Why Don’t More Decorators Go Green?


Why don’t more apparel decorators “Go Green”?  …and by “Go Green”, I don’t mean the color of the shirt, thread, or ink.  This isn’t a St. Paddy’s day stunt either.

We live in some interesting times.  Besides the constant product disruption in business, our capitalistic efforts in the last century have put a growing burden on our planet.  In the past few years many corporations have focused their efforts in becoming more environmentally friendly.  Having a strong triple bottom line pays off with shareholders these days.  (social, environmental & financial)

Just plop into any corporate webpage and check out their blog posts, annual reports or sustainability mission statements.  You can see that they are making some valiant efforts in reducing their environmental risk, while building a healthier bottom line.  Not to mention using a sustainable mindset when developing new products for their customers.  Click the links and check these out:




PolyOne – Wilflex 





So if the big boys are interested in this, why doesn’t it trickle down into the smaller company world?  (Meaning – your company to be exact.)  Are people less concerned about the planet?  Are companies less interested in making more money?

Is there any direction for a “sustainable future” for apparel decorators?

I think there is.  However, when I speak to shops about this topic most people either don’t know where to start, or think it is just the domain of larger companies.  “We are too small to make a difference”, they say.

Most companies in our industry segment comprise of firms with less than two hundred people, and under $10 million in sales per year.  In fact, if you attend any trade shows, or discuss customers with the supply chain folks you’ll find that most shops are about twenty or thirty people and about $1 million or less in sales.  Their biggest headaches are all about growth, being eaten alive by the online commerce world, personnel challenges, and for some…just making payroll.

Going green sounds nice, but who needs that extra work?  What’s the payoff anyway?  For a lot of shops just doing anything beyond recycling their soda cans seems like a pipe dream.

Let’s Change That

The benefit of any long term, serious and organized effort with sustainability is always more efficiency (getting more work completed with easier methods), bigger financial rewards (more money at the end of the year), and a competitive advantage (better customers).

Let’s break these down one by one:

More Efficiency

Sustainability is focused on doing more with less.  In the decorated apparel industry what does this actually mean?  More shirts embroidered or printed for less operating costs.  More orders completed per day.  Less downtime.  Better trained staff, using superior tools, producing higher quality work.

That equates to a stronger, more profitable business for you and happier customers in the end.

Picture in your mind your shop floor.  Imagine all the processes needed to produce an order.  Let’s say that a process in a department takes five steps to complete.  If you can figure out how to complete the same process with three steps, then that’s more efficient.  If you remove a consumable, or use less of it, during the process then it becomes cheaper.  If you can handle the same workload, but complete it faster then your efficiency pushes the operating costs even lower.

Less = More

Regardless of the size of your shop, this holds true.  However, most smaller shops are reluctant to start a sustainability program as it seems too daunting, with too little payoff.

The trick is to just get started, and review every step in your business and just simply ask “is there a better way”?  Often, there is a different technique, product, machine, training, method or even employee that can push the limit on the current status quo.  You just have to be comfortable in getting out of your own way and asking “why do we do it this way?”

Why indeed?

For example, let’s look at the new battle that’s going on with film vs computer to screen systems for screen-printing.  I realize these machines are expensive and possibly out of reach for some smaller manual shops…but it is a good topic to review for illustration purposes.  If you are a printer that burns over fifty screens a day, you should seriously consider this equipment, from an efficiency and sustainability point of view.

With film, each separation plate is laboriously printed either on a per sheet or on a roll basis.  The cost just for the film alone is about a dollar a plate on average.  How many screens do you go through a day?  For the sake of argument, let’s say you burn that fifty.  At a dollar each, that’s $250 a week.  That equals $13,000 a year.  Let’s say you add in the labor for the screen room tech to handle and file the films and use them to make the screens with ten minutes per screen at $10 an hour, that’s $1.70 per screen, which equals $85 for the day, $425 for the week, and $22,100 for the year.

$13,000 + $22,100 = $35,100.  That’s a rough guesstimate at what your screen room costs for using film could be.  (You should already know your real cost, but if not simply measure yours to get the exact total: consumables + labor)

If you haven’t been to a trade show or read one of the industry magazines lately, the M&R STE II Computer to Screen system can image and expose a screen in under a minute.  Using LED technology, it is making a tremendous impact on screen rooms all over the world for efficiency.  There are other brands and they are all great too, but none matches this speed and quality.  It’s groundbreaking.  Watch their video of one person coating, imaging,  exposing, and rinsing 400 screens in one eight hour shift – Click Here.

Using CTS, you eliminate the need for films forever.  For our example, that’s $13,000 a year off the top.  For easier math, let’s use 1 minute per screen as our average here, at the same labor rate of $10 per hour.  $0.20 per screen x 50 = $10.  For the week, that’s $50.  Yearly that’s $2,600 for labor.

So if you eliminate the film by going digital, that’s a $13,000 a year on consumable savings, at fifty screens a day.  There is a $19,500 a year labor savings.  Added together that’s $32,500.  Per year.  Which makes the ROI on this about two years.  Then, that money goes to the bottom line forever.

Also, let’s mention that when using a CTS system you can keep a small halftone down to about a 4%-5% range, eliminate moiré completely, avoid that vacuum table step, and set up faster on your presses as each screen is perfectly registered to any others for the design.  With a set up jig like Tri-Loc, you just drop them in and go.

What is your shop production downtime savings worth?  You can add that to the pile of money described above.

This is the cost savings efficiency that sustainable-minded businesses are thinking about when they start their programs and continuously improve them.  Will this be right for your shop?  I don’t know…you’ll have to do the math.  The example above is just in general terms.  And yes, I know that your screen room tech isn’t just going to be working fifty minutes a day with a CTS system…but imagine all the other things they could be doing.  Where could you redeploy that labor and help some other part of the shop?  Think of all the other things that guy could be doing.

Bigger Financial Rewards

So what if you adopted this mindset and pushed it into everything you do?  Sustainability isn’t about just worrying about using an organic cotton blank, but about truly thinking about efficiency and performance.

Companies that comprehend this are experimenting with anything they come across to find out if it might make sense for them.

For example, take a look at a simple product such as masking tape and how it is used in the shop.  How and why are you using it?  Have you ever tried a different brand?  Is one brand easier to apply or take off than another?  Do you even need it in the first place?  What if someone marketed a tape that would dissolve in the reclaiming process, would you buy that instead?  Then, think of the labor your shop could save if you didn’t have to tape screens at all.  There are products on the market now that do that.

Once you start on this journey what you will find is that there is an endless series of questions, that all spawn more questions.  As you are pinballing your way through the discovery for the answers, you’ll unearth some very interesting things about your core operational processes.

Usually “the way we’ve always did it” doesn’t perform as well as “the way it should be done now”.

Want to use a better performing press wash, ink system, thread, equipment, software or other tangible product?  Your supply chain wants you to know that these items are for sale right now.  When was the last time you investigated anything?  I talk to so many shop owners and managers that think that changing anything in their shop won’t make a difference.  They carry a big disbelief about supplier claims.  I get it.  However, you do have the power in your own hands.

Scientifically prove that it is worth it by conducting your own trials.  Most suppliers can give you samples for free.  Benchmark your current state and constantly compare against the new results.  Throw the data on a spreadsheet and graph the results over time if you start using something new.

When costs start dropping and the graph looks like a sinkhole opened up as the line plunges to the bottom of the chart, you’ll soon realize why all the big companies are so interested in sustainability.   It just makes dollars and sense.

Blacken your bottom line not by raising prices on your customers, but by saving money with the tasks you are already doing.

Competitive Advantage

Here’s where the rubber meets the road.  Any shop can recycle their soda cans, or switch out their lighting to LED’s or T8’s.  You can build a program, and just slouch your way through it and say you are “Green”.  Everyone loves a marketing buzzword.  However printing with waterbase inks doesn’t make you green.  Neither does just using a recycled or organic blank.

The strongest printing companies will keep going on their journey and become certified sustainable printers.  The ultimate printing certification is through the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, or SGP.  Shops that get this certification have to prove that they are doing everything right.  Getting the SGP Certification means you aren’t greenwashing.  It proves you are an expert, and you are seriously committed to your sustainability journey.  Getting certified equates to graduating from college.  You’ve earned the pedigree by doing the work and proving you know your stuff.

It also gives you a tremendous marketing tool and an advantage over your competition.

In your marketplace, go to your customer’s websites and also to your main competition’s.  Do they have a sustainability section?  Go to your “dream” customers websites too…you know that one company that you wish that did business with you.  Check to see if they have their sustainability position posted as well.  If they are touting their interest in this area, don’t you think that getting the SGP Certification will align with their corporate interests?  It’s like dating someone and realizing you both like pistachio ice cream and horror movies.  Bingo!  It’s love at first sight.

On a job quoting level, if all things are equal with your competition, but you have the SGP Certification and they don’t, who do you think they are going to want to partner with for a long term relationship?  SGP wins hands down every time.  Because it is proven leverage and a marketplace differentiator.  It demonstrates professionalism and corporate responsibility.  It is the mark of a leader.

Remember “green” is a color.  Sustainability is a direction.  It’s action.  It’s a money-maker.

Getting Started

Here’s the easy part.  If you want to get going with this, it really doesn’t take a tremendous amount of effort or any secret training.  I always advise just getting some key members of your staff together for an hour and discuss the idea.  On a whiteboard, write down all the easy ways your company can do better on the sustainability front.  Score wins with easy victories.

Some examples could be with using energy, such as paying closer attention to the thermostat, installing LED lighting, switching out older appliances for newer energy efficient ones, or even installing motion sensors in common areas like break rooms, bathrooms or supply areas.  Even not just turning on your flash units on press until you need them can save money.  A lot of shop staff members do things from habit, not by need.

You could start a recycling program, and segregate your materials for pick up.  Less items in the dumpster means less pick-ups per week or month.  Some materials that are recyclable can generate money back to you, so that’s a benefit as well.

Also look at your preventative maintenance schedule (uh, you have one, right?) and make sure your equipment is well cared for.  Lots of shops postpone this stuff as they are “too busy”.  However, that hissing noise you are always hearing at your press from the air cylinder leaks is costing you $600 a year in electricity on your air compressor to keep the pressure constant.  It’s even worse when there are multiple leaks.

Sustainability is also about doing things more efficiently.  The products you use in your shop are a good target for research.  Trying to use a better performing ink, maybe a different emulsion EOM, or screen mesh choice so you don’t have to double stroke for opacity is being sustainable.  It’s a results driven, performance focused activity.  Look at the top ten most commonly purchased items in your shop and see if there is a better item available.

The Cost Objection  

One mindset that always comes up is price.  Usually better performing anything costs a little more.  Most of the time it’s worth it.  If you are using the cheapest thread on the market for embroidery for example, and are plagued with constant thread breaks are you really saving any money?  What if you switched to a more expensive, but better made and stronger thread?  How many more runs per day could you get out of your machines?  Don’t let your accounting team control your production decisions.

Performance equals Efficiency which also equals Sustainability.  It’s a golden circle, not green.  That’s what saves you the moola…

For long term success, build the sustainability idea into your staff’s job functions.  After all, performance and saving money should be part of their job descriptions anyway.

If you need help with your program, SGIA has a wonderful work group called the Peer to Peer network that aligns a dozen or so shops together at a time for an hour-long webinar every two weeks.  They delve into one topic a session, and work towards the solution afterwards as homework.  It’s a great way to connect with other shops, and build your sustainability program in a classroom setting.  After completion, you are practically ready for your certification audit.

For more information on the SGIA Peer to Peer Network Click Here.

For more information regarding the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership, Click Here.

“The only thing we know about the future, is that it will be different.” – Peter Drucker

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” – Pat Riley

The War Over Water


It is probably fitting that the term for the sign of a weakness is called an “Achilles Heel” as it matches up wonderfully with an upcoming, unspoken battle facing the decorated apparel industry.  

The war over water.

If you remember your Greek mythology, Achilles was dipped into the river Styx as an infant by his mother Thetis to give him divine protection in battle.  Because she held him by his heel, that was the only part of his body was that wasn’t protected.  Achilles, despite his Brad Pitt good looks,  later died when struck by an arrow in his heel during battle.

For apparel decorators, we’re in the same predicament.  Except, nobody is really talking about our weakness, which like Achilles, is associated with water.  We don’t look like Brad Pitt either.

