Better for the environment—and better for your bottom line. When your shop adopts sustainable practices like recycling, using water-based ink and eschewing chemical cleaners, you attract like-minded customers.

“The clothing industry needs to change—shops that don’t adopt a forward-thinking green ethos will be left in the dust,” says Dominic Rosacci, CEO of Denver-based Superior Ink Printing. “We adopted this way of thinking after learning it takes 500 gallons of water to make one conventional cotton shirt. Producing nearly 60,000 shirts a month equals 32 million gallons of water passing through one small production facility.”

The good news is that making this switch could be more beneficial to your bottom line than you thought. As Millennials lead the charge in supporting more environmentally conscious businesses, their beliefs are fueling a new economy. Let’s break this down by the numbers:

  • Between 2014-2018, sustainable product sales increased by 20%. Today, that figure is 22%. By 2021, it’ll rise to 25%.
  • Millennials are more motivated to change their buying habits. That’s why 75% of Gen Y buys sustainable products and most have said they’re willing to pay more to support environmentally conscious businesses.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do to make your shop more sustainable.

1. Be Selective About Your Mills

Image Credit: Adidas.com

One of the biggest issues to hit apparel manufacturing has been unethical production and labor practices, especially in developing nations. “This is a very ‘green-washed’ industry, so you don’t always know what’s happening behind the curtain,” says Jarrod Hennis, CEO of Rockford, IL-based Rockford Art Deli“It’s hard as a consumer to know what’s real vs. made-up marketing.”

For example, some overseas factories pollute the environment with fossil fuels. They may also use dyes and other chemicals that poison waterways, as well as endanger fish and underwater ecosystems. Also, keep in mind that poor-quality dyes can be harmful to people, animals and the environment. In addition to the environment, they may not treat their workers fairly either.

As a distributor, one thing you can do to help is to only buy or stock apparel from mills that produce garments with eco-friendly materials and methods, using human-friendly labor practices. “Organic cotton and recycled or transitional cotton also makes a big difference to buyers,” Rosacci says.

Adidas is a company making big strides in sustainability. The iconic athletic brand’s efforts to replace all polyester in its line with 100% recycled polyester, develop sneakers constructed from plastic waste gathered from our shorelines, and limit its carbon footprint by monitoring and reducing employee travel around the globe shows a real commitment to the environment. Bottom line: When you recommend apparel from brands committed to Mother Earth (like adidas), buyers are excited to incorporate these products (and their sustainable backstories) into their campaigns, and may be willing to pay a little more to do so.

Expert Tip: Aim to work with transparent apparel suppliers and contract decorators. That way, you can show your customers a strong selection of eco-friendly apparel. If your suppliers change their materials or processes, you can decide if you need to switch up your sourcing decisions.“We do our best to source and print on only the best-quality and ethically made shirts,” says Hennis. “We’re constantly testing and learning about new companies that use sustainable materials and employ workers who are taken care of and paid well.”

2. Use Earth-Friendlier Inks

As we’ve said, some manufacturing mills use dyes that can cause pollution, especially to water systems. But your print shop might also use inks that do the same thing, especially if you’re choosing PVC-based plastisol inks.

Instead, switch to water-based inks, which are easier to break down and cause less pollution than other options. Besides not having PVC resin, many water-based inks are also free of chemicals like hydrocarbons that can deplete the ozone layer. “Once you dial-in your water-based game, you can also cut out a fair amount of harmful cleaning chemicals,” Hennis says.

Expert Tip: Not only are water-based inks better for the environment, they’re better overall for printing. Screen printers say the inks produce “softer-hand” designs that are bolder than plastisol options. Customers want environmentally conscious products that also stand the test of time. Always point out that water-based inks last longer, without fading, as a result of repeated washings.

3. Add a Water-Filtration System

Did you know your washout booth may be a secret source of pollution to your local water system? When you flush out your sink, you’re sending sticky emulsions such as photo polymers, inks, oils and other refuse straight into your sewer.

Besides environmental concerns with this practice, you could also be destroying your pipes, clogging them with chemicals that can be costly to flush out. Instead, add a water-filtration system to your sinks. This will run your water through tubing under the sink and funnel this water through six different filters. This should remove most of your solids and “sticky” chemicals.

“We added water filtration to both of our washout booths,” Hennis says. “Once you clean those screens and filters the first time, you can’t believe how much stuff you’re putting down the drain. Multiply that by times 12,531 custom print shops in America. That’s a lot of pollution.”

Expert Tip: A water-filtration system removes most of the solids flushed through your pipes. However, it won’t stop everything. Cut down on excess pollutants by managing your inks better.

Try this: Scrape your screens and squeegees regularly into a bucket. This keeps the inks out of your water system, and you can also recycle them to help save on waste.

4. Reuse Packaging

The more you can reuse, the less waste you generate. One way to do this? Set up a recycling system in your shop.

Reuse packaging as much as possible, and when you ship, don’t use packaging that’s not biodegradable (you know, like the old Styrofoam “peanuts”). Try to ship in bulk when you can to reduce the amount of packaging. “Use recycled cardboard if you supply your own boxes,” Rosacci says.

Hennis’ shop reprints new recycled boxes and recycles boxes they get from vendors. “While it’s not 100% ideal, it looks uniform,” he says. “We’re working on better options this year.”

Expert Tip: Print shops create a great deal of waste materials from plastic containers to paper and inks. Set up areas to recycle other materials including packaging, bottles and inks. “We recycle as much as possible and reuse the majority of the ink containers for custom ink mixing,” says Hennis, who notes that you can reuse excess inks when you clean screens.

5. Be Proud of Your Eco-Commitment

The final step in becoming more sustainable is to let your customers know about your “Mother Earth-friendly” practices. To attract customers who support your eco-focus, wear your sustainability like a proud badge in all of your advertising and merchandising.

“In addition, the biggest thing for us was getting our entire team on board for this way of thinking,” Rosacci says. “Recycling is huge, along with evaluating other inefficiencies such as replacing old T12 lighting with LEDs or energy-efficient equipment. However, I believe the apparel you choose to print has the greatest impact.”

Expert Tip: Create a section on your website to personalize your shop’s commitment. Explain why you run as an eco-friendly shop, and highlight your business practices. Mention how your customers’ support then helps the environment. “We got the word out about what we do by printing in the center of our shop,” Hennis says. “Nothing happens behind a wall or a curtain. We’re in the public eye, and they hold us accountable to what we advertise.”

Hennis also suggests looking at other ways to reduce your waste. “How can you recycle your test shirts at the shop, since 70% of garments go into the landfill?” he says. “You can also reduce your waste and source better products such as bamboo toilet paper, recycled receipt paper, printer paper, reusable bags, or anything else that reuses products that we just throw away daily.”

Going green and being sustainable is no longer just a “selling point” for many businesses. It’s an essential part of ethical business practices as our impact on the environment is becoming more serious and potentially dangerous. By taking these five steps to heart, you can promote your commitment to sustainability and grow a  loyal customer base.

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