Build Your Business:

The ‘Eco’ Equation

Here’s a look at sustainability in the apparel and ink sectors, and how it affects the way many suppliers do business.

By Jennifer Morrell, Contributing Writer

June 8, 2021

In the decorated-apparel industry, sustainability has long been a buzzword for manufacturers. The meaning of the term has changed and evolved over time, but in recent years, Millennials and Gen-Zers have increased their buying power. These groups are driving trends that necessitate various manufacturers to be as eco-friendly, sustainable and transparent as possible. These consumer demographics care about a reduced carbon footprint, corporate responsibility, American-grown cotton, organic
cotton, etc.

To get an update on sustainability as it affects this industry, let’s examine trends in the apparel and ink sectors as it relates to supplier efforts.

Big-Picture Thinking
When mapping out a sustainability plan, it’s important to consider the big picture, says Michael Johnson, director of marketing for HanesBrands Activewear.

“It’s OK to focus more on one aspect than another, but it’s not OK to excel in one aspect and be detrimental in another,” Johnson says. “Our sustainability program has three key pillars: people, planet and product. It’s not only about the people, but also the communities where we do business. It’s about leaving the planet even better than we found it; and it’s about our responsibly sourced and made products.”

Royal Apparel has developed a wide portfolio of product that begins with raw materials. The company uses low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes that have been found to be a solid sustainable option. Sales Director Glen Brumer touts the company’s GOTS-certified organic cotton, recycled bottles in a few blends, and a headquarters that implements energy-saving initiatives and recycling.

Sustainability is about the entire supply chain, as well as every person and community touched by it along the way.

“[Sustainability is] not just about where [a product is] going, it’s about where it came from,” Johnson says, citing an example of Hanes reducing water usage by 30%, and treating 100% of the wastewater from its manufacturing facilities through an advanced, naturally occurring biological process. “We are on a path to transition our operations to be 100% powered by renewable electricity by 2030. These efforts are not only good for our planet, but long-term, they are cost-effective.”

Royal Apparel has seen growth driven by segments of its customer base, including corporations, musicians, wineries, craft breweries, CBD businesses, retailers and brands.

“While the raw materials are more expensive, we find it allows for a higher retail price point and the consumer is willing to pay more to support sustainability,” Brumer says. “We are a vertical manufacturer, which allows us to put more value into the garments. This also supports the trend [that] consumers are now buying higher quality that lasts longer as opposed to fast-fashion.”

Spreading the Knowledge
Educating decorators about sustainability is an ongoing effort. Hanes recently kicked off its “U.S. Grown Cotton” initiative, which outlines the benefits of using U.S.-grown cotton in apparel. Johnson says using such cotton fits perfectly with the company’s “people-planet-product” approach.

“It creates jobs in the United States, and those jobs are subject to USDA and OSHA requirements,” he says. “Cotton grown in the Southeastern region of the U.S. uses less water than cotton grown elsewhere in the world, and because of improvements with tillage and equipment, U.S.-grown cotton produces some of the highest-quality cotton yields.”

From responsible sourcing and a global footprint to living wages, Hanes thinks the benefits of U.S.-grown cotton can resonate with each of its customers.

Royal Apparel has held virtual Town Hall meetings and one-on-one virtual meetings to share knowledge with decorators. In-depth educational content also has been added to the company’s website and customers can filter the information by category, all of which are eco-related.

A large demand for sustainability exists in the 20-45 age range, since these consumers are fashion-conscious and wants to make a difference. But the idea of sustainability now is a multigenerational issue, Johnson says.

“We know that younger consumers are especially eco-minded, but it’s also their parents and their grandparents.”

Regarding sustainability’s future, Johnson thinks consumers will call for more transparency. “In 2019 we took a group of college students to go through the entire supply chain for our ComfortWash apparel line,” he recalls. “The students saw firsthand a cotton farm, a yarn-spinning facility and our state-of-the-art cut, sew and dye facilities in El Salvador, and they asked questions about responsible sourcing, global footprint and living wages. It was a transformational experience for the students and for us.”