For most shops, nobody stops to think about how much water plays into your business as we’re already overburdened with orders that have to ship, customer service challenges, employee training and motivation, continuous improvement programs, and a myriad of other things that call for more immediate attention than one sustainability issue.  There just isn’t any top of mind for this.

So why the alarm anyway?

First, let’s take a look at some points to consider.  In America, and also all over the world, we’re seeing huge emphasis placed on restricting the amount of water that can be used every day.  This can be from a weather related condition, over-usage in the community, or other factors.

Our cities have crumbling infrastructure with water pipes that have been buried underneath the ground for so long, the amount of leaks in them is virtually uncountable.  Think about the rate changes and increased fees that have impacted users in Austin, Las Vegas or Atlanta.  Not to mention the elephant in the room in Flint Michigan.  If you live in southern California, I’ll bet you or your state governmental leaders have an opinion too.  Check out this amazing article about the $1.3 billion pipe replacement problem in Los Angeles.  There is even an interactive map that shows where the leaks are in the neighborhoods!

In industrialized nations, freshwater use by industry accounts for about half of the consumption.  How industry uses water is important, as this has a direct effect on the amount of water available for everyone else.  In areas with large agriculture or manufacturing, water can be allocated to these commercial endeavors rather than to people.  That’s the choice that is being made.  Every day.

Have you been affected by water restrictions?

In developing nations, as industry continues to grow, more water will be allocated to support the endeavors, but will there be balance with the water support needed for its population?  Water security is a big deal.  How governments handle water for businesses can have a major impact on your company and there’s not a lot you can do about it.  Not all of your cotton comes from domestic sources.  Mining for the minerals that are used as the basis for pigments can use water too.  What happens to our supply chain when a country chooses to divert water for industry to water for their people?

Which is more important?

There isn’t enough water to go around sometimes.  We have a supply and demand economy.  The cost of water is going to skyrocket soon, if it hasn’t already in your area.  For some, the cost of water is expected to outpace the cost of inflation.

To make this even more difficult, one of the biggest factors in the challenge is the increased cost of treating wastewater, so we can reintroduce the water back into circulation for use.  The wastewater from industry is constantly being loaded with pollutants such as heavy metals, nutrients, pathogens, and also organic and inorganic materials.  Couple that with all of the material that is sent down the drain from household use and also stormwater runoff, and it’s a complex problem to sort out.

There is an enormous cost to filter all of that out and get the water back to a more natural, usable condition.  As this cost continues to rise, so will the cost of available water.

Water in Our Industry

Let’s look at what we use for our go-to platform for decoration.  The cotton t-shirt.  Here’s a term I want you to learn today, and that is “Virtual Water”.  This is the amount of water needed to produce something, even if the final product doesn’t resemble water in any way.

For a t-shirt it takes 713 gallons (2,700 liters) of water to grow enough cotton to make a single t-shirt.  How many cotton shirts do you decorate a day?  Multiply that by 713.  That’s how much water was used just to grow that cotton for your daily production output.

That’s a big number.  For comparison, it takes about 2,500,000 gallons of water to fill an Olympic size swimming pool.  For fun, calculate how many shirts you decorate a year versus how many swimming pools you could fill with that water.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Don’t forget it still takes more water to dye the shirt or apply rinses, and water is used to cool the power plants that make our energy.  In our shops, water is used for reclaiming and rinsing screens after exposure.  Let’s not forget that whether that shirt was printed or embroidered, up to forty gallons of water is used each time someone does the laundry.

Water is directly linked to our industry.  From cradle to grave, and in multiple aspects.

Shouldn’t we then be more responsible for how we use water?  Where is the discussion?  I just don’t see it.  Some companies though sell equipment or are offering products that directly align with this water issue.  Do you use them?

For example, M&R has a screen washout booth called the Eco-Rinse that recirculates the water in a tank, rather than using new water for each screen for rinsing like you might with a water power washer.  Kiwo has been marketing the Grunig G-Wash 133 Screen-Reclaim System with a water filtration tank that has a series of filters to remove debris and solids before they go down the drain. Rhinotech has a good quality filtration system and pump, the M10, that you can add to your washout booth too.  Franmar has long since marketed its drain-safe screen cleaners, and recently changed the name of their line.  These are but a few of the products in our industry that you could be using.  Have you considered them or others?  Does our supply chain offer good leadership on this topic?

On the apparel blank front, cotton growers all over the world have been experimenting with crops that use less water, and are seeing good results.  There are organizations like The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) that are promoting improved agricultural methods worldwide.  The goal is to grow cotton that uses less water and pesticides, while producing better yielding crops.  For our industry’s sake, let’s hope positive progress continues to be made.

Both Nike and adidas have developed methods of dying garments that use super-heated CO2 instead of water.  This minimizes the impact that water has on the manufacturing of the shirt, and also uses less energy as well.  A long list of textile manufacturers has even adopted a new global strategy to minimize the impact of wastewater discharge called the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals.  The stated goal of the ZDHC is to have the apparel and footwear industry’s supply chain have zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.  Love this.  Who else has signed up?

Are the garment manufacturers in our industry keeping abreast with this issue too?  Ask your clothing line rep the next time they stop and unload their virtual showroom for your shop.  How is water used with their apparel line manufacturing?  Are they members of ZDHC?  Could our industry adopt a better strategy with some sourcing labeling or tracking?  Unfortunately, if past history is any indication, unless the folks that buy the products ask for change it may be slow coming.

But what does all this mean to your average apparel decorator?  Here are some thoughts and tips:

  • Anticipate that your water bill is going to continue to climb.  This includes your wastewater and sewer if you are billed separately with a fee.  In some areas you may see added fees based on water consumption.  Utility companies are struggling with keeping up with the infrastructure changes needed.  Consumers will be paying for these improvements.  That means you.
  • Your shop could see more frequent inspections or audits.  If you service bigger brands and do social and safety compliance audits, water use may be on the list of things the auditor inquires about.  Be prepared.  In your area, companies that send contaminants down the drain could be targeted.  It’s easier to treat the wastewater if there are less contaminants involved, so there could be more policing on that front.  Know your products that you are using by reviewing the SDS sheets, and try to find safer and less toxic consumables.  If you don’t have one already, consider getting a filtration system for your reclaim area.  You can also have your shop’s drain effluent privately tested.  You can Google firms in your area that do this.  It’s good to have the documentation available, and it’s relatively not that expensive to do compared to the cost of an OSHA or other governmental agency fine.
  • Remember, waterbased inks are not necessarily drain safe.  Make sure you handle any consumables as directed by the SDS sheets, and your local and state regulations.  Your drain is not for dumping.  Dispose of materials properly.  Make sure you train your staff that handles materials before they do anything stupid.
  • As the war with water continues, plant based apparel that uses water could be affected, especially if there are significant drought occurrences with crops.  Recycled content and synthetic fibers will continue to be added to stretch out the composition of garments.  This means you’ll be decorating more cotton blends or 100% polyester.  If you haven’t mastered decorating on this type of apparel, you’ll need to increase your knowledge.
  • More companies will continue to place emphasis on how their materials are grown or sourced.  From companies like Patagonia and Levi’s to smaller firms like Cotton of the Carolinas, where consumers can track where the cotton for their shirt is sourced, this is a newer trend that has legs.  Like restaurants promoting farm to table, retailers may be soon marketing the origins of the materials of the products, and how they were grown.  How could you do something like this to become a market differentiator in your area?  It pays to be a winner.
  • Depending on where your shop is located, you could see water use restrictions or governance at times.  Investing in recirculating systems for washing your screens out could make a logical choice for smoother and a more cost effective operation.  Filtration systems in some areas are already mandatory, and this trend will just continue as cities or states pass legislation or regulations requiring them.
  • The impact to this issue with your business may seem miniscule; however if everyone sees this as a no-win scenario nothing will ever improve.  Do your part by looking at the chemicals you use, how you use water in your facility in your process, even how you landscape and treat the plants around your building.  The US Environmental Protection Agency has a great program called WaterSense that may help you sort out any questions or challenges you may have with your shop. 
  • Embroiderers aren’t off the hook either.  How many cotton sportshirts, jackets or hoodies are you branding a year?  What happens to your sales when there is a spike in the cost of cotton due to water issues or drought?  Find and offer alternative garment choices and be prepared.
  • If you are concerned about how your shop handles compliance issues and want to be sure you are doing all you can, SGIA has a great compliance tool for members called the SGIA Environmental Self Audit that you can take to ensure you are up to current standards.  Click Here for more information.
  • Don’t think you can make a difference or things like this don’t matter?  Big brands and other buyers will be looking for companies that handle sustainability issues as part of their everyday business plan.  Growing your sales by leveraging your sustainability initiatives is smart business.  You can make a difference by becoming a Sustainable Green Printing Partnership certified printer or patron.  Click here for more information.  

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends have become global garbage cans.” – Jacques Yves Cousteau

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” – Leonardo da Vinci

“You don’t drown by falling into water.  You only drown if you stay there.” – Zig Ziglar



Waypoints on a Sustainability Journey

VI Green Tier Marshall Atkinson with GT Certificate

Frequent readers will know that I have a passion for sustainability in business.  It’s not an earth-crunchy, Birkenstock, hippie thing for me.  It’s all about business.  How did I get here though, and why do I want others to drink that same Kool-Aid?  Let’s look at what just happened, and then take a few steps backwards and see.

This past week Visual Impressions was honored to be the first company in the state of Wisconsin to be named a Wisconsin Green Tier company through a new alliance with the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP).  This is truly a remarkable event because the state is accepting the SGP certification credentials as evidence of performance to enroll us into their program.

It’s essentially a 2 for 1 sale on certifications.  Who wouldn’t love that?

This is a big deal for our team, as our hard work and leadership were recognized and validated by the our community.  It’s an awesome feeling.  We celebrated the historic charter signing with members from the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), Printing Industries Association (PIA), the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), the Great Lakes Graphic Association (GLGA), and of course, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who champions the Green Tier program.   Present was a fantastic mix also of customers, suppliers, and other interested parties to help celebrate.  As you can see in the picture above, I’m a pretty happy guy.  Proud of my team that’s for sure, as they do all the heavy lifting.

So looking back, how did we get here?

I have never subscribed to the notion that “things happen for a reason”, but maybe I should.  I got interested in sustainability really by a fluke choice I made about eight years ago.  In Atlanta for the SGIA Expo, I attended an hour long session on sustainability that was hosted by Marci Kinter.  I was just promoted to Vice President of Operations (meaning you have to run things, solve problems and save money doing it) from being the Art Director (meaning you create awesomeness)…and I was looking for ways that I could make that company stronger.  That discussion about sustainability and a new program called the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership had a dramatic impact on my operational thinking.

I found a direction.

Printing companies are a lot like manufacturers in that they take something, work their magic, and produce something else that ships out to the customer.  Regardless of your substrate, printing techniques, or customer base; there is a process involved that has a start, a middle and an end.

The notion of sustainability for print shops, takes that process and examines the best practices to increase efficiency, training programs to make your employees stronger, performance studies to find better consumables and equipment, and a closer look at the facilities that we perform in daily.  There are a million questions that have to be asked and answered, and in so doing we find a better way.

I was hooked.

That first year I saved that company a little over $56,000 focusing in energy savings alone.  Not bad for a beginning effort, and I directed them to become the first t-shirt printing company to earn the SGP Certification.  (they’ve since let it lapse)

I left that company in 2010, and when I made my way up to Milwaukee Wisconsin in 2011 to become the COO of Visual Impressions I knew that a sustainability program had to become one of the keystones of my efforts to improve the company.  The owners, Jay Berman & Todd Richheimer, agreed.

We started our journey there by forming a Sustainability Committee in early 2012, and took our first baby steps towards obtaining the highly coveted sustainability certification through SGP.  The committee started strong and included decisions of what we were going to focus on the first year and writing a Mission Statement that would guide our efforts and business practices from then on.  (Ready, Aim, Fire.)

One of the invaluable tools was participating in the Peer to Peer group that SGIA offers.  This is a wonderful, information packed webinar program that essentially walks you through every detail of getting a sustainability program up and running.  Think of it as a class that meets every other week.  A few months later, your company is ready to start the certification process.  It’s that good.

