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Why a Sustainability Program Makes Economic Sense for Your Shop

I could easily write an article describing the myriad of ways that every apparel decorator can contribute to the “greening” of the industry.  You can’t pick up a newspaper, magazine or watch a TV show without someone blathering on about Global Warming, Save the Planet or another trendy, talking-head catch-phrase.  Removing the feel good and karma building reasons why a shop sustainability program should be implemented, the purpose of this article is to discuss the real reason why many companies are actually making the effort, and that reason is simple: MONEY.

Many larger corporations are demanding sustainability programs from their supply chain partners.  Go to the corporate sustainability webpages of Wal-Mart (, Coca-Cola (, Nike ( or adidas ( and see how they are addressing the issue.  Usually when the big boys latch onto something and start educating consumers, it’s going to have a trickle-down effect eventually and make it to the local marketplace.  If you haven’t noticed this already, there’s tons of press about this issue every day focusing on the triple bottom line in corporate America.  But why are they really doing this?  A good reason is that they understand that they can link aspects of their Lean Manufacturing programs, governmental regulatory responsibilities, tax incentives, and good old-fashioned marketing to make a public stance on sustainability and drive consumer spending their way if they can.

Ok, by now you are saying to yourself “I’m not Wal-Mart, Coke, Nike or adidas – how does this apply to me?”  It’s the same principle, but just on a smaller scale.  Greg Kitson with Mind’s Eye Graphics ( calls it “finding nickels”.  He has a sustainability program in his shop, as he knows that if he can save money by doing something he’s already tasked to do, his cost for printing that shirt just went down.  If he can save five cents here, or a few pennies there…it eventually adds up to more margin and profit at the end of the year.  Common sense, right?

The three core tenets of any sustainability program are Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.  I’d like to add a fourth, which is ReEconomize.  To elaborate:

                Reduce – means simply that.  Find ways around your shop to reduce the amount of energy, materials, labor, or other ideas to get the same results for the task.  Using less electricity or energy, masking tape, ink, paper, or other commodities often goes overlooked in the desire to get that order printed and out the door.  Finding the discipline to question everything, document what you are doing, finding methods for reduction, setting goals, and then actually doing the work tracking everything is a lot of work, but worth it.  Already doing that?  Great!  That’s a big part of a sustainability program…

                Reuse – means repurposing one thing and using it in a different way.  For example, lots of shops cut down their 30 gallon ink or chemical barrels and use them as trash cans.  Or use defective or misprinted shirts as shop towels.  In your shop, what can you reuse instead of just throwing it away?  When you buy – can you purchase something already made such as a press or office furniture?  Can you repurpose your scrap paper into office notepads?

                Recycle – everyone is familiar with this idea – but do you really have a recycling program?  Paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, electronic devices, hydraulic oil, light bulbs, office furniture, phones, computers, appliances, equipment, even ink – all can be recycled.  How are you managing this in your shop?  Are you in control, or is it a free-for-all?

                ReEconomize, which I freely admit is a word I just made up; means to take everything listed above and document, track or otherwise show how you are either saving money, or making money on your efforts.  This can’t just be a “gut instinct” either – to do this correctly the industry best practice is to document by creating a list or spreadsheet to use for the program.  By continually tracking your efforts, you can quickly understand what’s successful or not, and focus your efforts accordingly.   For example, if you document your energy costs over a period of time you can link your expenditures with the amount of impressions printed.  For the sake of easy numbers, let’s say your shop spends $100,000 a year on energy (electricity, water, natural gas, & propane), a simple 5% annual reduction as a goal could amount to a savings of $5,000 per year.  Every shop is different, but how many shirts would you have to print to make a $5,000 profit?  Do you know what it costs per impression to print per year?  What if you could drop that cost a penny per shirt?

If you don’t already have a program, saving that $5,000+ a year on costs now seems like a good idea, but how do you get started?  First, and I can’t stress this enough, it can’t be a one-man show.  To make any real impact at your company this program can’t just come from the owner or production manager whereby he tells everyone in the shop that “we are saving money so turn off the lights when you leave the room”.  It’s not that simple.  The best industry practice is to build a teamwork culture where everyone shares in the effort and is committed to the success of the program.