Thinking Ink
Many ink suppliers have undertaken the task of educating screen printers about eco-friendly ink and how to use them.

“As part of our education, we emphasize that the MNK BIO series comes out of the competitive arena of ink that does not contain substances considered harmful to health or the environment,” says Flavio Ronchini, CEO of EPTA North America — USA. “And, we further raise the bar of sustainability: Not only are we not using polluting or unhealthy chemicals, but the exploitation of the planet’s resources has been minimized.”

United Kingdom-based MagnaColours has established MagnaAcademy, which allows screen printers to train in water-based printing applications, either on site at the MagnaAcademy facility or online via video tutorials. The company also created the “Make The Switch” program which is designed to promote and aid a smooth conversion to printing with its water-based inks.

“It is a tool that is used to create a roadmap to switch customers from plastisol or other water-based systems, that is tailor-made to [fit] customers’ needs and timeframes,” says Helen Parry, managing director, MagnaColours.

Screen printers in North America are more rapidly embracing eco-friendlier inks due to education and awareness. However, the truth which products truly are eco-friendly can be somewhat confusing.

“Printers have been hit with many unsubstantiated and often-incorrect claims suggesting that certain inks are ‘greener’ or ‘eco-friendlier’ than others,” says Stephen Kahane, president and CEO of International Coatings. “Since these claims are largely unregulated, it should come as no surprise that many are not just misleading, but wrong.”

Staying apprised of governmental regulations is a key to understanding where sustainability fits into ink manufacturing. Kahane says the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008 has served as an impetus to look at screen-printing ink chemistries in a whole new way.

“Until CPSIA, phthalate plasticizers were the backbone of most plastisol inks,” Kahane says. “Today, most of the textile inks in use in the U.S. are formulated with non-phthalate plasticizers. CPSIA fostered a series of other regulations from states (California, New Jersey, Washington and others) and international governing bodies, perhaps most notably the European Union’s REACH legislation.”

Parry says in the U.K. and other territories, there has been a drive for consumers to reduce their carbon footprints or impact on the environment, which has been led or supported by government-awareness campaigns.

“There are environmental standards that governments impose [regarding] the use and disposing of chemicals [that] affect the operational side of a manufacturing business and, increasingly, there are starting to be more discussions around the notion of ‘circularity’ and ‘cradle to grave,’ and there is much more scrutiny on the supply chain and the origins of raw materials,” she says.

Parry also says brands, retailers and even consumers have played a huge part in driving a shift away from PVC-based inks toward more sustainable, eco-friendly inks.

“It is consumers who are demanding to have more environmentally [friendly], even sustainable garments,” she says. “As a result, more plastisol printers are trying water-based inks and being pleasantly surprised by the higher-quality hand feel and finish that’s possible, as well as having a nicer environment to work in [that’s] solvent- and chemical-free.”

Sustainability’s future and its role in apparel and ink manufacturing always is ever- evolving. Kahane says the industry already is seeing a more holistic view of sustainability.

“That is to say, it’s not just about the products and chemicals we use, but it’s how we use them in going about our businesses and lives,” he says. “We will do a much better job rationalizing our use of resources, so that we use them to their best effect and leave the smallest footprint for future generations.”

Global climate change also is forcing manufacturers to evaluate how carbon is used. Whether it’s better to burn oil or use it to make durable products is a lingering question.

“It is also forcing us to do the same with water, which many countries now view as a more scarce and valuable resource than oil,” Kahane says. “Managing and preserving our world’s precious resources is not just about doing the right thing, it also makes good economic sense.”

Parry says consumer trends, new fabrics and printing requirements will continue driving changes in the apparel-decorating industry. “Expect to see more uses of bioderived binders and dyes in inks that offer biodegradable and sustainable ink solutions,” she says. “Sustainability is no longer a tick box; it’s how the industry wants to operate.”

Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at