Visual Impressions goal that first year in 2012 while we were working on our SGP certification was to save 20% on our energy expenses.  This was a bold goal for us, as we are in a 100,000 square foot building and we operate on two shifts.  Our committee looked for ways to save energy by examining the “how” and “why” we were consuming it.  We noticed that nobody turned off the lights in the break rooms, supply rooms or bathrooms, so we installed motion detector light switches.  Our team fixed air leaks on equipment to lower demand on our air compressor.  The floor managers turned off fans, equipment or devices that weren’t in use.  Those baby steps just examined the simple ways we could save money.

We signed up for an energy audit through our local utility company, and they provided us with a report on our energy consumption and usage.  They also offered some tips on how we could reduce our demand.

One of the best tools I created was a spreadsheet that charted our energy metrics from our bills.  Since we are a multi-faceted contract apparel decorating shop, (screen-printing, digital printing & embroidery) everything we produce can be considered an “impression” and that equates to a unit of work you can use to measure against.  If you decorate a front and back of a shirt, that’s two impressions.   I put past month’s totals from the invoices and coupled with totals of our output per month, I normalized the energy cost as a “cost per impression”.  This is important, as when you are busier you are going to use more energy.  Increasing your efficiency, while taking active steps to lower some consumption in areas will decrease your cost per impression.  This isn’t what a real job costs for energy…but just a number to measure things by and get some sense as to if improvements were working.

If you want a blank Energy Usage template to use for your shop, click here.

I collected other data points and took a snapshot of the company.  2011 is the baseline we measure against as that was just business as usual, without sustainability entering into the mix.  I also normalized all of our controllable expenses (consumables such as thread, ink, solvents, boxes, tape, emulsion, etc.), energy expenses (electricity, natural gas, water, & propane) and other expenses (waste removal, courier, recycling savings) and put this onto a spreadsheet where I could get a total “cost per impressions” and a “cost per order”.

If you want a blank Shop Consumables template to use for your shop, click here.

These were important learning steps that first year.  We wrote policies and procedures, established our management systems, and started employee training programs.  It was a lot of work, but well worth it as our costs dropped and we began to see some real tangible results.  We fell short of saving 20% on our energy costs…but not by much.  At the end of the year the total was 17.82%.

One of the best things about starting your sustainability journey is that as you progress, you’ll find yourself constantly looking at all of our processes, equipment and consumables and wondering if there is a better something out there.  To this day, we’re constantly striving for “better” in every facet of the company.

The next year in 2013 our continuous improvement project was to start a recycling program.  After a few months of interviewing partners that could help us achieve our goal, we found Pioneer Industries.  Our program came fully online in March of 2013, and since then we have recycled over 91 tons of mixed paper, cardboard, plastic and metal.  That was all going to landfill before, so this is a significant improvement.  Because of recycling we’ve reduced our trash pick ups from three eight yard dumpsters a week to two.  If we could find a way to successfully recycle the embroidery stabilizer material, we probably could get that down to one dumpster a week.

That same spring we achieved our Sustainable Green Printing Partnership certification.  This involved having an auditor come out to the facility and tour the plant for two days.  He interviewed our staff, reviewed our programs and policies, examined our workflow and consumables, and basically poked and prodded every nook and cranny in the building.  It is fairly intense, but well worth it.  The good thing is that we were ready for the audit and passed with flying colors.

As scary as having an auditor come to your facility sounds, this is what gives the SGP certification it’s meaning, and basically it’s teeth.  Anyone can claim that they are green.  The audit process is what proves it.

So what does achieving certification mean for your company?  Not much if you just let it sit there like a day old doughnut.  However, if you leverage your work you can make it part of our overall marketing campaign it becomes a market differentiator.  

Locally we participated in two programs sponsored by the city of Milwaukee.  The ME2 and ME3 programs gave us a total of $100,000 in grant money for research and also contributed to the purchase of a Kornit Avalanche direct to garment printer.  Many people wrongly assume that a sustainability program costs you money.  Here’s proof that it makes you more competitive.  Check out this great video that featured Visual Impressions – click here.

In 2013 we were also named a Wisconsin Green Professional company by the Wisconsin Sustainability Council, and also nominated for Manufacturer of the Year in the small business category.  People start to take notice when you aren’t just like everyone else.

Our continuous improvement project for 2014 was to start trying to recycle the embroidery pellon material.  Although we still haven’t solved this problem, we made significant progress and work in learning about this step.  We even had a University of Wisconsin business school class tackle it as a research project.  Read about their efforts here.

In 2014 we resolved a huge workflow challenge with the addition of a Grunig 130 automatic screen washer for our reclaiming needs.  We cycle through about 250 screens a day, and this device saves an incredible amount of time, labor and consumables.  Previously, we used a small cabinet washer and a dip tank.  The Grunig is basically a car wash for screens.  Load them on one end dirty, they come out clean on the other.  This device has a dramatic effect on the cost of reclaiming our screens.

All along we’re still plugging away with our sustainability efforts.  We’ve switched a few products and added some better ones.

One item that’s made a huge difference is the Ozzy Clean Bioremediation unit for cleaning squeegees and flood-bars.  Previously, we used a standard parts washer that you can get serviced locally that uses Petroleum Naphtha solvent, which has to be cycled out and carted off for disposal.  The Ozzy Clean system uses microbes suspended in a heated fluid to eat the plastisol ink that you wash off of the items.  The only by-product is water and CO2.  The microbes are the same as the ones they use to clean up oil spills in the ocean.   This system works so well, that we now have three on our floor (we have 13 automatic presses so we want the work to be easy for the crews).  This system dramatically lowers your VOCs and costs.

Since our standard screen frame is a static 23” x 31” aluminum one, we’ve moved to getting it with a special caulking system on the inside of the frame.  This allows us to not have to mask off the inside of the frame to prevent ink from seeping into the joint where the mesh and the frame meet.  We’re saving a considerable amount of labor in taping screens off, removing the tape…as well all those rolls of tape.  Our screen remeshing and this system is outsourced to Graphic Screen Fashion down in Chicago.

Finishing 2014, we were again named a Wisconsin Green Professional company, and also nominated for Manufacturer of the Year in the small business category.  We are still defining our leadership and working on improvement, but it’s great when other entities recognize your efforts.

For 2015, our goal has been to revamp our recycling program, as we’re segregating so much material it was getting out of hand on our floor space.  We worked with our partner, Pioneer Industries, and resolved how we are staging our gaylords, adopted every other week pick up, and moved to starting to use our compactor for cardboard again.  This saves on floor space and labor to handle the program as we’re touching things less.  We’ve also continued our practice of recycling other materials such as outdated computers, light bulbs, waste ink, scrap wood, and anything else we can move to an alternate use.

One of our sustainability committee members (Ashlee our Purchasing Manager) championed planting a vegetable garden.  This was put together in a green space next to the building, and constructed out of junk shipping pallets.  We’re growing tomatoes, several types of peppers, kale, zucchini, and squash.  It’s delicious!

Our air compressor vendor, Ingersoll Rand, helped us complete an air compressor leak survey this year too.  In about two hours, they found 27 leaks in our building that cost us an estimated $4,400 a year in electrical energy as the leaks put more strain on the compressor to keep up.  We’ve fixed the leaks.  The survey cost $500, but we were able to get a grant for $300 from our local utility company.  Not a bad deal at all.

We were also reaudited by SGP again last spring, as one of the requirements is that you have to be audited every two years for compliance.  One of the wonderful things to come out of that was that we had the same auditor do the work as the first time we were inspected.  He was really surprised and happy to see the significant improvements we’ve accomplished since he was here in 2013.  When a professional expert is impressed, you know you are on the right track.

One good thing to come out of all of our efforts for 2015, is that we are going to be named a Green Master company later this year, as we have accrued enough points.  This is a significant achievement, and places Visual Impressions on the upper echelon of sustainable operating companies in the state of Wisconsin.

So, what’s the point of all this chest thumping rear view mirror glance at our program?  Just to make a point.

In 2012, we weren’t doing anything.  

Three years later, we’re being recognized not only statewide, but nationally as a leader in our industry for our efforts.  Look at your own company.  A lot of people think that sustainability costs you money.  That it isn’t worth the effort.  That nobody really cares.  

The fact is that we’ve saved a huge pile of money, been handed gigantic checks to help purchase equipment,  increased our overall effectiveness and efficiency, solved problems for customers, achieved recognition, and had fun doing it.

When are you starting your journey?

Stepping Over a Duffel Bag Full of Money


Here’s a mental picture for you.  Imagine a big, black duffel bag crammed full of money sitting squarely on your shop floor.  Everyone in your company, including you, walks around this bag of money all day.  Every day.  Yesterday.  Tomorrow.  Wednesday of next week.  Nobody ever stops to pick it up.  “It’s too much work.”, is what everyone says.  “I’d like to pick it up, but I’m too busy.”, is another.  “I’m not working on that…orders have to ship!”

So that bag of money just sits there.  Waiting.

Singles, fives, tens and twenties.  A few nice fat rolls of hundreds all rubber banded together.  It is really heavy, but you wouldn’t know as you don’t stop to try to lift it.  How much money is in there I wonder?  It’s going to take two hands to lift that bag and when you do it’s going to look like you just robbed a bank.

Intrigued yet?  Do you want the money?  Some shop owners have picked it up.  They’ve unzipped that bag and showered their shop in greenbacks and used the money to reinvest in new equipment or even just a nicer bottom line at the end of the year.  Make it rain!  Wahoo!

So what am I talking about?  Can you guess?

Sustainability of course.  Frequent readers will know that this is one of my pet topics.  (There he goes again!)  There’s a good reason.  I’ve been picking up that bag of money for years.  I know exactly the effort it takes to lift that bag.  

Oh, and the greatest thing about that bag?  It replenishes itself.  It’s like a money tree.  We harvest that money constantly.  In fact, the more that you do to work for that bag, the bigger the bag you’ll need to contain all the money.  Dollar bills on the floor get messy.  Pick ‘em up!

What do you think?  Are you interested in learning how?  If so, read on!  If not, I guess you can go back to posting food pics on Facebook.  Everyone there is just waiting on the edge of their seat to see another camera phone photo of your dinner.  Oh look, lasagna with house grown herbs.  Nice.

Learn the Dance

Starting a Sustainability Program is easy.  Keeping at it is the hard part.  Like anything, there are some basics things you are going to have to learn.  They are like dance steps.  Step, step, step, twist, turn, step.  Cha-cha-cha.  You are dancing.  Here are the basic moves you’ll need to make before you can make that cash grab:

Step One: Get a Committee Together

Some projects you just can’t do by yourself and this is one of them; assuming of course it isn’t just you and your dog in your shop…  To make any Sustainability Program really work, it’s going to take some good discussions about what’s important to your company.  It’s going to be a debate.  What do we want to do?  What is important?  What is easy?  What will we need some help with figuring out?

This means you’ll need upper management or the owner’s support, and the accounting department involved as someone has to count that duffel bag.  A department head or two is good, but if you can get some regular production folks from the floor involved that’s fantastic.  These will be the people who will have to implement whatever policy or program you invent, so it’s good to get their input on it from the beginning.  This committee will be your core team to write policy and procedures, to delegate tasks that need to get handled, and to investigate and research your interests to find out how to do something.  Remember the old adage, “Man supports what he helps create.”  The more people you get involved with your program, the more people will help you push for success later.

Step Two: Decide on What’s Important

This is going to be a good discussion and it might last a few meetings.  Why are you implementing a Sustainability Program, and what’s important to you?  What are some of the low hanging fruit that you can get some immediate success with and build momentum?  You don’t have to narrow it down to one thing.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but decide on a direction and start the journey.  Don’t be afraid to fail either.  Starting from scratch, you are going to bump along and make plenty of mistakes.  It’s ok.  The best part?  You will learn from them and move in a different direction.

Your committee should decide and set a SMART goal for each thing you want to try.  If you don’t know, a SMART goal stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.  Saying you want to reduce your energy bill isn’t a SMART goal.  True, it is a goal, but it isn’t defined enough.

Writing down that you are going to reduce your energy costs by 20% by the end of the year, and then listing all of the methods you are going to implement to achieve the goal, how you are going to track your effort, who is responsible for certain tasks; that’s setting a SMART goal.  Get it all down on paper.  Study it.  Refine it.  Make people accountable for actionable items.  Make it public to your company so everyone knows what you are trying to achieve.  Bring in their ideas, and train people on how they can help.

