Build Your Business:

How Green is Your Green?

Sublimation is a process using polyester substrates and water-based inks, making it more environmentally friendly than traditional plastisol screen printing.

September 8, 2014

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:

• 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:

• Polyester
• Nylon
• Vinyl
• Satin

Though synthetic fibers are generally 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 recycled very effectively. 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 selection and 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 very 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 very little power and no chemicals. One exception is appliqué, which requires some form of adhesive in the process, but this makes up a very small percentage of the embroidered products produced annually.

In order to establish a successful marketing program for green apparel, you must first address the product cost. Unfortunately, eco-friendly apparel products are more expensive to produce, significantly more in some cases. The key is to equate value with price as it’s only worth what someone is willing to pay. Take the time to research your products as far back as you can so you have the facts to share with your clients, which further justify the cost.

Thus, you should not shy away from the cost or try to sugarcoat it. Be upfront and practical, as the price has a lot of benefit. It’s not that you (or anyone else) are making a larger profit, rather the price tag is a result of the extra care, labor, and cost incurred by creating an environmentally sound product.

In essence, when a customer buys a green product they are not only getting quality goods, they are making a positive impact on the world. But at the end of the day, no matter how good your promotional efforts are, it’s the mindset of the customer that will make the most difference in the decision to go green.

Essentially, you have two types of customers with green concerns and you may need to use a different marketing approach with each:

The True Environmentalist To market your goods successfully to this client, you must be very green-educated about your products from beginning to end:

• Know The Lingo
• Know The Processes Used For Production
• Focus On The Provable Green Aspects Of Your Products
• Be Able To Carry On An Intelligent Eco-Friendly Conversation
• Look For Opportunities To Educate While Promoting Your Products

The Convenient Environmentalist There are far more people who will choose the green product only when it’s convenient to their needs, wallet and image. You can use a more subtle approach but still need to engage at the right level:

• Use Key Green Terms – But Keep It Simple
• Focus On The Basics In Regards To The Products
• Don’t Push Too Hard – Make Them Feel Good But Not Guilty
• Look For Opportunities To Educate While Promoting Your Products

Beyond being able to connect on the right level with each buyer, it’s just a matter of placing the right products in front of each one, based on the level of sustainability that is required to meet their needs. To be sure, the more you know about the green characteristics of your apparel and decoration, the better. But there is a lot more you can do if you are targeting the True Environmentalist, as that really is a niche market, and the key to any niche is total immersion.

Don’t just sell it, live it! If you focus on selling to the market from the inside out, you will be much more successful than just approaching it from a safe distance. That means putting your money where your mouth is and living what you preach:

• Rally around green initiatives and organizations in your community.
• Make donations and encourage others to do it as well.
• Keep up-to-date with the latest green news, products and techniques and share with your customers.
• Educate your customers on how to properly care for and dispose of the products they buy from you. Wash in cold water, air dry, recycle…
• Adopt and promote good eco-friendly practices and make sure your customers are fully aware of your efforts:
• Go Paperless – Electronic invoices, catalogs, promotions, etc
• Energy Conservation: Natural lighting, natural heating & cooling, more energy efficient equipment, recycled materials
• Where What You Sell: Recycled polyester garments, organic garments, etc.

Since a large part of sustainability is recycling, you can take steps to not only encourage it, but to make it happen. For example, Patagonia has initiated a unique program that allows customers to send in used polyester garments to be recycled. Currently, it only applies a select line of products, identified with the Common Threads Initiative logo, but it’s a start.

Take the next step and talk to your garment suppliers about starting a similar program, with your business being a collection center. This sets you apart from the competition, enhances your profile and drives in more traffic in the long run.

As you can see, 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 also have to source garments, 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.

As you can see, 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

Suggested Reading
Like this article? Read these and other business articles at 

“The Importance of Your Supply Chain”
“CPSIA: The Current Landscape”
“Should Plastisol Be Reconsidered as a Sustainable Printing Option?”