Running an eco-friendly printing shop isn’t a “maybe” anymore; it’s practically a must since buyers expect that you’re minimizing your impact on the environment as part of your ethical business practices. So yes, if you don’t act sustainably, some buyers may choose to go elsewhere. The good news, however, is that sustainability is of course good for the planet, but it’s also good for your shop’s bottom line.
“Sustainability in your screen-printing shop matters for so many reasons, including that it connects today’s way of life with the future ahead of us,” says Marshall Atkinson, a business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe who helps printing shops become more sustainable. “When you focus on sustainability, this resonates deeply with some customers, so you open up new revenue streams and markets. You access deeper profits, and your shop runs more efficiently. You also stay ahead of government regulations and help mitigate environmental risks. Plus, sustainability is just the right thing to do.”
Before we jump into six ways you can make your shop more sustainable, consider these compelling stats on how doing so is also good for your business:
Here’s what you can start thinking about for your shop today:
- Stock sustainable apparel brands.
We’ve seen screen-printing shops prioritize apparel from environmentally-friendly brands. That way, when buyers come into their showroom or shop online, they predominantly see apparel made from USA-grown organic cotton or recycled materials for example, or manufactured in an eco-friendly way.
At BELLA+CANVAS, we’re committed to sustainable processes, so we reduce the water and energy we use and generate virtually zero waste. We share this information with you so that you can share it with your base. You can even create PDF fliers or create a space on your website where you break down how your apparel suppliers make their products and the materials they use.
For example, here’s how we’re doing our part at BELLA+CANVAS:
Water reduction: By using newer, more efficient dye machines, we use 7x less water than the average for clothing manufacturers, saving 24 million gallons a week. Any water we do use goes through a filtration system that allows it to be recycled.
Energy reduction: We’re a green company through and through—taking every opportunity to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. If you take a quick tour around our headquarters, you’ll see that we use:
- Solar energy to partially power our U.S. sewing and cutting facilities
- Motion-sensor LED lighting and skylights throughout each building
- Electric car charging stations to encourage employees to go green.
Many Central American and Asian factories use biomass or petroleum coke—one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet—which emits 11% more greenhouse gas than coal, along with lung-damaging sulfur. That’s why almost all U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, ban petroleum coke.
Instead, we power our dye house with clean steam energy. This energy exchange collects air from the dryers that goes into a thermal oxidizer, where dye oils burn to create energy. Then, a boiler captures that energy and creates steam to power the dye machine—you can’t get much cleaner than that!
Virtually zero waste: Our manufacturing facilities and LA headquarters produce almost no landfill because we recycle pretty much everything that can’t be turned into a T-shirt. We’ve optimized our cutting to reduce plastic use, and excess fabric gets recycled into a number of things like baby bibs or stuffing for upholstery in furniture and pet beds.
- Look at more eco-friendly decorating processes.
This is where you take a much more holistic view than the debate between plastisol screen-printing inks vs. water-based inks.
For example, Atkinson says that digital printing (like DTG) paired with print-on-demand can be an overall more sustainable approach to decorating. “Not too long ago, it was common to print large runs and send them to a warehouse, and then the garments would be sorted, warehoused and shipped to the end-consumer,” explains Atkinson. “Now, that entire process is eliminated when a customer orders online, and then you print and ship the order. This is a more sustainable process because, while an online store may have hundreds of designs, you only produce the ones you sell.”
With considering plastisol vs. water-based inks, here are a few thoughts. Yes, water-based inks are made of more naturally occurring substances than plastisol, so you don’t need harsh chemicals to clean them up. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to dispose of them properly (it’s always a good idea to talk to your supplier about cleaning them up responsibly).
On the flip side, screen printers who use water-based inks point out that you’ll need to specially coat your screens so you can reclaim your screens easier. You also need to add additives to your ink so it dries faster; if you’ve made a larger batch, you’ll need to use the ink within 12 hours or lose it. Conversely, you’ll need to keep the ink from drying in your screens otherwise you’ll have damaged them. Finally, water-based inks can be stickier than plastisols, so you may need to do more flashing or revolutions on the press to keep the print from being ruined.
The bottom line? As we said, talk to your ink providers to decide which ink makes more sense for your shop, since more efficient processes and saving time make for a more sustainable business in general.
- Take a look at your packaging.
We’ll hit the basics here:
- Do you reuse all the boxes that your blanks come in?
- Do you order eco-friendly boxes that you can print your logo on?
- Do you use brown craft paper or shreds vs. plastic packaging for lining boxes?
If you answered yes to all three, you’re doing excellent in this area. If not, see where you can make some changes.
Plus, consider this: if your shop’s doing POD, Atkinson suggests looking at a company like noissue that makes biodegradable mailers. These packages don’t need to be recycled, since recipients can compost them at home or send them through a typical waste stream. “If you’re shipping T-shirts or other garments as part of a print-on-demand service or online store program, you probably realize that the mailer you are using is just going to landfill so why not package that order in something better?” says Atkinson.
- Take stock of your washout booth.
While you may think you’re disposing your screen-printing inks and chemicals the right way, your booth might actually be polluting your local water system. Here’s why: when you flush out your sink, you might be shooting emulsions like inks, oils and polymers into the sewer. (This can also damage your pipes, which can be expensive to repair.)
If you add a water-filtration system to your sinks that runs your water through tubing, it funnels it through various filters. That way you’ll extract most solids and chemicals that can pollute water and clog pipes before they leave your shop and hit the sewers.
Tip: Are you scraping your screens and squeegees into a bucket? That also helps keep the sticky chemicals out of your water system. You can also recycle your inks to make your decoration process more sustainable.
- Start a Green Committee at your shop.
There’s a good chance that many of your staffers likely care about how your shop’s practices affect the environment, so they’ll be thrilled when you announce that you’re starting a Green Committee (if you haven’t already done so). You can appoint one of your team member’s as your shop’s Sustainability Director to oversee the committee’s efforts, part of which is to look for opportunities for your shop to be more eco-friendly. This can span from the products you sell to the cleaning supplies you choose, to whether you use washable plates vs. paper plates in your break room.
When you really get rolling, you can share your shop’s efforts using videos on social media or your website, in your blogs and in your emails. You can even send your Sustainability Director or members of your Green Committee to your local Chambers of Commerce meetings so they can share what you’re doing to be sustainable with the local business community.
- Consider computer-to-screen technology.
If you want to cut way down on films in your shop, look at CTS as an investment. In case you didn’t know, CTS technology helps printers save time when you’re prepping screens. You also don’t need expensive film positives or the equipment to create them (and of course, you’ll gain back all that pre-press time).
We’ve heard from shop owners who’ve embraced CTS that they’ve also gained more space in their shops since they don’t need room for film storage.
We hope you’ve gotten some great ideas here for how to start running an even more ecologically sustainable shop. You may already be doing some of the things on our list, or even things we haven’t mentioned. If we all do our part to reduce our carbon footprint, we can become more eco-minded as an industry!