If your goal is important to you, it’s going to have to be important to everyone in the company.  Make it a big deal.  Celebrate it.  Own it.

Step Three: Start with Benchmarking

To get started, measure where you are now.  This is the hard and boring part, but incredibly important.  Trust me, I hate math too.  (I am an artist in my heart after all – wrong side of the brain for math)

Dig up all of the invoices for the last few years from your utility companies, waste disposal companies, and any consumables you use.  Consumables being ink, chemicals, boxes, tape, emulsion, thread, pellon, etc.  Everything it takes to decorate a shirt. I like to divide these up into two spreadsheets.  The first one is just about energy consumption, the second is for the consumables.  Breaking these down into chunks you can see helps determine where you have been, but more importantly gives you an idea if the changes you will be making are working or not.

For a pre-formulated Excel Spreadsheet for your Utilities click here.

Enter your monthly utility information for a few years back, as well as your current totals.  For costs, I use the total amount on the invoice, taxes, fees and other charges.  Also for each month, add up and enter the total amount of impressions you completed on orders in the appropriate cell.  Remember, a front print and a back print will equal two impressions.  This isn’t the total shirts decorated, but total impressions produced.  Embroidery, digital or screen-printed…it doesn’t matter.  Whatever you produced goes in this cell.  With all the information for each month, you can calculate what it really costs you to produce anything in your shop from an energy standpoint.  Do you have this figure calculated in your overhead when you quote jobs?  Is this figure larger or smaller than you thought it would be?  How would reducing this dollar amount affect your bottom line?

For a pre-formulated Excel Spreadsheet for your Consumables click here.

This one is a little more complicated.  Change the vendor names at the top, and add in the total spent for each year for each vendor.  Enter your other information too, so the spreadsheet calculates correctly.  Total number of orders, impressions, dollar amount spent on utilities, garbage and also any money saved on recycling (that gets deducted)  The spreadsheet will automatically add everything up and give you an average cost per order and an average cost per impression.  Is this figure larger or smaller than you thought it would be?  What vendor do you spend the most money with per year?  What do you think they can do to help you achieve any sustainability goals?  Check out the cost per order and cost per impression totals for each year.  That’s what you have spent and what you are currently spending.  Is this more or less than what you thought it was going to be?

For the majority of shops this is going to be new information.  Over the years, I’ve spoken with hundreds of shop owners and production managers and these two items are almost never calculated.  It’s crucial and valuable information.  As time moves on, keep adding the information to the spreadsheets.  Compare to past history.  As you lower your operating costs, increase efficiency and workflow, and make changes you can track your progress.  If you are making a positive difference you’ll start to see your cost per impression drop.  It’s going to fluctuate.  Some months, it might even go up.  Why is the question you want to be asking.   Also, if you are top of things it may even start some new conversations about other areas of opportunity you can try.  Remember, this is a journey not a race so there’s no end point.

Twist and Shout: The Pirate Move

Sustainability is famous for the three “R’s”.  Which to me, always sounds like what a pirate might say.  aRRR.  (just for fun, say it out loud right now – aRRR!!)  Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.  These three concepts are the building blocks for any Sustainability Program.  Let’s explore, matey.

Reduce means exactly that.  For energy consumption, can you just simply use less?  Maybe installing a programmable thermostat in the office so you don’t have a war over what the temperature the controls are set on could be a good place to start.  Turning off equipment, using software to power down computers at night or when not in use.  Properly maintaining equipment, so they don’t work as hard for the same production result.  Adding best practices to how you use flash cure units on the shop floor.  There are probably hundreds of things you can do in your shop to reduce your energy.  Get your committee together and make a list, I’ll bet you can come up with a long one very quickly.  Use a whiteboard and leave it up.  Add to it over a few days.

For consumables, this might mean sourcing or trying out new products or techniques to see if they are a good fit.  Ask why a lot.  Why are we using this product?  Have we ever tried anything else?  What’s on the market?  Ask your suppliers for help.  Go to a trade show.  Even changing one thing can make a huge difference.  Test things out in real world scenarios.  A good many suppliers can give you a sample for free or reduced cost.

Reduce also means determining if you are using your supplies properly.  Are you following best practices?  Are your employees doing what they are supposed to be doing in production?  For example, instead of using the properly tensioned screens with the correct mesh, your shop band-aids a print problem by double stroking the underbase screen, or even adding a second screen to the print.  That’s twice the screens, and twice the ink needed for that one job.  Not a big deal, until you add that up over the course of a long print run, or even production for the entire year.  Ask why!  Work backwards to determine why that’s acceptable and make the change to eliminate those cover-up decisions that your production crew will make just to get the job out the door.  Best practices are exactly that.

Reuse is all about repurposing existing materials to extend their natural life.  Then you don’t have to purchase new stuff.  Reusing emulsion drums for garbage cans, defective or misprinted t-shirts for rags, cardboard boxes, even the clear bags that Gildan t-shirts come in when you order a case of t-shirts.  Reuse as much as you can, and that’s less stuff you’ll have to buy later.

It also could be saving screens for a longer period of time in case there’s a reorder, so you don’t have to reburn them.  Maybe you are constantly printing the same designs for a client every week.  Get a rack by your press so you can store them close by and the screens will be conveniently staged where you need them when that reorder comes in.

Recycling is a clear choice as maybe you already do that at home.  What about in your business?  In your shop you probably have more items that you can recycle.  Soda cans and plastic water bottles are obvious, but other things might include: computers, batteries, hydraulic fluid, fluorescent light bulbs, polybag remnants, paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, wood pallets, etc.  Your area or municipality might have a recycling program that you can take advantage of, or you may need to find a local recycling business to partner with you for your program.  Sometimes this can be really tough to find the right partner, but stick with it.

For everything that you can recycle, that’s less material that has to go landfill.  This means that you can reduce your waste disposal in your dumpster, and that’s a great easy way to start saving some money.  Be sure to track that.

In some cases you can get money back for your material too, especially if you compact it.  Recycling payouts are calculated on what the material is worth and vary with how it is transported.  Loose material pays less than tightly compacted material as there’s less going on the truck for the same trip.

Turn Around: Save Some Money by Changing Something

When you stand in the middle of your shop and look at all of the materials needed to keep it running, do you ever ask why you are using anything?  I think a lot of people just start using one brand or item and don’t ever change because they don’t have time to ask if there’s something better on the market.

Part of any sustainability discussion has to include something about performance.  Sometimes the cheaper item actually costs you more in the long run as you have to use more of it to get the same result.  For example, I did a test on shrink-wrap that we use to secure skids of boxes for shipping.  Previously, the shrink-wrap that we sourced was probably the cheapest on the market.  It was so flimsy that we had to wrap the skid two or three times to mummify it so the load would not shift during transport.  With the help of our supplier, we found a thicker shrink-wrap that has some extra stretch in it.  When wrapping the skid we can pull it tight around the corners and only go once around the skid.  We’re using less shrink-wrap, saving time and labor doing the work, and actually saving money even with a more expensive item per unit.  Performance counts.

That’s just one example.  We have completed the same experiment with all kinds of supplies over the last few years to see what works best for us and how it compares to the current item.  Also, as I’m sure any warehouse club shoppers already know, buying in bulk saves you money.  Track what you buy on an annual basis for commonly used items.  Instead of buying a one gallon of something does it makes sense to buy it in a five gallon bucket or maybe a 30 gallon drum?  Look as the savings.  Of course you don’t want to tie up a bunch of money buying a year’s worth of stuff if you don’t really go through it that fast…so probably three months worth is a good place to start.  Keep track of your usage.

Step Four: Involve Others

Once you start on your journey be sure to heavily involve other people.  Your staff probably has great ideas if you just talk to them.  Ask them questions and get feedback.  It’s pretty simple really, but you would be surprised at how infrequently shop owners or key managers actually talk to their employees about their work and ask for opinions on how to make something better.  Best practices will always drive efficiency.  The more you produce during the day with the same equipment, the same energy, the same people…that’s more production that is sustainable.  Doing more with less is what you are shooting for right?

Don’t stop with talking to your employees either.  Be sure to ask your suppliers how they can help, and do some online research too.  Are there any new techniques, products or equipment on the market that could help you drive sustainable efficiency?  Go to trade shows.  Network with other decorators.   Upgrading your equipment or adding a new machine to your line-up could save you money in the long run.  Do the math.  What is your current production rate with a particular process or machine?  Is there something newer that performs better?  Will it use less consumables?  Less labor?  Less energy? Compare your current state to the numbers for something new.  You might be surprised.

Also, be sure to research in your area to see what local help you can get for sustainability.  As apparel decorators, we are part of the manufacturing sector.  There is plenty of low-interest loans or grant money available from your city, state or federal government to help with sustainability or manufacturing competitiveness challenges.  You can get money for lighting make-overs, air compressor leak surveys, solar panels, and even equipment upgrades.  In the past few years I’ve taken advantage of that and have obtained over $100,000 in grant money for projects for Visual Impressions.  Some of it was training and research, but $85,000 of that was a grant that helped us purchase a Kornit Avalanche direct to garment printer.  That’s a pretty nice coupon to clip.  Yep, more money stuffed into that duffel bag.

Cha-Cha-Cha – Sustainability Certification

If what you’ve read sounds like it could work in your shop and you are interested in getting a sustainability program going, why not take that interest one step further?  SGIA has a wonderful help group called the Peer to Peer Network.  This is a group of printers just like you that are starting out on their sustainability journey.  Every two weeks for an hour a different topic about sustainability is explored.  One week it could be lowering VOC’s, the next it could be how to measure your carbon footprint or reduce your energy consumption.  It’s like shop therapy with the goal to build better companies.  Usually there are six to ten companies participating at one time, and plenty of opportunities to share notes and experiences they have had with their shop struggles.  If there’s one thing that I would say that could help your shop get a program going this would be it.  To learn more about the Peer to Peer Network group click here. 

After you have had some success with sustainability and have reaped some benefits from your program, you might want to look into getting a sustainability certification for your shop.  Why would you want to do this?  It’s an easy decision.  It essentially takes the shop’s sustainability effort that’s a defensive money-saving measure, and turns it into a shop’s offensive marketing effort.  Having a third-party audited sustainability certification means you can leverage your effort and market it as a shop differentiator.  All of your hard work pays off as you are now at the top of the mountain, and it’s one more thing that proves you are better than other shops.  These days corporations, municipalities, government agencies, and retail brands are all searching for sustainable partners to help green up their supply chain.  Frankly there are not many choices out there for partners for them, so it’s an easy sell when you have that certification.

That’s what the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership is all about.  Getting your shop certified to help you succeed in a crowded marketplace.  That certification is going to open up opportunities that did not exist before.  It’s going to cement stronger relationships with your current customers.  For more information about SGP click here.  If you are interested in getting this certification and have questions, I’d love to help you with your program.  Ask me.

Quick Tips:

Get an energy audit from your local utility company.  They will send out an auditor to review your shop.  Poking around your building, looking at your HVAC, measuring your heat or AC loss from your windows, or how hot your air compressor gets, or how tight your loading dock seals are, everything and anything they can find…it all adds up to a great report that you can use as a grocery list to get started.  These guys are the experts, and usually this is offered for free.  Why not take advantage of this?

Start measuring and timing processes in your shop.  How long does something take to do?  Why are you doing it that way?  Is there a product on the market that can eliminate a step or save you money by using less of a product?  For example, we use static aluminum frames for our screen printing and used to apply masking tape to the inside of the screen where the mesh joins the frame to prevent ink from getting in the grooves for quicker clean up.  Someone had to tape up the screens and after printing someone has to take the tape off.  We found a source to supply us with a frame system that has a special caulk in that groove where the mesh meets the frame and we have eliminated using masking tape altogether.  For a busy shop like Visual Impressions, as we go through 200-250 screens a day, that’s about $7,000 a year in masking tape that we don’t have to spend.  Not to mention the labor savings of applying and removing all that tape.

Look to buy local if you can.  Not only does this save on shipping and carbon emissions for freight, but it’s often cheaper.  We found a source to blend the press wash we use locally and reduced the cost by almost 50% from the previous vendor that was out-of-state.