Start with organizing a Sustainability Committee consisting of representatives in all facets of your business.  From the shop floor to accounting, the more people invested in the success of the program the better.  Make them responsible and accountable for the program.  They will quickly brainstorm on some ideas and be eager to get going, but may need to have some direction.  SGIA has some great ideas on getting started.  (  Based on my experience here are a few must do’s to get started:

  1. Write your Sustainability Policy – this will be the core principle that drives your success, and that people will refer back to if they are trying to make a decision.  It doesn’t have to be overly complex, but it should give direction and demonstrate company responsibility.  The policy should show that you are to be in compliance with environmental, health and safety regulations.  Give direction for continuous improvement, including areas not subject to regulation.  Emphasize pollution prevention from source reduction, reuse and recycling.  And finally, communicate information on your sustainability performance.  In a nutshell, make it work for your business and how you operate.
  2. Get an energy audit.  In your local marketplace this could be a free service that your utility company will provide, or one that you may have to pay a small fee to schedule, but either way it’s going to be a great way to get started and to learn how to save money.  Someone will come out and tour your shop, poke around and measure for energy inefficiencies such as heat or cooling loss, HVAC maintenance recommendations, and other ideas.  An individual report should be written on how you can reduce your consumption and provide you examples of where you are wasting money.  Chalk this up to “getting an expert to help”, similar to getting an annual physical from your doctor.
  3. Engage your staff.  Make the program fun!  Reward their effort and make everyone part of the success.  Publish information, graphs, events, and news in the company newsletter, webpage, or on a bulletin board in the shop.  This program can’t be a secret.  Celebrate your successes as you go.  Give “attaboys” when you catch someone doing something right.  Think long term, and don’t let the initial fire die out.
  4. Engage your vendors.  What are they doing?  How can you partner with them to revamp how you purchase to be a more sustainable effort for everyone?  What are the potential cost savings?  For example, maybe changing the frequency of your purchases can save on shipping or delivery costs.  Review year to date information, and purchase quarterly.  Does the added volume purchases on some items amount to a savings?  Can you negotiate a rebate based on the vendor saving on shipping costs?  You will never know unless you ask.
  5. Engage your customers.  What’s important to them?  Inform them that you are getting started and want to know what they are doing.  Partner with them on strengthening your relationship by trying something new.  Just having this conversation could be a selling opportunity alone.  Can you change their purchasing behavior as part of the program?  What if they sent their PO’s in electronically instead of a fax or mail (yes, people still do that), or can you invoice them with a .pdf attachment instead of mailing them a statement?  Can you set up electronic payment so you don’t have to use traditional paper checks and deposits?  Make sure you annualize the savings and document your efforts so you can see the bigger picture.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask “Why”.  Why are you doing something?  What if you do something differently?  The statements we’ve all heard before (and unfortunately continue to hear), “We’ve always done it this way”, “I’m too busy”, “I don’t have time”, or “It’s too costly to change” need to be thrown out as lazy thinking.  You are in control of your process, not the process is in control of you.  Don’t accept mediocrity as the status quo, as this is costing you money.

While you are building your program you may also look into if obtaining certification through the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership ( makes sense for your company.  Depending on your market niche, obtaining this particular certification could be tremendously beneficial as many companies are demanding that their suppliers not only have sustainability programs, but that they are third party documented and certified.  The SGP program encompasses the entire graphic printing community, so it’s larger than just t-shirt printers.  It’s only been around for a few years, but its gaining momentum.  Currently there’s close to 40 printers certified, and a handful of those are apparel decorators with more getting certified every year.  Marci Kinter, chairperson of the SGP Board of Directors, says that sustainability is quickly becoming a bigger requirement in the business world and that “in the new economy companies are looking to reduce waste, use the least harmful products, and find more sustainable print systems.  Companies that obtain certification differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and can drive more business to them by framing their sustainability story by demonstrating accountability and aligning themselves with the values of their customers”.  SGP has prepared a great three part video on building a program, check it out: (

