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Garment Printing with a Conscience

(October 2004) posted on Fri Nov 12, 2004

Making social and environmental issues a priority in your daily operations may not seem practical when turnaround times and finances are tight. But if you follow the lead of garment printers who have researched the effects of sweatshop labor, chemically treated cotton, and ecologically unfriendly inks, you may just change your mind.

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By Ben P. Rosenfield

Perhaps the most interesting property of Planet Ink is that leftovers can be expelled onto the ground. When Shifrin sent the formulas to a lab for testing to determine the safest means of disposal, the lab returned some intriguing results. "They classified it as nutritious and beneficial. Any solids are screened out and whatever remains goes down the drain," she says. The only solids left behind would either be unground plant materials or small amounts of latex. Shifrin says, "We go to great lengths to seek out organic latex, hand extruded from the Costa Rican rainforest, so that we're supporting a community offshore. It's biodegradable, just not in the drain."

Shifrin doesn't stop there. A farm in Texas grows organic cotton for her. The farmers in the family-run business hoe 3000 acres of cotton by hand. From there, the organic cotton goes to spinners and knitters that, in order to keep Shifrin's business, change over their operations to remove synthetic chemicals, including machine oils, from the entire process. And you guessed it--the people who sew the garments work in a small, family-run business. "They handle all of our yardage after it's knitted and turn it into T-shirts for us at maybe 100 dozen per week under their home-sewn conditions," Shifrin explains.

Sure, garment drying times are three minutes and the process requires giant turbo fans instead of conventional heat, but Shifrin says, "It's worth it to us because this is what we do." And customers have taken notice. Planet Ink has produced garments for the Green Party, NASA, and plenty of other high-profile clients who feel their image can only be complete with all-natural materials.

Your goal: increased sustainability
A garment produced from cotton that was exposed to pesticides and chemically processed, then assembled under questionable labor conditions, is the least sustainable from top to bottom. Even if you can't follow the most ideal model for sourcing and decorating garments right away, you can change the way you run your business and update some of the choices you make. For example, if you can't jump right into PVC-free inks, you can start sourcing sweatshop-free organic T-shirts.

Evolving into a more globally and environmentally conscious type of business is a challenge that starts with the customers. Henry says T.S. Designs has the best luck selling to people who al-ready have some understanding of sustainability. "If we have a customer who is solely interested in price, it's an uphill battle for us to bring them up to speed," he says.

Customer education is more simple when you have a knowledgeable staff. Another way to get the message out is to dedicate a prominent area of your company Website to information about sweatshops and union-backed operations, conventional and organic cottons, and plastisol inks and their alternatives.

"Anything positive is positive," Roth says. "It doesn't have to be perfect. You try to do what you can, then you go a little farther and a little farther. There's a tremendous market for people who want to do the right thing."


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