Keep your ear to the ground for new technologies.  We have starting using a new process called bioremediation to clean our squeegees and floodbars.  We have three of these closed loop wash stations in our shop that use tiny microbes to eat the leftover ink from our equipment when cleaned.  The microbes really do the trick, and the only by-product is water and some CO2.  Who knew science was so cool?

We’re still on the hunt for a better way to use embroidery stabilizer (or pellon if you prefer).  I’ve been researching and talking to people in all different industries about how we can recycle this leftover material.  We are currently trying out a new product that might help, so stay tuned to see the results!  For more information on this challenge check out this article I wrote a while back.  Click here.

Need some help with your sustainability program?  Let me help you!  Shoot me an e-mail at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s work together.

Check out these videos:

Return on Investment: Energy Efficiencies 

E3 Project Spotlight: Milwaukee Wisconsin – video highlighting Visual Impressions sustainability efforts 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: The Importance of Certification

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Recycling Waste in Your Facility

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Engaging Your Customers 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Commitment to Continuous Improvement 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Strengthening Your Processes 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Understanding the Benefits of Certification

TedX – Social Entrepreneurship and Sustainability 

What Would You Say?

PolyOne Wilflex - Marshall Atkinson

If they were all in one room, what would you say if you could gather up a bunch of the leading ink, chemical, screen mesh, equipment and supply distributors for the decorated apparel industry?  Would you share all of your thoughts and opinions?

Well, that just happened to me!

Recently I was honored to address a group of the leading suppliers in our industry at a special meeting in Atlanta.  It was a wonderful event, and I was extremely happy to give the keynote address.  My speech revolved around sustainability, and the future of the decorated apparel industry as a whole.  The entire talk was positioned from the printer’s perspective, and was based on linking shop success with ideas and innovations from our supply chain.

Here’s the list of challenges I presented to the group to understand things better from our point of view as decorators.  Which of these is most crucial for your shop?

More Output with Less Labor – As any business will tell you, labor is the number one expense that has to be controlled.  Shops are constantly looking for ways to produce more with less labor dollars tied to the effort.  As suppliers, when they think of their product, can it solve this dilemma?  Will it make the shop more efficient labor-wise and help us produce more finished shirts at the end of the day with less people working on the order?  If something used to have five steps to complete, can we now do it with three?  How can we get the same result, but touch things less during the process?  Is it a new gizmo, technique or process?  If it does solve this challenge, can you demonstrate or show us to prove it?

Better Consumables – Consumables are all the products we use daily in our shops.  Ink, emulsion, mesh, solvents, tape, boxes, thread, pellon, chemicals, shrink-wrap, glue and everything else, it’s all the stuff we constantly churn through daily.  Shops constantly buy this stuff, and we all have our favorite brands (Usually though, it’s because “that’s what we’ve always used”).  The one thing though that we’re after are products that work better.  Every product has its pain point and can be improved.  More opacity for ink.  Quicker exposure time for emulsion.  Retaining higher tension for screens.  Less thread breakage for embroidery.  Less VOC’s for solvents.  As manufacturers of these products it’s up to them to build a better mousetrap.  Performance counts.

Think About Packaging – Everything we buy is shipped to us in a bucket, box, barrel, crate or some sort of container.  Sometimes these are reused, sometimes these are recycled.  Probably a good bit of the time they are just thrown away.  How can our supply chain improve on this?  Does every dress shirt that we embroider need to be sealed in a plastic bag, with cardboard in the collar, pins to hold it in place, and plastic clips everywhere?  Can that drum of emulsion or ink be returned to refill it with more product, instead of just slicing off the top of the drum and turning it into a trash can?  Could there be some sort of easy way to check in your product with a bar-code on the package, so we can receive it into our system easier?  How can our supply chain rethink how they are packaging and shipping their products to us?  Could the outside of the package have a QR code that links to the product spec sheet or SDS sheet for quicker retrieval?

Better Training – One phrase I’ve heard continuously in my career in the decorated apparel industry is “Ink Don’t Think”; meaning that this product is made to do one thing and if you aren’t using it correctly then you won’t achieve the result it was designed to produce.  When launching new products into the marketplace, how many companies spend any time focusing on the users to ensure that they are using it properly?  Give a shop a bucket of ink to try, and they probably just shove it out on the floor.  The production guy slaps it into a screen, they pull a print and it looks awful.  “This ink sucks.”  Compare that to truly putting some effort into training the printer to ensure that all the variables are correct when using the new ink.  Mesh, tension, intended garment, dryer temperature, flash dwell times, squeegee durometer…these are all interconnected.  Our suppliers spend a lot of money on developing new products, and money marketing them to the industry.  More time training the end user in using the product correctly could help tremendously as well.  How are they going about it?  Are they offering in-shop support to learn to use the product?  Can we pull up a how-to video on the internet?  More often than not, there’s little support.  There’s an assumption that everyone knows what they are doing.

Better Customer Service & Support – Let’s face it, when someone from a shop calls or e-mails a manufacturer with some equipment down it’s already a stressful situation.  We’re on the clock.  It’s ticking like a bomb.  We need to resolve the challenge now, as we have orders that have to ship, employees standing around (well, actually I hope they are doing something), and customers breathing down our neck.  The absolute last thing we want to hear is that the only person that we can talk to about our problem is at lunch, and he’ll call us back in an hour or so.  Sorry, but last time I checked cell phones work everywhere.  Hire more staff.  Work out a coverage schedule.  Build a website where we can look up the part number, and order whatever we need without actually talking to anybody.  Better, maybe suppliers should think about how they can provide the answers before the questions are asked.  The thing to understand is to own the “voice of the customer” and make it easy to do business with you.  When you accomplish that feat, everything else follows.

Better Social Media – Before the talk I Googled up everyone on the attendance list and checked out their social media sites.  Some companies had really well run social media programs and were truly masters of their game.  Others hadn’t been updated since 2009.  There was a stark and apparent difference.  Why is social media so valuable?  Easy.  It allows you to send out information regarding what’s going on with your company.  Have a new product coming out?  You can use social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram as your press release guide, Facebook to connect with the shops using it on a personal level, and even post a YouTube video or blog describing how to use the product.  Not only that, but it’s basically all free.  All they have to do is post.  This is how everyone is working and staying connected.  We’re in the information age now, and if you aren’t participating in the conversation you are leaving room for your competition’s voice to be the only one speaking.

Support Other Languages – At Visual Impressions we have English, Spanish and Hmong speaking employees.  It’s difficult to train everyone on everything our supply chain provides if all instruction manuals and guidebooks are only available in English.  Help us get more people using your products correctly without having to have a translator.  If you do have this information available, make it easy to find.

Equipment Sustainability Grant Money – A short while ago, Visual Impressions (where I’m the COO) secured a large amount of grant money to help us acquire a new Kornit Avalanche direct to garment printer, based on the fact that we were able to prove that DTG technology uses significantly less energy than printing t-shirts with screens.  This grant money came from the manufacturing sector from the City of Milwaukee’s sustainability programs.  If we can get this money, other companies can too.  Maybe one way equipment manufacturers can help shops buy newer equipment would be to assist in doing some of the legwork for other possible grant money streams.  Want to revitalize American industry?  Help us compete by placing more efficient equipment in our shops and making it more affordable.  Grant money and low interest loans are available, so why not take advantage of it?

Equipment with Lower Energy Usage – The cost of energy always seems to be going up.  One way shops can help find more margin is by locating more opportunities to lower their operational costs.  Equipment that is engineered to use less energy is one way that it an easily happen.  For a lot of shops, their machines operate just about non-stop.  Doing the same process with less energy can mean a bigger bottom line.  Equipment manufacturers that understand this and can demonstrate these savings will win.  Show us the money and help us calculate the ROI on the equipment or process your item uses.

More Information – More Connectivity – I don’t know about your shop, but we spend a considerable amount of time scheming on how we are going to get everything completed and shipped correctly, and of course, by the in-hands date.  It’s daily, if not weekly, puzzle we have to solve.  Information is the key to that process.  The more information we have available at our fingertips, the easier it is to make a decision that can unblock a log jam, or push something out until next week.  Is the file digitized?  Are the screens burned?  How fast is Press #2 running today, now that the usual printer is out with the flu and a stand-in is running the press today?  Will we need overtime on Saturday, based on the schedule on Tuesday?  Recording and distributing this information allows schedulers and managers to make better decisions to keep things on track.  Imagine if all of our departments, equipment, and schedules meshed together and were available on one dashboard?  A shop speedometer could help with that tremendously.

Help with Turn Times – One thing is for sure, and that’s customers are not giving us more time to produce their order.  I can remember when 7-10 business days used to be the norm for most orders.  Now, it’s more like 5-7.  We do a lot of jobs in 3, and in fact have a few clients that pay for jobs to be run in 1 day.  The internet and market competition are forcing our turn times and production responsiveness speeds to dramatically increase.  Digital printing is going to be the solution for that for a lot of shops, but that doesn’t help with everything.  Anything that takes big steps out of the workflow and saves us chunks of time is a big blessing.  It’s all about shoving more through the pipe.

Help with Print Quality – At our heart, all print and embroidery shops are run by craftsman.  We want quality.  However, this is becoming harder and harder to keep up with as new fabrics, demands by the consumer, turn-time stress, and any other factors that are disrupting the industry.  The more solutions we have to use the better.  Getting these to market and then training the industry on how to use them; or sometimes even how to recognize that you need to use them, is crucial.

Support Greener Supply Chain Initiatives – Our industry runs with a lot of waste.  Injecting a healthy dose of sustainability into this industry could save shops a lot of money and help them run more efficiently.  For suppliers and manufacturers, there doesn’t seem to be much thinking along these lines, at least overtly.  A more concerted effort could really help the decorated apparel industry, especially smaller shops as they tend to not think about lean manufacturing or six sigma principles as much.  From the supply chain perspective, supporting initiatives such as the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership with financial backing, and assisting shops in becoming sustainably certified printers could make this a stronger, more resilient, and more profitable industry.

So there you have it.  My talk was well received, and I have heard back from many of the attendees.  They took some of my challenges to heart and have followed up with their staff regarding the ones that hit home with them.  However, I’m interested to know what you think.  What did I leave out?  Given the opportunity, what would you have asked or challenged them to build for you?  Leave a comment below, or shoot me an e-mail at matkinson4804@gmail.com.

Lame Excuses Apparel Decorators Make

Stack of T-shirts Pattern - Marshall Atkinson

I’ve worked in the decorated apparel industry now for about two and a half decades.  During that time I’ve met hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in this industry…at trade shows, meet-ups, in their shops, and also on the phone or even on industry forums. We’ve traded stories about what’s working and what’s not.  Some are really funny and some just make you shake your head.   Like a bobber floating out on a lake when fishing, there are some phrases that I’ve heard or read that will signal a future problem for a shop.  Do these excuses sound familiar?

“We’ve always done it this way” This phrase just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stick up as it means there is usually trouble brewing ahead and someone’s head is probably full of concrete.  Why?  For starters you have to remember that successful businesses always adapt to change.  New technology, consumables and methodologies are always being discovered and made available.  What worked once will soon be the “old way” of doing something.  If you have staff in your shop, especially managers, that have used this phrase recently I would question their ability to lead, grow and find new ways to make your shop run more effectively.  “We’ve always done it this way” usually signals someone that is too lazy or apathetic about their work to want to improve.  You have to be open to try new things and see if they will work for you, otherwise you are apt to get left behind.

“It’s too hard” Is your shop creatively stagnant because you limit the decoration offering due to not understanding how to do something technically?  Some decoration methods require a steep learning curve, and without an available mentorship to show you how to do something with your equipment you just make excuses and never learn that technique.  Let me counteract the phrase “It’s too hard” with another phrase that essentially blows it away; “It’s ok to fail”.  What squashes that steep learning curve and makes a learning goal attainable is letting go and accepting that you are going to make mistakes, and you can’t be scared of that. That’s how we learn.  Thomas Edison once famously said “I have not failed.  I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.  So if you really want to learn how to (fill in the blank) then accept that you are going to print or embroider some seriously ugly attempts at first.  It may be a complete disaster.  It’s ok.  Learn from them and improve.  Attend a trade show and take a class.  Read articles online or in books.  Join an industry forum group and ask questions.  Talk to your supply chain.  Step one is always starting.  Get off your butt.  Just remember…all those shops that win awards every year at one point didn’t know what they were doing either.