Safety – It’s No Laughing Matter

A few years ago, someone slipped on a wet concrete floor at the shop and one of the other staff members inadvertently laughed.  I guess it was just that type of pratfall that induced the giggle, but it clearly defined the lack of concern with the safety and well-being for that individual.  The management staff took it very seriously, and after an investigation, disciplined the giggling employee.  I wanted to include that incident as the introduction for this article, as it proved to me at the time that the safety culture that I thought we had at the shop, was severely lacking.  Sure, as senior management we had all the correct tools and procedures, but didn’t take it one step further and talk about safety and demonstrate the seriousness of it to the staff.  After that incident, we ramped up our efforts even further.  I’ve traveled the country touring shops and engaging other company’s staff, and I’m always surprised that safety is one of the most overlooked aspects of running a shop.

Building a culture of safety at your shop is the one thing that you can do to proactively prevent a huge money drain from your bottom line.  How many shirts would you need to print or embroider to make up the cash lost from a settlement or legal fees?  If you don’t have a safety program, you should start today and build one.  If you do, spend a few moments of good solid introspection and investigate to see if your actions not only prevent accidents, but would form a solid defense if you were inspected or subpoenaed.  Listed below are some tips and ideas on building a proactive safety program:

Safety Committee.  It all starts with this group.  Form your committee with disparate members of your staff.  I recommend using your HR Manager, someone from Accounting, a Production Manager, and at least one Line Employee, as the basis for the committee as you want to get different viewpoints and levels of involvement.  This group’s goal is going to be to develop a Comprehensive Safety Plan for the company that includes written policies and procedures, training, inspections, facility management, the Emergency Action Plan, and the overall company documentation effort.  Get a 3” three ring binder and start a Safety Notebook.  Tab off sections and document everything regarding the safety program within this notebook.   The Safety Committee should write, implement and enforce the company Safety Training.  Task oriented training is critical, but every employee should receive a “Basic” training package that includes instruction on MSDS sheets, the Emergency Action Plan, Lock-Out / Tag-Out, accident prevention and reporting, and simple things such as lifting a box properly.  Ideally this training should occur before the employee starts working their first day.

Inspections.  Your company should have regular safety inspections and document findings and resolution actions.  This is important, as you want to be able to show that you take safety seriously, and prove that you actively resolve challenges as they occur.  Have a simple audit in a checklist form and divide the items on the list by Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly, and Annual categories.  You may want to have different forms for different aspects of your business, such as Machinery, Training, Facility, & Staff.  The important thing is to build your forms and actively use them by following agreed upon company procedures.  It’s not about nit-picking and getting people in trouble – but rather taking care of business in a professional manner.    It’s also a good idea to bring in third party experts to inspect your facility and document their findings in the Safety Notebook.  Have the fire department or local utility come and inspect your facility.  Most of the time this is a free service and you just need to schedule it.  Resolve the challenges as necessary.  While we’re on the subject of inspections here are a few of the most common daily items that cause the most injuries in a shop:

