Sustainability in Apparel Decorators’ Embroidery Practices

The emphasis on sustainable practices for apparel decorators has grown into eco-friendly embroidery environment

By Alice Wolf, Contributing Writer

Some stabilizers are manufactured to meet the strict requirements of the OEKO-TEX organization in order to be used on infant apparel or for wearers with sensitive skin.

February 28, 2020

Does the market drive or support buying habits? In a “chicken-or-the-egg” sort of conundrum, do eco-friendly concerns originate at the buying level or at the root of manufacturing? This is a hot topic question for apparel decorators lately in the embroidery business.

Industry manufacturers, apparel decorators and textile companies have offered eco-friendly alternatives for quite some time. For decades, some manufacturers emphasized a cautious approach to using natural resources, and now have successfully reduced the use of water and other precious raw materials to remain socially responsible.

From Eco-Friendly to Sustainable

While customers are encouraged on many levels to think about being eco-friendlier and shop in a manner that isn’t harmful to the environment, some businesses and manufacturers practice sustainability. This includes limiting the exploitation of natural resources so that civilization and the planet can co-exist for centuries to come. Such businesses strive for the smallest possible carbon footprints and the largest impact on sales.

Fashion icon Eileen Fisher is at the helm of one such brand. Dubbed a “sustainability pioneer” in a recent interview by Business of Fashion (BoF), Fisher began her company 35 years ago with a simple commitment of doing things differently to make an impact. Some 10 years into her operation, she hired a head of social consciousness, the 1990s precursor to sustainability.

One of Fisher’s most impactful sustainable initiatives, writes BoF correspondent Lauren Sherman, has been her circular Renew program in which the brand remakes and resells old clothing.

“We think about our materials from the seeds, from the very beginning, all the way through to taking our clothes back from our customers — and we’ve been doing that for 10 years,” Fisher explains. “We have this idea that we can, without making more clothes, double the size of our business.”

Fisher’s unique approach to global growth and international supply and distribution chains originates in the fashion industry. She maintains her sustainable principles, passionately urging fashion entrepreneurs and executives to “care about sustainability and the people. Do it because this is a huge opportunity to make change.”

Supply-Level Sustainability

For more than a century, embroidery-thread manufacturers in Germany and Switzerland have supplied products that are used globally to embellish apparel. Like Fisher in the fashion sector, sustainability and a responsible approach to using raw materials were seen as a corporate mission long before it was a popular concern.

Embroidery-thread standards are set high and some manufacturers strive to accomplish, among others, the following principles at the production level:

• Water-consumption reduction
• Recycling of heat for multiple uses
• Natural-gas use to reduce emissions
• Water purification for return to the environment
• Raw-materials purchasing from accredited sources

To establish accredited sources for raw materials — and to prove sustainable practices — several international resources exist that consumers are learning to recognize. Perhaps the most familiar is OEKO-TEX. Started in 1992, this organization consists of 18 independent research and test institutes in Europe and Japan. They are responsible for the joint development of test methods and limit values that form the basis for setting safety standards.

OEKO-TEX’s mission is “to create trust in textiles and leather and in their production: through increased product safety, improving sustainable production and a sustainable, transparent value-creation chain.” Companies apply for and are assigned different certification levels. Class I determines that an item is safe for babies, while Class II is safe for direct contact with skin.

Another international testing bureau is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). It was developed to define requirements that are recognized worldwide and that ensure the organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing — all the way to labeling — in order to provide credible assurance to the consumer. Introduced in 2006, it was supported by interest from manufacturers and consumers in organic fibers and the need for unified processing criteria.

Other international testing bureaus include DEKRA and REACH.

Eco-Friendly Products

Embroidery suppliers can offer thread and other products that either boast the OEKO-TEX certification or are otherwise manufactured responsibly and sustainably. While such products may cost a few cents more, they otherwise will run or handle just like their non-sustainable counterparts.

“Each year, Madeira subsidiaries from around the globe meet to review the status of our sustainability practices to learn if any changes are needed,” says Shirley Clark, president, Madeira USA. “From the ground up, we see the adherence to increasingly stringent sustainability practices as customers grow more sensitive to the needs and requests of end users.”

Natural ingredients are used in rayon and other embroidery threads, such as polyester, metallics, matte-finish, fire-resistant, wool or cotton blends. All may hold either a Class I or II certification, guaranteeing they contain no harmful substances.

Beyond thread, stabilizers also are on the market that may contain nothing harmful since, in many cases, they are directly exposed to skin. These products earn certification from one of the aforementioned organizations.

Although formaldehyde is a naturally occurring compound in many materials, it often is added to apparel and home-furnishing textiles to improve wrinkle resistance and durability. Eco-friendly backings feature near-zero levels of formaldehyde or can be formaldehyde-free, while preserving the properties critical to efficient and high-quality embroidery processes.

Sustainability Commitment

For customers who aren’t embroiderers but are committed to supporting businesses that adhere to sustainable practices, there are some that claim to be eco-friendly down to their roots. Organic Cotton Plus is a fifth-generation family cotton farm in Lubbock, Texas. In 1991, it became one of the first certified organic farms in the country, bringing back pesticide-free, organic cotton to the U.S. It became a sister company of the farm using organic cotton bales to create 100% certified fabrics for individuals and small businesses.

Bales of cotton were shipped out to be contract-spun into yarn, then woven into fabric and finished with just a natural scour wash. The process resulted in 100% organic fabric, ready to ship to small businesses. Today, through production in the U.S. and overseas, Organic Cotton Plus has increased its fabric line to include knits, eco-dyed fabrics, notions and more. In addition, it became the first U.S. fabric retailer to be fully GOTS-certified.

Goza Gear Screen Printing and Embroidery, founded in 1995, is another family owned and operated business, based in a 2,600-square-foot commercial facility in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We are in the business of reducing chemicals used on our planet and reducing the number of plastic bottles destined for our landfills,” according to co-founders Steve and Bonnie Melgoza. “We do this by selling organic-cotton and recycled-content-fabric T-shirts and apparel made from chemical-free cotton and reclaimed plastic bottles. We maintain the integrity of these products by using earth-friendlier, non-phthalate inks, non-toxic water-based inks and threads certified chemical-free and non-hazardous. We decorate quality apparel for people, business and events.”

Goza Gear is the first certified green screen-printing and embroidery business in California. The company received its first green business certification in 2004. This means it conducts business based on sustainability principles, policies and practices. These measures help solve, rather than contribute to, environmental and social challenges, according to the Melgozas, who are committed to building and operating the company with core values of honesty, transparency and authentic caring for the planet and its customers.

As sensitivity to our planet’s sustainability needs flourishes and end users expect more from businesses, the eco-friendly approach to supplies, finished textiles and apparel can only increase in importance. If there is a single trend in eco-friendly decorated apparel, its the growth of the movement with an eye on the details that go into each product.

Alice Wolf is manager of education and publications for Madeira USA. She began doing marketing and public relations for the art industry in New York, and then migrated north to Madeira’s New Hampshire headquarters. For more information or to comment on this article, email Alice at awolf@madeirausa.com.

Article updated Oct. 30, 2023

Naturally Friendly Thread

An example of a good OEKO-TEX-certified embroidery thread is rayon. Produced from cellulose that is created from pine trees planted for the specific purpose of being turned into wood pulp, rayon thread creates a natural luster.

Rayon embroidery thread also is soft and pliable, and will lay flat in the most intricate designs. Its natural content allows it to hold up to reasonable wear and tear.

For decades, it was the choice of embroiderers worldwide. A good rayon embroidery thread will have earned OEKO-TEX Class I, making suitable for use on infant apparel.