“I’m so tired” Ever notice a weird looking sign or a light on top of a street pole?  Once it’s pointed out to you every time you drive by for some reason you have to look at it.  That’s the same way for me with this phrase “I’m so tired”.  I bet I hear this a few times a week, and not just in my shop either.  For some reason, it just sticks out like a sore thumb.  As professionals, and for that matter as adults, your responsibility is to show up to work in a good mental and physical condition to do the job.  This means plenty of rest, a decent diet, and keeping yourself in good shape.  Limit your alcoholic, or whatever, fun during the work week.  Trust me, people can tell when you show up to work in a less than perfect state.  If you are in a leadership position you are placing your future in jeopardy.  Act with some sense.

“I’m not good enough yet” Which is also similar to “I’m not ready yet”.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career and that is a good plan that is started today is always better than a perfect plan that won’t start until tomorrow.  Don’t wait until things are “just right” to get going with something.  Things are never right, and often once you do get started on an initiative you start discovering many ideas that you would have never thought of during the drawing board stage.  So don’t wait until things are perfect as that’s an illusion anyway.  You are already good enough, and you are also as ready as you will ever be.  See the point above “It’s too hard”.  Don’t limit yourself.

“It’s their fault” Do you have finger pointers in your shop?  These are blamers that all point to reasons why an order didn’t ship on time, inventory wasn’t received in the system properly, the shirts were misprinted, or the image was decorated incorrectly.  Mistakes happen, but there’s no personal accountability.  Everything that happens in your shop is a team effort, regardless of who worked on the job.  Next time a problem comes up instead of starting the blame game, start an initiative to find out how to drop a nuclear bomb on the challenge so it never occurs again.  The best thing you can do for your business is get your staff to take ownership of problems.  Once you start solving problems and building better ways to do things the challenges may start taking care of themselves.  Making this part of your company culture is very difficult, but not impossible.  It takes thought.  It takes action.  Sometimes it takes money, as you need to buy something to solve the problem.  To get it going, start discussing your challenges openly, without blaming anyone.  Use words like “proactive”, “prevention”, “training”, “quality control”, “teamwork”, and “procedure”.  Hold these problems up for everyone to see, and then start constructing the methodology to prevent them from occurring again.

“I can’t find good workers” When I talk to shop owners this is probably the number one challenge cited.  They are all looking for a great manual press operator, or a new designer, or an embroidery machine operator, or a fantastic customer service person.  Finding the right people sometimes can be very difficult if you are challenged geographically, as maybe the available worker pool is smaller.  For every problem there is an answer though.  Great talent will come to you if you give them a reason to join your company.  Build your company’s culture and let everyone know what a great place your shop is to work.  Ideas and contributions matter.  Hard work and creativity matter.  Having fun and becoming part of a great team is all in a day’s work.  One of the best ways I’ve found great people is just training and promoting from within the company.  Hire for attitude, train for skill.  It’s the longer way around the mountain, but in the end you’ll have a great staff.  Cross train people in different departments.  Sometimes an average worker in one area can prove to be fantastic in another if just given the chance.  I’m a big believer in having at least three people know how to do any critical task in the shop.  Need a new press operator?  Your puller or catcher should already be trained.  Show that embroidery trimmer how to thread the machine and set up your next job.  Get your receptionist involved with billing.  For more info on cross training read this:

“I’m losing orders because my prices are too high” This is a tough one, as we all serve different facets of this industry.  The common theme here is that customers need to appreciate the value that your company brings to the table to be able to justify higher prices.  If your client base only views you as a commodity, everything will be price driven.  The trick is to find the customers who appreciate the value you give them.  The value could be any number of things in your shop, and that is what your business plan should be built upon.  Work at building that value and pairing it up with the right customers.  Of course, the flipside of that equation is possibly lowering your operating costs so you can be more competitive…or even more profitable.  This is where rolling up your sleeves and diving in with a Lean Six Sigma program, sustainability or continuous improvement initiative pays off handsomely.  Keeping up the pace and sticking to the direction your customer base is traveling is tough sledding sometimes.  As more of your customers shop online, you need to give them more personal and value driven reasons to stay with you.  What have you done today to foster better relationships with your customer base?  What is your value proposition?  If you don’t know, chances are your customers don’t know either.  For more info on building a value driven business read this.

“That equipment is too expensive” Or is it?  If you have been to a trade show recently you have seen any number of shiny new pieces of equipment on the convention hall floor.  I’ve seen you there too.  Arms folded, looking through the crowd and trying not to get noticed by the equipment rep as you don’t want to have to tell him that you aren’t prepared to spend that kind of money right now.  However, before you cross it off your list completely have you run the numbers?  For a lot of shops, they just see the big price tag and not the answers that having that piece of equipment will bring to their productivity to the shop.  Newer equipment produces at a faster rate, at a lower cost, with less labor, time and energy.  Determine your current state of production with a daily or hourly average.  What does that cost you?  Time, labor, utilities (electricity, natural gas, or water) maintenance costs (especially with older equipment).  Boil that down to a number.  Do the same thing with the new machine.  Compare.  Is there a savings?  Will you produce more at a cheaper cost?  Multiply that out for the year.  What would the Return on Investment (ROI) be?  Make sure your math makes sense before you just discard the thought based on a price tag.  Sometimes the really expensive decision is NOT doing something.

“Sustainability isn’t worth it” If you’ve read any of my blogs or articles over the few years you know that I’m a big proponent of sustainability.  What is it exactly?  A sustainability journey is essentially finding ways to Reduce, Reuse or Recycle anything and everything in your shop that you can.  Is it hard work?  Sometimes; but the financial benefits of building a program in your shop can save you a truckload of money per year if you consistently work at it.  Best of all, once you get going it’s the gift that keeps on giving as your operational costs will keep declining…meaning there’s more profit at the end of the year.  What’s the number one thing you can do to get started you ask?  Get an energy audit.  Most utility companies will perform this service for free, and you’ll get a grocery list of things you can do to save money.  Look at your HVAC, lighting, and electrical consumption for top things to examine.  To build your program, start with a sustainability committee and discuss the top things you can do in your shop and set some SMART goals.  (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely)  If you are a member of SGIA  (and if you aren’t you should be) there is a wonderful Peer to Peer group that you can join to help walk you through building a robust program.  Once you’ve built your program you should look into getting recognized and certified as a sustainable printer by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP).  This certification will allow you to leverage your sustainability certification into more business.  Sustainability isn’t just an earth-crunchy, good karma, tree hugging way of doing things…its intelligent business operations.

“Social media doesn’t work” If you’ve said this because you only have only 10 likes on your Facebook page, and 21 Twitter followers maybe it doesn’t work for you.  However, the good news is that you can change that.  First you have to understand that Social Media is all about being social.  You can’t just post Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Sale, Me, Me, Sale, Me over and over and over again and expect anything out of it.  That’s not how it works.  My recommendation?  First, write a comprehensive social media marketing plan that starts with outlining some goals.  What do you want out of it?  Who are your customers and where do they hang out?  Who are your main competitors and what are they doing?  This is going to involve some research on your part.  Dig in.  There’s no point in spending your time on Facebook if all your potential and current customers are using LinkedIn.  Social Media requires work, analysis, planning, creativity and sometimes a little luck.  Spray and pray isn’t a good strategy.  Stop and think about what your objectives are and build your program around them.  You also need to spend time engaging with others.  It’s not a one way street.  To be effective, you need to be interacting with others and find the social media channels that work the best.  This requires time, effort, experimentation and the ability to fail and learn from that.  Try different things and analyze what works and what doesn’t based on your effort.  Set some SMART goals, use a calendar, and make sure your energy pays off in the long run.  For more info read this.

“I don’t have time” This is usually code for “I’m horrible at time management”.  Sometimes it means “I need to hire more people”.  Usually the underlining theme is that whatever the topic is, you don’t value it enough to actually make the time for it. If it was high on your priority list, you would do whatever it takes to accomplish the task.  When I’m working on a big project I will break up the work into smaller tasks.  If I can, I’ll delegate some to other staff members.  Everything gets a due date that’s fair for the work that needs to be accomplished.  I use a simple spreadsheet to keep track, and when items are completed I just highlight them with a color.  By breaking the huge project into chunks, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming and I can work on it when time permits.  If you are putting off something because “I don’t have time” think about breaking that project up into smaller tasks.  Usually getting started is half the battle.  Want more info on this topic?  Read this article.

“I don’t have the right equipment” Are you turning down work because you don’t have the right equipment for the decoration?  (Auto screen-printing, embroidery, dye-sub, heat press, etc.)  That’s foolish.  While you can always buy the right equipment, sometimes that’s not necessary.  I always recommend farming these types of jobs out to someone else that can handle it for you.  Sure, you’ll make less money than if you did the job yourself…but less money is always more than no money.  The trick is to build a network of trusted partners that can handle these types of jobs for you.  Believe it or not, there are shops out there that handle contract work as a big part of their business.  They can ship third party blind, in your box, with your paperwork.  Also, most larger contract shops are members of a PSST program (Pack Separately Ship Together) which means that they get free freight in, so there’s no cost to send the inventory to them from the apparel distributors.  Aligning your company with these professionals can mean that you can expand into more areas, or free up time in your shop for other things.  Don’t wait until you need them…find a few print or embroidery shops that you feel you can trust and develop a relationship today.  Go see their shop, meet the owners, and get set up in their system.  Can’t find anyone in your area and don’t know who to trust?  Contact me and I’ll help you with your order!

Ok, so now I’m out of excuses…  However, I’d love to hear yours!  If you want to share, leave a comment or drop me an e-mail and let’s compare notes.   matkinson4804@gmail.com

Where It All Goes


Curiosity got the best of me the other day.  I wanted to know what happens to the material when our recycling partner, Pioneer Industries, picks up from Visual Impressions and hauls it away.  Pioneer has been an integral part of our sustainability program for over a year now.  It was difficult getting a recycler to help with our program, as even though we are a large apparel decorator, we are small potatoes in the manufacturing sense in Milwaukee.  It was all a volume deal.

That was before I met Marty Oxman with Pioneer Industries.  A second generation recycler, the guy is an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding secondary materials, and is extremely keen on helping companies achieve their sustainability goals through recycling.  My goal was to get a recycling program off the ground, and make it easy for our staff to do the work.  The idea was to move as much material we could through a recycling program, and have it not go to landfill via our dumpsters.  Pioneer helps us with that task, as they provide, for free, large bins called gaylords that we fill with different materials.  We have these all over the shop, segregated by the material and within a few easy steps for our staff.  They also give us the big 90 gallon totes with wheels that are commonly used for your trash pick-up at your home, which we put to good use as well.

The gaylords have a decent size to them, and there are two kinds.  One is a made from heavy duty plastic, and comes with a lid that can be placed on the box for closing.  Then these become stackable.  We’ve found that we like to use them for our polybag remnants and assorted mixed paper.  We polybag our folded shirts for our clients, so they can be handed out easily or presented nicely to their customers.  The remnants are from the automatic machine that closes and heat seals the bag, and produces a small 2” x 8” scrap of clear plastic.  As we have four of these machines churning out product all day, we generate a lot of these little plastic scraps.  The mixed paper is all the general paper that you would think a busy operation like Visual Impressions would generate.  Any type of paper can be segregated into this bin.  Some good examples that a lot of people just throw away is the waxy backing from shipping labels from your Zebra printer, or the tissue paper insert that comes layered inside button-down shirts that you have to remove before you can start the embroidery.

The other type of gaylord is a little larger and is made from thick cardboard.  In these cardboard bins, we disassemble and place all of our scrap cardboard.  We try to reuse boxes when we can, but a good number of these get bent, torn or arrive to us in pretty bad shape.  Some clients prefer to ship their orders out in their own boxes too.  Any cardboard such as collar stays from polos or dress shirts, dividers, or inserts gets chucked into this bin as well.  Despite reusing boxes constantly for shipments, it is still amazing how quickly these cardboard gaylords fill up.

The 90 gallon totes are used for recycling smaller items such as aluminum soda cans, plastic bottles and strapping, glass, metal shipping banding, wickets and small parts.  We have these judiciously placed all over the shop, near where the material is usually generated, but out of the way enough that people can still work.  These totes take longer to fill, but using them is an easier way to divide up the materials, and makes it more convenient for our staff to do the right thing when the big gaylord is too large to fit into a work area.

