, that doesn’t mean that they have no green value.

Traditionally, polyester and polymer products such as plastic bottles have been effectively recycled. By grinding them up and re-processing them, new polyester can be produced.

It is now possible to recycle polyester fiber, yarn, fabric and garments into new, high-quality polyester fiber. Cotton fiber also can be recycled into new yarn and fabric, but the quality of the fiber is reduced, so the resulting product is not as high quality as the original fiber.

The polyester mills, recognizing the shrinking petroleum supply and the environmental problems of virgin polyester fiber production, have eclipsed the cotton fiber innovation. The concept being to virtually eliminate virgin poly production through increased recycling.


Going beyond fiber production, the next area to understand in terms of effects on the environment is fabric production, most notably the coloring and finishing.

Traditional fabric dyeing techniques typically involve:

High water consumption, which requires energy to treat before being discharged to the environment
Toxic chemicals, which could require significant amounts of energy to extract, manufacture and process and can pollute environments exposed to them
High energy usage, which is the energy required to carry out the production processes

Eco-friendly dyeing, printing and tanning methods focus on reducing the environmental impact in one or more of those categories.

Finishes used on textiles can be wet or dry. Wet involves chemicals applied to fabric and dry being those applied mechanically. Dry finishes generally are considered environmentally preferable and consumer friendly as they use machinery and heat rather than chemicals. However, there are some eco-friendly wet finishes, which are increasing in availability, such as enzymatic treatments. Other wet finishes, such as antimicrobial and stain resistant, can be beneficial to the sustainability of a garment,
as they reduce the need for laundering.

This conserves water and energy and reduces the amount of chemicals released to the environment.

One of the few areas where apparel decorators have any control on creation of green products is in the application of graphics. Many advances have been made in this area and it pays to understand how the processes you use can affect the environment.

Screen Printing: Traditional plastisol used for screen printing is made from PVC and phthalate plasticizer. However, many of the newer inks are water-based or plastisol that is formulated with no phthalates or PVC. The quality is similar in printability to conventional inks and, in some cases, PVC-free inks have a softer hand.

One downside for screen printing production, regardless of ink type, is the amount of energy consumed in the curing process. Industrial drying units are required to permanently cure the inks used in the printing process and they use large amounts of power, either electrical or gas.

Direct-To-Garment Printing (DTG): A typical DTG printer prints images directly to the apparel using inkjet technology. Water-based ink that is PVC-free and non-phthalate is available for most units. The process requires little energy and you can recycle the cartridges with some brands.

One area to be aware of is that most DTG inks are designed for cotton products. To use them on poly products, a bonding chemical must be applied to the surface of the material. This pre-treatment may introduce non-eco-friendly agents into the process. In addition, pre-treatments may be required when printing on dark garments as well.

Sublimation: New technology has delivered sublimation inks that qualify as “green ink” in that they are water-based. And, as such, are measurably less harmful to the environment than any solvent-based ink currently being touted in the industry…eco-, bio- or traditional.

The VOC-free nature of a water-based ink provides a safer work environment for production employees as well — a fact that can be verified by reviewing MSDS sheets.

Embroidery: This production process relies on thread and backing. The two most common threads are polyester and rayon, both of which are synthetic.

Traditional backing is made up of polyester fibers and viscose, which is the filler that holds the poly fibers together. Eco-friendly backing is made the same way, but the content is composed of recycled plastic fibers, wood pulp and/or recycled cardboard. The quality of the backing is still high, but the impact on the planet is much less.

Embroidery machines use little power and no chemicals. One exception is with appliqué, which requires some form of adhesive in the process, but this makes up a small percentage of the embroidered products produced annually.

Selling green apparel and decoration is a lot more involved than just offering products that claim to be eco-friendly. They key is education and involvement, combined with a certain degree of skepticism. Of course you have to source garments as well, but since there are plenty of suppliers it really comes down to sorting out what meets the requirements of the market you are trying to serve.

Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decoration experience. He currently is manager of communications for Sawgrass Technologies, Charleston, S.C. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jimmy at

Before you stick your neck out and start promoting any product as “green,” do enough research to feel comfortable about the overall scope of the product in regard to its impact on the environment.

The key is to get as many details as possible in order to get a look at the “big green picture.” You should: Learn The Lingo, Dig Deeper and Seek Certification.

Learn The Lingo — The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the use of “organic” on food packaging, while the FTC has set out specific guidelines for items labeled as “recycled.” However, regulation pretty much stops there.

Terms such as “natural,” “cruelty-free” and “nontoxic” have no standard definition, guaranteeing very little when found in advertising, according to a source. Before you shop, check out common label language using Consumer Reports’ free eco-label tool to see which words are worth looking for.

Dig Deeper — Many of the most important environmental innovations are happening behind the scenes and may not be touted on product packaging. Check corporate websites for new initiatives that may make an impact.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, has repeatedly redesigned its beer cans since the mid-1960s to use less aluminum. Considering that aluminum production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, the innovation carries considerable clout. But they’re not going to put a Green Seal on Beck’s or Bud.

Seek Certification — Just because a government organization such as the FTC does not have published green standards doesn’t mean that certain organizations don’t. When shopping for new products, look for certification seals from a reputable, independent third-party organization. Their logos guarantee that the product bearing such seals meets their set standards, with ongoing reviews to ensure compliance. Be wary of “certification” provided by the company itself, or by its affiliates.

Here are a few groups that deal with fabric and apparel:
• Organic Trade Association (
• The National Organic Standards Board (
• Sustainable Cotton Project (
• Hemp Industries Association (