  1. Trip hazards.  The biggest problem of all is the use of extension cords around the shop, as they cause the most injuries by far.   The use of extension cords is a daily fact of life in any shop…but you can use them safely.  Tape them down, cover them with a mat, or drop them down from the ceiling.  Have your manager’s to be constantly aware of this issue, and resolve this issue with effective training.
  2. Slip and falls.  As mentioned earlier, this can happen at any time.  Make sure if someone is cleaning the floor that proper safety awareness signs are displayed and they only clean small sections of the floor at a time.  Train your staff to not walk through the wet floor, walk around.  Many shops have inadequate draining, especially in the screen room.  If it’s too expensive to re-plumb the drain, at least paint the floor with non-skid paint or install safety traction mats that will allow staff to walk above the wet concrete.
  3. Leaning pallets.  A common shop problem is when staff members unload a pallet and then lean it on some nearby boxes to get it out of the way.  The pallet could injure someone if it fell, so train your staff to move empty pallets to designated areas in your shop and stack them flat.  This practice is not only safer, but it will de-clutter your shop and make it easier to move around.
  4. Not using Personal Protection Equipment.  This equipment is crucial to prevent accidents from occurring and future lawsuits in landing your lap.  Your employees MUST use vision protection for their eyes when dealing with chemicals (spray guns, screen cleaning, metal or wood fabrication, etc.)  Your employees MUST use respiratory equipment when dealing with chemicals that emit any mist, odor or potentially hazardous fumes.  Check your MSDS sheets.  Your employees MUST use hearing protection when there is any noise that could damage hearing (grinders, saws, screen room power washers, loud mechanical devices).  OSHA requires an analysis to determine if potentially hazardous tasks cannot be eliminated by use of another chemical or work practice method.  Appropriate equipment must be provided to your staff that is exposed to the problem.  Ensure your staff is trained about hazards, when safety equipment is required; and proper usage.  (including cleaning, maintaining and inspecting each safety item)  OSHA states that if you provide equipment, but don’t enforce its use 100% of the time it’s a serious violation.  This means that if you provide the safety goggles by the spray out station, but the worker doesn’t use them – it’s up to you to enforce this with disciplinary action.  Don’t take chances.

Documentation and Certification.  Good solid recordkeeping is important for any successful business operation, and this applies to the subject of safety as well.  Keeping your staff certified and trained to operate the equipment they use daily is crucial as well.  Have your HR Manager record all training and certification in each employee’s personnel folder.  Follow up and ensure that the OSHA 300 forms are properly filled out and displayed.

  1. The Safety Committee should create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP).  If you get audited by OSHA, they will review your plan to deal with fires, tornadoes, natural disasters, terrorism, chemical spills, even workplace violence.  Your plan should outline evacuation procedures, staging areas (where to meet so you know everyone is accounted for) and areas of refuge inside your building (where to go in case of a tornado). Have regular drills, at the very least for fires and tornadoes, twice a year.  Document everything in your Safety Notebook.  You should post maps around your building with clearly defined exit directions for each location.  Remember, the person looking at this map at the time of an emergency may not be an employee of your company.
  2. MSDS or Material Safety Data Sheets.   If you haven’t already done so for your shop, you need to pull all the documentation for every chemical used in your company and place it in one accessible notebook.  Download MSDS sheets online, as your supplier companies are regularly requested for them.  “All chemicals” means everything including cleaners such as Windex, which can be harmful if ingested.  Ideally, you have a “Right to Know Center” in your shop and this is a good place to have the MSDS notebook too.  All staff should have mandatory MSDS training annually, with documentation including their signature, in their employee file.
  3. Hazard Communication.  (Or Hazcom by OSHA).  This requires container labeling with the content information, but you can’t just simply scribble “Acetone” on a bottle with marker.  You need to use the proper identification and provide the health warning, if any, for the contents.  Use labels or stickers that you can purchase on rolls that tie into the information found on MSDS sheets.  Use these for all secondary containers as well (meaning you filled up a jug).  The primary container (meaning the drum or bottle that the chemical came from) must include the name and address of the manufacturer and target organs must be identified, with the chemical name and health warning.
  4. OSHA 300 or 301 Forms.  All injuries must be recorded and at the beginning of each year and a summarization of the injuries should be displayed on the OSHA 300A form next to your OSHA Safety Poster.  (this is usually found in the break room or the Right To Know Center)  The basic rule of thumb is when determining a recordable injury is to ask “did the injury require medical treatment beyond basic first aid?”  If the answer is yes, and it was the result of a workplace injury then the injury must be recorded.  For more information go to

In conclusion, if you promote a culture of safety awareness by proactively resolving issues, having an effective safety committee or safety manager, and documenting all of your company’s efforts with this issue your company will be better prepared.  Take the time to build your program, and be constantly vigilant and focused on identifying areas of opportunity for improvement.  All it takes is one ill-timed laugh.