When any of these containers are full, we pull them out of the line and bring them all to one spot in the building and replace the full container with an empty and start over.  We’ve worked a convenient schedule out with Pioneer, and they pick-up every Wednesday and haul off usually 12-16 gaylords of material a week.  Visual Impressions started our partnership with Pioneer in March of 2013, and as of today (June 28, 2014) we’ve recycled 44.17 tons of material.  This is all stuff that isn’t going to our local landfill.  Are we 100% zero waste and landfill free?  Not yet, as we still have that dreaded embroidery stabilizer challenge to contend with; but you have to start somewhere.  (See “You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit” for more details on that challenge)

Knowing all this you can see why I might be curious as to what happens to all this stuff after the truck pulls away each Wednesday.  Marty graciously accepted my “invite myself over” tour, and provided an excellent overview of his operation.  So, when his friendly driver Jim backed the semi-truck into one of our shipping docks and our crew loaded up our materials, I pulled my car around and followed him back to Pioneer.

The first surprise was that it was only about five miles away.  Nestled between an aging old Milwaukee neighborhood and a spaghetti maze of train tracks, Pioneer Industries occupies several large, rambling buildings.  I pulled in and parked, and as I was doing that the truck was slowly gliding onto a large truck scale.  Marty told me later that this is one method on how they verify the weights for the material for each load.  All of the material that is unloaded is weighed individually on smaller scales in the building so they can send us a documented report after each pick-up, but weighing the truck when it comes in ensures that it all adds up correctly later.  This is how we know exactly how much of each material type we’ve sent in for processing.

After I parked, I walked around the building and found the front door.  I was buzzed in, and Marty greeted me and issued me my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – hard hat, brightly colored ANSI safety vest, and eye protection.  Walking through the rabbit-warren like maze inside the Pioneer buildings, I was impressed on how many different types of material they actually handle.  If you didn’t know, Milwaukee is one of the largest printing industry communities in the country, and Pioneer handles a lot of their scrap paper, cardboard and other printed waste that is discarded after the manufacturing process.  Each of these different types of printed material scraps are baled, banded and segregated by type into huge stacks of material.  Once they reach a full trailer load, these are shipped out for processing to become new sheets of paper, cardboard, plastic or other material.

Pioneer has a staff of fourteen people, and they were all busy working while we toured.  Numerous forklifts and bobcat tractors were nimbly moving material around and into balers.  Other staff were checking in materials and grading them, or getting a shipment loaded so it reach its final destination and be recycled.  Lots of clipboards, finger and arm gestures and really heavy stuff being moved around with coordinated effort.  It’s a ballet really, just without music.

Based on my observation, paper and cardboard is the majority substrate that they handle, which is segregated by type as the material comes arrives.  In one large area they have cordoned off a bunch of different bays made with large, heavy concrete blocks.  Each bay is about the width of a small garage, and contains a large pile of a different type of paper or cardboard.  From flimsy loose newsprint that is obtained from our Milwaukee newspaper, to thicker printed cardboard scraps that comes from local printing houses, all of the material is piled up like leaves in your front yard in the fall.

Once the pile gets large enough, it is scooped up with the tractors and placed on an enormous conveyor belt that feeds a 20 foot high baler.  The belt is about six feet wide at least, and an amazing amount of material travels up the belt and into the hopper bin at one time.  The baler squeezes out the compressed material into bales about as big as your couch, but square in shape, and I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a gargantuan Play-doh pumper set that I had when I was a kid.  They stack the bales by type of material in another huge room, and just patiently wait for the collection to grow until it reaches the point it can fill a semi-truck trailer.  It is then shipped off.  Some material is easily processed, as it is very common and there is a known pipeline.  Other material, such as paper that has foil or adhesive on it, is harder to find an avenue for processing.  Eventually it all goes somewhere though.

It was surprising to me that some recycled materials actually go overseas, not processed domestically.  Marty showed me a gigantic wall of spice-bags.  These bales were made of former industrial sized bags of food spices.  Heavy thick brown paper on the outside, but lined with a plastic bag on the inside.  Separating the two materials isn’t something that is handled anywhere but China.  Once they get enough to fill the truck, these get shipped off to join many others and will go overseas for processing.  Evidently over there the labor is cheap enough that these are pulled apart by hand for recycling.  The paper goes in one direction, the plastic in another.

As I was driving back to my office at Visual Impressions, I reflected back on my time spent at Pioneer Industries.  Finding value in the materials that previously we were discarding is something that is pretty amazing.  In fact, Marty and I had a good discussion on the fact that there is a tremendous movement afoot in the world for actually “mining” previously manufactured or processed materials for the core elements that have value.  Not everything can be saved obviously, but unlocking the minerals, metals, and other substances is big business these days.  When our sustainability committee identified recycling and trying to get to just 50% savings to landfill as our targeted goal for work this year for SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership), we had a difficult time finding a recycling partner that made the work easy on our end.  After all, we’re in the decorated apparel industry…not the move stuff around, and sift through trash industry.  Building a recycling program is hard work, but finding a company that gives you tools, makes it easy and values customer service makes that chore a little easier.  I’m very happy that we were able to start our sustainability journey and build a great relationship with a partner like Marty Oxman and Pioneer Industries.


You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit – Embroidery Stabilizer Landfill Diversion Update


A few months ago I was able to get some much needed help on a sustainability challenge that I have been struggling with for over a year.  Our shop has a recycling program, and our goal is to move as much material waste as we can into recycling and not push it towards the landfill.  We recycle many items in the shop (38+ tons this past year), but I wanted to turn the big four (cardboard, paper, plastic & metal) into the big five, by adding embroidery stabilizer (sometimes called pellon) to the mix.  Embroidery stabilizer is the material used on the inside of the shirt or jacket to give the commercially sewn image the ability to be produced without puckering, stretching or distorting the fabric.  The problem is that the stabilizer, although great for its intended purpose, has virtually no value after it’s been used.  For all embroidery orders, after each order has been sewn, we have a group of trimmers that go through every garment and trim off the excess pellon material.  Currently all this waste goes to landfill.

The pellon material is composed of cellulose and polyester fibers that are fused together with a chemical bonding agent that is similar to glue.  Both the cellulose and polyester fibers are from recycled content already.  However, because how the material is constructed the pellon can’t be commercially recycled by breaking it back down to its original components.  You can’t take a biscuit and then later break it back down into flour, butter, salt, baking powder, and milk.  A biscuit stays a biscuit.  Pellon will stay a pellon.  A biscuit is better with melted butter though.  Maybe some honey too.

At the beginning of the year, I was able to get a University of Wisconsin business school class to adopt this challenge as part of a class project.  A team of four students spent some time interviewing me, touring our facility, calling suppliers, vendors, and recycling experts to try to solve this recycling conundrum.   Could the manufacturers construct the pellon differently so it could be recycled?  Could there be a post-production process that could use the material somehow?  How could the material be recycled – are there any options?  Just what could we do with this stuff?  I explained that this problem wasn’t just isolated to our shop, but really every commercial embroiderer as everyone just throws this material away.  It’s all going to landfill.  Everywhere.  Could they find the magic bullet I was after?  Here is their report (used with their permission):

Click here to watch their video presentation.

Final Report – Visual Impressions – Embroidery Stabilizer Diversion

Report by: Jon Goeres, Sue Montgomery, Colton Schara, Joe Van Rossum – University of Wisconsin Business School

Visual Impressions is a screen-printing, embroidery and specialty printer that has been doing business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin since 1990.  Visual Impressions has implemented changes to reduce their environmental impact and increase their social responsibility in order to become a certified sustainable printer by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.  Efforts today have focused upon energy use and reducing the volume of waste being sent to the landfill.  Energy costs have been reduced by nearly 18% while over 35 tons of waste has been recycled as of March 2014.

Project Objective: To reduce the volume of embroidery stabilizer (pellon) being sent to the landfill.

Project Details:

Visual Impressions utilizes pellon that comes pre-cut in approximately nine-inch square pieces which are sized to fit the embroidery equipment utilized at their production facility.  After the image has been embroidered onto the garment, production workers manually cut and discard excess pellon from each garment.  Pellon is a material that is used in the embroidery process to keep the embroidered image tight and even when it is being applied to a garment.  The pellon utilized by Visual Impressions is a nonwoven fabric consisting of a blend of polyester and cellulose fibers with a chemical bonding agent.  The specific blend of the materials is dependent upon the thickness of the stabilizer product.

Currently Visual Impressions utilizes a private hauler for waste services that empties their 8 cubic yard waste bin two times per week.  Staff believes that if the pellon material can be diverted from the waste, the number of pickups could be reduced to one pickup every week or a 50% reduction in service.  This would reduce the waste management costs annually by $1,735.  Based upon the generation of 8 cubic yards of pellon waste per week it is estimated that 96,000 pounds of waste is disposed of per year, though the volume can vary based upon production levels.

Landfill Alternatives

Energy recovery option:

Many manufactured materials have energy that is embedded during the manufacturing process.  One end of life option to recover this embedded energy is to utilize the material as an alternative fuel to coal, natural gas or oil.  This waste to energy option can take a number of forms. In this case the best option is to convert the pellon material into a fuel pellet that can be burned in industrial boilers as a coal substitute.

Greenwood Energy is a firm with a fuel production plant located in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  They convert various paper and plastic waste materials into fuel pellets.  This is the nearest firm of this type to Visual Impressions, and their purchasing manager Steve Devere, has evaluated and approved the pellon material as an acceptable feedstock for their process.

In order to utilize this option, the materials must be transported to Greenwood’s location in Green Bay.  The most economical manner to transport the material would be to bale the waste to maximize the bulk density of the material and transport via semitrailer.  It is recommended that a down-stroke manual baler be purchased and installed.  Based upon industry estimates the baled material will be approximately 480 pounds per cubic yard or two times the original density.  We estimate there will be a semi-trailer of baled material produced every 20 weeks based upon the waste volume provided.

The economics of the recovery option are challenging.  A scenario of purchasing a reconditioned baler with a projected 10-year life span to prepare materials for shipment to Greenwood Energy would result in an increased cost of $2,365 per year.  If Greenwood were to waive tipping fees (the charge Greenwood would asses at $25/ton) the cost would be $1,165 per year.  This would have a negative impact upon Visual Impression’s economic bottom line but may be worth pursing if this step would achieve a zero waste to landfill target.

Waste Reduction:

Embroidery stabilizers come in various thicknesses of weights varying between one ounce per square yard (osy) and 3 osy.  Visual Impressions should match the weight and density of the stabilizer to the designs stitch count and density while taking into account the weight and stretch of the garment’s fabric.  Fabrics that are stable can use lighter weight stabilizers.  There may be some added costs in project set-up to match stabilizer with fabrics as well as an increased inventory and inventory management costs for having various weights of stabilizers on hand.  Reducing the osy of the stabilizers will reduce the weight of the waste material generated.  The size of the weight reduction is dependent upon the osy of the stabilizer currently used.

Materials substitution:

We investigated other stabilizer materials, such as cellulose and dissolvable stabilizers.  Our research indicated the cellulose products had performance issues, and the dissolvable stabilizers made from polyvinyl alcohol merely shifted the problem from solid waste to waste water.  The dissolvable stabilizer would also require an additional step in the manufacturing process in order to wash off the remnants of the dissolvable stabilizers.


Fabrics and textiles have long been reused and recycled.  The pellon material being comprised of three different base materials is not a good candidate for recycling.  While the polyester can be recycled, the cellulose and binder are contaminants that a recycler is unable to separate.  We shared several samples of material with textile recyclers and waste material brokers none of whom were able to find a viable end user.


Reuse options for this material will require close proximity between the waste generator and waste user, as there is little to no value in the material.  We were unable to locate a viable reuse opportunity for the pellon material.


Visual Impressions leadership should advocate for industry change by working with suppliers of embroidery equipment to develop technology that eliminates the need for stabilizer materials.  Visual Impressions’ participation in the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership provides a starting point for this effort.  Steps will need to be taken to invite other firms involved with manufacturing embroidered products as well as equipment manufacturers and equipment designers.  It will also be beneficial to involve the suppliers of the garments that are commonly embroidered in the process.  The intended outcome of this effort will be to develop technology that can modify existing production equipment in addition to being utilized by new equipment.

The development of embroidery equipment or a process that eliminated the need for stabilizers will have to focus upon the mechanisms that hold garments in place during stitching.  There are some fabrics, such as twill, that are less dependent upon stabilizers that others but may not be acceptable garment choices for Visual Impressions’ customer base.  So efforts to find mechanisms that provide variable tension based upon fabric needs will be imperative.  The technology will also have to avoid damaging the garment.

The achievement of stabilizer-free embroidery will have a significant impact not only for Visual Impressions but for the industry as a whole.  Eliminating the stabilizer will impact production costs in three ways:

  1. The landfill disposal cost for scrap material will be eliminated.
  2. The labor costs for cutting away excess stabilizer will be eliminated.
  3. There will no longer be a cost to purchase the stabilizer.

Visual Impressions can lead this effort to transform the embroidery industry and have a lasting impact upon the volume of waste generated and the environmental impact of their products.


Calculations and Assumptions

Energy Recovery

8 Cubic yards of pellon produced per week per Marshall Atkinson

Textile weight density – from MN Score report

Loose mixed textiles – 240#/yd3

Baled mixed textiles – 480#/yd3

Semi-trailer volume – 146 cubic yards

Semi-trailer weight limit – 40,000 pounds

83.3 cubic yards of baled textiles = 40,000 pounds


Capital Cost for baler – $7,850 (reconditioned and installed)

Annual cost at 15% opportunity

$2,500 at a 5-year baler life

$1,550 at a 10-year baler life

Baler operation & maintenance – $700

Baler labor cost (not included)

Bale storage cost (not included)

Transportation cost

–          115 miles from VI to Greenwood Energy

–          Hauling costs – $2.25 per loaded mile ($1.63 per loaded mile x 25% profit margin + 10% contingency: still may be too low)

–          38,000 pounds per truckload of baled material

–          Estimated 2.5 truckloads per year

Tip fee at Greenwood Energy $25/ton (Maximum)

Anticipated cost-

–          5 year scenario – $5,000

–          10 year scenario – $4,100

Waste services cost reduction

–          If reduced to one pick-up per week savings of $144.58/month or $1,734.96/year

–          If reduced to one pick-up every two weeks savings of $275.58/month or $3,306.96/year


9 Core Skills Every Apparel Decorator Should Master


When I go to trade shows or industry networking events, I’m constantly amazed at the completely different stories from people about how they got into this industry.  It’s one of my favorite questions to ask, as it reveals so much about the other person and where they are on their journey.  Some have a business background and started their shop because of an opportunity.  Some, like me, have an art background and got involved because it gave them a paycheck to go along with using their creative skills.  At the end of the discussion though, you find that everyone lacks something and we’re all searching to fill in that gap.  Great business people aren’t really good artists.  Creative people are often not very skilled in business.  Then there’s the actual craft of learning to print or embroider.  Below, I’ve ranked the top 9 core skills that I think every shop should work towards mastering, and maybe a tip or two along the way too.  If I left something out, or you don’t like my rankings – leave a comment!!  Participation is a good thing.

  1. Communication.  That’s right; I’m not ranking “skills as a printer” or “skills as an embroiderer” number one.  Here’s why.  I asked my 9 year old son the other day why he had two ears and only one mouth.  His response was classic for him, “so you can turn your head to listen while eating a cookie”.  Almost right.  As I’m sure everyone knows the old adage is “so you can listen twice as much as you speak”.  Effective communication in your shop by your entire staff is the number one skill that you should constantly focus on developing.  This is outward, customer facing; as well as throughout your shop with your staff.  Information has been, and always will be the key to success.  Most of us (sadly including me) aren’t really listening all the time; they are just waiting for the opportunity to reply.  Communication in your shop includes how you handle everyday tasks, but also how you write an e-mail, talk on the phone, hold a meeting, and build a work order.  Obtaining all of the correct information from your customer, and then processing it effectively so that it travels through your company on the work order is imperative for everyone to do their jobs correctly. Tip: For more discussion on work order skills – read this – Blueprint for Success: Your Work Order 
  2. Skills as a Printer/Embroider.  Yep, it’s number two.  Although many will argue it should be number one, for shop success Communication has to top it, as there are so many other facets and people involved than just printing/embroidering.  Still, at number two it ranks high on the list and importance.  This is all about craftsmanship.  Probably the most wonderful thing about the decorated apparel industry is the mixture of art and science for business.  You have to do things correctly in each step along the way in order to have your final production run come out consistently perfect.  That takes a tremendous amount of effort in developing those skills.  Standardizing how your shop operates, training your staff, and developing the core production skills will be the main drivers for success.  I see all too often printers/embroiderers accepting jobs that are beyond their skill level, reaching out on the internet forums for help at the midnight hour.  Think you might have to print on a 2-ply jacket, turn a CMYK job, run a puff embroidered hat, or print over hoodie seams?  Spend some time researching, attending a trade show how-to seminar, or just mess around with it in your shop and learn how.  Take some notes.  Keep a journal or log book and record what you did, what worked, and what didn’t.  Build a recipe for success that you can come back to six months later when someone requests something out of your norm.  By then, maybe you are an expert; or at least skilled enough to know if you can do the job or not.  Keep pushing the envelope with your skills, and insist on excellence and quality on your shop floor.  Regardless of your decoration method, the key is to keep improving, training your staff, and learning!
  3. Business or Marketing Plan.  I talk or e-mail a good number of shops all over the world these days.  Some have challenges that relate to their sales.  All want more business coming in, and are looking for a magic bullet to make that happen.  The first question I ask is always “Have you written a business plan?”  Surprisingly few have.  A good business plan is a living document (it can change!!) that outlines your company, your customers and set some obtainable goals for the next three to five years.  Who are your ideal customers?  How are you going to reach them?  Who is your competition?  What are your company strengths?  Weaknesses?  The business plan aims your company in the right direction and sets the course of your actions.  Instead of shot-gunning your efforts all over the place, the business plan can help guide your efforts with better precision as you will have the direction you need to work on achieving goals you have set.  A marketing plan is similar, but outlines the communication and branding efforts for your company to achieve your established business goals.  The value in spending your time and effort in writing these plans is that they give you the tools and direction to aggressively target your core customers and bring business in, rather than passively waiting for orders to trickle into your company.  Ready, Fire, Aim usually doesn’t work.  So, if you are reading this and you haven’t written a business plan and set some goals; what are you waiting for?  Do yourself (and your company) a favor and grab a cup of coffee and get busy!!
  4. Sound Business Decisions – Pricing.  I talk to a lot of shops, and read on the forums, regarding companies taking orders that aren’t priced to be profitable jobs.  “I’ll charge less now and increase the pricing on the client later”.  Be careful of what you give away too.  Some shops give their art, screens or some other item away for free. This strategy ultimately doesn’t always work, as when you try to bump up the price they will just go elsewhere.  Instead, have a rock solid methodology on your pricing and build your stable of clients that are based on your value proposition and don’t revolve around nickel and diming you to death.  You want to be around ten years from now right?  Be competitive, but your value proposition is what will drive your success.  Tip: for a more in depth look at this discussion read this – Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars 
  5. Training.  The bedrock of running a successful business with employees is developing your core skills with a training program.  By hiring people with great attitudes, you can develop their skills over time by giving them the opportunity to grow and learn on the job.  This makes for a happier workforce, and a stronger company.  Key tasks within your business should have at least three people that know how to do something.  This could be quoting an order, separating an art file, digitizing a logo, registering screens on press, or shipping an order, etc.  You can’t have your entire business dependent on it coming down to the fact that if “Fred” (insert your key employees name here) is sick or on vacation that job can’t be produced today.  Tribal knowledge that is centered on skills can bring your company to a standstill.  A better plan is to list the top ten or twenty things each core skill that is needed in your company.  How do you do “x”?  Take pictures or screenshots.  Build a guidebook.  Use this as the key expectations for handling tasks successfully in each of your departments.  Give employees the opportunity to learn different tasks.  Tip: for a more in depth look at cross training read this – Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop 
  6. Counting & Keeping Track of Inventory.  We do a lot with math every day, mostly in multiples of twelve.  In receiving and in production, make sure the quantities add up to what they are supposed to be several times along the way. (Calculators are allowed! It’s ok…).  At a minimum your receiving team should count and verify everything the same day the goods come in.  Checked against the packing slip and your internal work order, every item on the job should be accounted for before anything is staged in production.  Any challenges should be reported immediately for action by the account rep or salesperson.  In production, the goods should be verified to be 100% complete before running the job.  During production, your crews should count and check off from the work order as shirts are being produced to verify that your quantities match up.  At the end of the run, all of the numbers should add up and be consistently the same.  Misprints and defective shirts during the run should be culled out and reported on the job too.  Why insist on perfect counting?  This is an easy question to answer from a pure economic standpoint.  Just think of each shirt as dollars instead of garments.  Would you misplace a box of money?  Smaller shops look at this problem and may not comprehend why it even exists…but the larger your shop grows, the more people that touch things along the way, the larger your schedule and stress increases.  Insist on excellence along the way.
  7. Creative Artwork.  A great art team can define a shop and send huge waves of business your way.  Most of your clients are not artists, and they are going to rely on you to provide them with artwork and ideas.  You need to wow them.  Finding, obtaining, and harnessing this creative talent can be a great thing for your company.  Unfortunately, learning the skills needed to design and separate artwork for this industry can take some time to develop.  They don’t teach simulated process separations in design school; it’s all on the job training.  Your art team should reflect the market that you serve, and understand and follow design trends and techniques.  Remember, production friendly art is always a good thing.  Some shops are known for their art, and have such a unique style or perfection with their work that people will come to them to use that skill.  Want more business?  Find a great art staff and pay them well.  Can’t afford to have artists on the payroll yet?  Find a network of great freelancers to use.  Unless you are a shirt distributor, shipping blank inventory isn’t part of the business model for most companies.  You are being judged on your ability to design, separate, digitize and create the most fantastic and wonderful art you can every day.  Tip: If you are new to this industry you might want to check out this article – Creating Art for t-shirts – Common Rookie Mistakes Defined 
  8. Continuous Improvement.  One core skill to possess is the desire to get better and constantly tweak how your shop operates.  This can be a people training initiative, centering some thought on workflow efficiency, or automating a task with some new equipment.  Every project that you start, finish and master will champion your efforts to improve your business.  Highly successful shops are always learning or developing something in order to obtain a competitive edge.  Think about your shop.  How many projects do you have right now, where you are trying something out?  A new chemical, ink, emulsion, process, technique…whatever.  The journey that matters is trying to find new ways that are better or cheaper.  This is hard work.  It requires teamwork, communication, leadership and brain power.  There is a lot of failure along the way too, and that’s important as that is where the learning comes in.  It’s ok to fail.  Keep trying, and eventually you will succeed!!  Also, this is where attending a trade show, taking a class, listening to your ink sales rep, posting a question on an internet forum or group, or using a consultant to resolve a challenge, can really pay off.  Other people have traveled down the same road you are traveling now.  How did they do it?  All it takes is a question.  Are you ready for the answer?  For more information read this: How to Increase Efficiency & Maximize Workflow
  9. Sustainability.  Yep, here I go again on this topic.  Why do I always talk about sustainability, and why should it be a core skill that every shop should master?  Besides being the right thing to do for health or environmental reasons, the main reason is purely financial.  Starting your sustainability journey will be the best choice you can make today to start lowering your operating costs.  Every shop uses energy.  Every shop uses materials.  Every shop can recycle.  We are essentially manufacturers, as we have production and use commodities to make things and ship orders.  This is an easy thing to talk about, but harder in reality as it takes work, thought, time and actual leadership to complete.  Do you want to make more money at the end of the year?  A sustainability program is an effective tool to lower your operating costs.  To get started, get a committee together in your shop and brainstorm on what would be a few easy projects to score some quick touchdowns.  Get an energy audit from your local utility, start a recycling program, look to see if you can reduce some of your materials you consume, maybe even invest in new equipment that will operate more efficiently and with less cost.  Depending on your geographic area, there is grant money available or low interest loans that you can qualify for if you investigate them.  I highly recommend that you look into getting third party certified by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) –   Tip: for a more in depth look at sustainability read this article – Why a Sustainability Program Makes Economic Sense for Your Shop

So, did I cover everything that would make your list?  What did I miss?  Feel free to comment and let’s have a discussion!!  Want to see how I run Visual Impressions?  Check out our Pinterest board Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop