Basic Sustainability Tips for T-shirt Print Shops – Here’s the Easy Fruit You Can Pick

Most t-shirt printing shops that I know are only concerned about one thing – getting that particular day’s orders printed and shipped.  Thoughts about building a sustainability program seem very earth-crunchy and usually too foreign to contemplate.  Maybe it’s too big of a project to start, or maybe the shop is too small and limited on resources.  However, it’s really pretty easy if you go into it with the right mindset.

The basic trick that everyone needs to learn is that you can’t do it all at once.  A fully functioning sustainability program can really help your business and actually add some much needed margin back into the bottom line if built correctly.  I get asked constantly about building sustainability programs, and here are my top “go-to” recommendations to get started:

Start with a Sustainability Committee.  You can’t do this alone, and you certainly don’t want to be the energy police and go around the shop yelling “Turn That Off”!  The only way to have success is to build it from the ground up.  Gather as many interested people in your company together as you can and form a committee.  This group should include production staff, office staff, managers and most importantly, your company ownership.  There’s an old adage that states “Man supports what he helps create”, and this certainly applies to a sustainability program.  Your committee should meet more frequently at the beginning, but once established maybe once a quarter is all that’s needed.  Initially, here are a few of the things that should be discussed:

  1. Goal Setting.  Brainstorm with your group and find a few things to work on initially.  These could be projects such as starting a recycling program, lowering your energy consumption, or just some basic research into what resources are available to you locally.  Set some SMART goals (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, & Time Based) and assign due dates.
  2. Divide Up Responsibilities.  Everyone in your group will have a different interest or skill set.  Play into that and have them work on things that interest them.  If two heads are better than one, how valuable would eight be?  What if everyone was to tackle one or two things?  Think about how much progress you can make!!
  3. Set a Meeting Schedule & Method of Reporting.  Look at a calendar and decide your meeting schedule for the next year.  Also decide on how the committee will communicate to each other and the company as a whole about the program.  Buy a bulletin board and start adding important things to it about the program as you progress.  This could be minutes from your meeting, results of the program, or maybe just articles about sustainability that are a topic of interest.
  4. Make It Fun.  What are you going to do as a group to make the project fun so everyone can get involved?  If you achieve your goal will you have a pizza party or other celebration?

Measure.  Start a spreadsheet or two.  Remember you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  If you have some data from previous years, get that down on your spreadsheet as a baseline.  Build different spreadsheets around energy consumption, trash pick-up and recycling, or shop consumables (ink, emulsion, chemicals, etc.)  If you can, normalize your totals with the amount of work performed for each time period (week, month, year, etc.) by using the amount of impressions printed.  This is important as if you are busier one month or year than another, you naturally will be consuming more energy or materials.  What you are looking for though, is to show how efficient that work really is.

Get an Energy Audit.  Whether you own your shop space or are just renting, getting an energy audit is probably the number one task to start when building your program.  Your local utility company has an auditor that they can send out to your facility to review your shop.  They will poke around the building and then come back to you with a report on your yearly energy consumption and usually will have a grocery list of things you can do to help conserve energy in the future.  These guys dance cards are usually full, so be prepared to get in line…but it is worth the wait.

Get City, County and State Help.  These days you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a governmental sustainability program.  They are in existence to help you and add support to your program.  Often, they have money to spend on retrofitting lighting, windows, HVAC or other items for your building.  These could be outright grants of money or zero/low interest loans.  Thinking of adding some equipment to your shop?  One of these entities may help you with the purchase if you can prove that it will save energy.  You won’t know unless you ask, so get busy!!

Be Receptive to New Ideas.  Most of the time shops are bombarded with sales people wanting to pitch their newest thing.  I know my phone and e-mail is jammed every day with folks hawking their wares.  The funny thing is that sometimes these guys have something that you haven’t thought of before and may need…and these can be part of your sustainability program.  Instead of thinking “we don’t need that, we’ve been doing it the old way for years”, get out of your own way and listen to how new technology could help you.  I’m not going to pitch products here, but let me tell you that I’ve found at least six things in the past year that we’ve switched, added or changed that have made a huge impact on our sustainability program and have increased our margins.  You won’t know unless you listen.

The Three “R”s.  Think about starting your program based on this easy to remember guideline – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  1. Reduce.  Reduce the amount of consumables you are purchasing and using.  Using some Lean thinking, examine your workflow and processes and try to see what you  can change to reduce the amount of material you are using, energy you are consuming, and steps it takes you to do your work.  It’s basically an efficiency mindset.  If something takes five steps to do, how can you achieve the same task in three?  What can you do to reduce your energy consumption on a daily basis?  Small things add up quickly here.
  2. Reuse.  What can you reuse around your shop so you won’t have to purchase new?  The easiest example is always shop towels.  Why buy new when you can use defective or misprinted shirts?  Can you reuse cardboard boxes or drums for something?
  3. Recycle.  More than just soda cans…  You can recycle light bulbs, cardboard, paper, batteries, chemicals, computers, office furniture, metal, old equipment, ink, plastic, and other materials.  The trick is to find how to do it in your area.  To build our recycling program, it took nearly a year’s worth of effort to find a recycling partner that would help us achieve our goals correctly.  But in the end, the wait was worth it as they make the program very easy.  You just have to keep plugging away!

Talk to People and Share Ideas.  In your local community, industry forum, LinkedIn group or any other network you may have there are folks that are either thinking about starting a sustainability program or are already doing something.  Share ideas and tips.  What worked and what didn’t?  How did you get started?  Was the local chamber of commerce helpful?  Who did you call?  Remember you aren’t in this alone, and networking and building your program with the help of others is a good thing.  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and it is 100% ok to copy someone else.  There isn’t a test and you don’t get any extra points for being an original.

Equipment Preventative Maintenance.  This is not only critical to the life blood of your shop, but makes perfect sense for sustainability too.  Make sure every piece of equipment is fully functional and operating at peak efficiency.  You should have an equipment log and perform regular maintenance checks to be sure everything is working at peak efficiency.  Replace broken or missing parts.  It seems obvious, but you would be surprised at how many of your staff just “live with” the challenges with their equipment every day instead of speaking up and getting things fixed.  Your managers should be on top of this and constantly asking what is needed or how they can support your teams.  Use your eyes and ears when walking the floor and take notes about what could be corrected.  Something not look right?  Leaking oil?  Hearing the hiss of an air leak?  Don’t put up with those problems – get them fixed!!

Sign Up for Certification.  If you are going to build a program, you may as well do it right and follow best industry practices right?  What are the top shops doing?  One way to find out is to sign up for and work towards getting your shop certified as a sustainable printer with a third party auditing system.  The benefit is that you will learn the skills and guidelines for doing things the right way, and know at the end of the program you can market your company as a certified green printer.  My recommendation is to go with the certification from the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership; or SGP for short.  (   The SGP program is extremely robust and will mentor you all along the way towards their certification.  When you are ready, an auditor will come out to your shop for two days and examine your program.  If you have achieved your goals, you can be certified as a Green Printer and use this label to market yourself.  It is a way to differentiate your company in the marketplace, all the while building a best in class program.

Market and Publicize Your EffortsDon’t keep your program a secret!  Shout it out at the top of your lungs and let everyone know what you are doing!  Use social media, your newsletters, even discussion with clients and vendors.  The more you discuss and promote your program, the more valuable and impactful it will become.  Success will keep feeding it, and you’ll start to see some intangible benefits.  Remember, always be truthful.  Don’t exaggerate and use real science and data when discussing your results.  Don’t worry if someone else has better numbers, it’s important to view your program as its own entity and that it is always getting better.  The more you celebrate sustainability at your shop, the better results you are going to get.

These are just some initial ideas.  The trick is to just get started and score some easy wins.  If you would like some help building your program, you can contact me at and I’ll be happy to consult with you on how to get started.

T-shirt Shops: Reduce Your Misprints – Simple Steps

There’s nothing more frustrating for a shop owner than having to replace a bunch of shirts at the last minute so an order can ship complete.  Earlier in the day, there was some preventable mistake with the print, and now you’ve got a bunch of scrap piled up on the catchers table.  If life had a rewind button, we could press it and zoom backwards to the exact moment that the mistake occurs and yell out “HEY!!” and prevent it from happening.

However, life doesn’t have a rewind button.  But there are a few things we can do to help minimize the mistakes that happen on the shop floor.  Here are my top five:

Have a Huddle.  This is where the entire print crew meets BEFORE the job starts.  Take the work order and read out loud what is expected.  “We are printing 500 Hanes 5280 white t-shirts.  Four colors on the front, 3 colors on the back, one color on the right sleeve.  We are starting on the front side first; then we will print the back.  Press 2 is printing the sleeve, as they have the platens already set up.  After printing the job is going to finishing and will be polybagged.  We’ll need Black, PMS 186, PMS 286, and PMS 414.  We’ll use these colors for the other locations too.”  Here’s a pic from my Pinterest board that shows this:

Notice that the work order states 500 white Hanes 5280 t-shirts.  If the shirts at the press are anything but these the work on this order stops and a manager should be called over.  The crew should move to the next job while the challenge is sorted out.  If you don’t have enough shirts, or have too many, this is a big problem.  A bigger problem is when the job calls for white shirts, and at the press they are black.  Make sure your receiving team is on top of their game.  See my article in Impressions Magazine:–6563.shtml?utm_source=Silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=41497887&utm_term=5931699&utm_content=

There should be eight screens pulled to the press.  If any are missing, the work on this order stops and a manager should be called over.  Do not start setting up the job until all the screens have been verified.  Nobody from the print crew should ever pull their own screens or ink.  They should be brought to the press and staged in what I call “Kit-Packing”.  Tip: Have at least two or three jobs lined up at each press at any given time.  Keep feeding them jobs.  At the end of the day, make sure your hot orders for the following day are staged so when you walk in tomorrow morning, your crews can just start printing.

“We are printing on the front side first” This should tell the catcher how to lay the shirts out so that the image is printed on the correct side of the shirt.  This seems obvious, but if you’ve ever had a crew print on the wrong side of the shirt, you’ll know why I’m listing this.  Tip: This is a training issue, especially during the busy season when you may be using temporary help in your shop.  Make sure everyone understands what they are supposed to do.  Management sets the standard.  People don’t learn from osmosis from just being in the shop.  You have to teach them.  Sometimes several times.

The four different colors of ink should be staged with the shirts and screens.  If not, a manager should be called over to have the ink expedited to the press so they can get started setting it up.  Quantities of common colors such as Black and White should be nearby so it makes getting replenishment easier.  If you do a lot of set ups for clients that use other colors, make those buckets always available too.

The original crew is only printing the front and back.  Another crew will print the sleeve, as they have the sleeve platens set up and the shop can save time by not having to switch the platens out.  When the job is transferred to the next press, the hand-off should include a discussion about quantities (were there any defects or misprints?), what sleeve should be printed, and that the order gets polybagged afterwards.  This communication is vital as it keeps the thinking going and helps comprehend the next step for the order.

Art Approval Forms Are Mandatory.  All art should be signed off by the client before anything is printed by using an Art Approval Form.  This document is crucial to your success.  Ideally your form has your work order information (such as the client’s name, PO#, your order #, shirt color, and all ink colors – listed in the exact print order.  (For extra bonus, include the flash and cooling stations)  If you were building a house, you would use a blueprint to let the carpenter know what to do.  The art approval form works the same way.  Treat it as your “blueprint for success” for the order.

Include size information (e.g. 8” h x 14” w) and also show distance from key landmarks on the shirt – such as that it will print 3” down from the neck collar.  If there are different sets of instructions – 3” down from the collar for adults, 2” down for youth – make sure those are listed too.

Include the artists name or initials so that your print crew knows who designed it if there are questions.

Have your shop agree on your “standard” sizes and locations for most commonly used art terms such as left chest, full front, full back, etc.  Where do these go in relation to the collar or hem?  How big do you make them?  How should it work for a Small versus a XXXL?  Get everyone together and set these expectations so that you can not only agree on them, but you are setting the standards for others to follow later.  Train your staff on this and hold them accountable for varying from the norm.

Ideally you want the art signed off by the client at least two business days before the job needs to print.  This way the artist has time to separate the file, and the screen room can burn the screens.  Everything needs to be ready and waiting for production to stage the job.  Presses should never wait for screens to come out of the screen room.

Ink Don’t Think.  If you’ve mixed the ink correctly and it’s the right color, but your image looks wrong it may not be that bucket of ink.  Before you go run off and mix a new bucket, check to see that all the mechanical parts of the printing process are dialed in correctly.

Are you using tight, properly made screens?  One of the biggest factors in printing on darks is that some colors lighten up when printed over an underbase white.  Make sure that your screens have been properly coated and that you are using a lower enough mesh count to get enough coverage.  If you don’t know what EOM is, you should spend some time learning how this can affect your final print.  (Emulsion Over Mesh)  We coat an extra pass of emulsion on the print side of all of our 110’s so our underbase screens transfer more ink down on the shirt.  This really helps with opacity.

Your choice in mesh count can affect how the color prints as well.  There’s a big difference between the amount of ink deposited through a 110 mesh as opposed to a 305, and all meshes in between.  Learn how this can affect color by printing and using these meshes to control ink deposit.

Your choice in squeegees could also affect the color.  Printing with a softer squeegee blade as opposed to a harder squeegee blade can have different results.  Same with rounded edges versus sharp.

If you are printing on polyester or some technical fabrics – watch your heat when printing white or light ink colors over dark fabrics (especially red).  Too much heat can start reactivating the dye in the fabric and may cause it to migrate up through your ink colors.  What was a nice bright white on a red shirt when you printed it and placed in the box, becomes a pretty shade of pink by the time the garment cools down and your client opens the box.  Disaster.  Tip: Use inks that are formulated for lower cure temperatures (think 280 instead of 320), and watch your flash dwell time on press.  On the catcher table, don’t pile up the shirts in dozens immediately.  Make a few piles and have a fan blow air on them to get them to cool down.  Don’t box up the order until the shirts have cooled.

Remember if you are using an underbase that you don’t necessarily have to use white.  More sophisticated printers will use other colors.  Using a grey instead of white can help with Pantone color matching, when flashing and then printing another color on top.  When using a metallic foil, it’s also common practice to use a hue that matches the foil color to help camouflage any mistakes.

Training.  Despite advances in automation, our industry is still ultra-dependent on staff to make things happen.  How much time do you spend training your crews on all the different facets of printing?  Would you say they are all experts?

Press operators are basically the quarterbacks of the print crews.  They direct traffic, set up and tear down jobs, and keep your shop moving.  Most shops have one or two superstars, and the rest have skills of varying degrees below them.  It’s your responsibility to train and discuss new concepts, techniques and skills to your crew.  Shop pic:  This won’t happen when you are insanely booked during your busy season, so make sure you set aside some time throughout the year and discuss different points.  Here’s a short article I authored for Impressions about cross training:

A lot of misprints occur due to alignment on the shirt.  The image can print off-center, at an angle, too low or too high all depending on how the shirt is loaded.  Operators are always judged on their throughput speed – “how many per hour”.  However, that doesn’t really matter when you have to replace 35 shirts at $6 a piece because they were loaded wrong.  Printing fast is nice.  Printing correctly is better.  Remember the old adage “If you have time to do it over, you have time to do it right”.  Slow down and do it right.  Your clients (and bank account) will thank you for it.

Need to exactly position the image on a shirt?  We use lasers to illuminate lines on the shirt for correct loading placement.  You can get these at any hardware store.  Attach them to the press with a magnet.  Here’s a pic from my Pinterest board showing how we correctly line a pocket t-shirt on the platen each and every time for perfect positioning:

What do you do when something is incorrectly printed?  Do you ever gather your team and discuss what happened?  Ask them what should have been done to prevent the challenge from occurring.  Don’t lecture.  Get your team involved in the process in making things better.  My guess is that they already know the answers.

Equipment.  It’s nice to have good tools to use for printing.  It’s even nicer when they are given some love occasionally and properly maintained.

Keep your work area clean.  I know this is a tough one.  We’re all so focused on getting product out the door that we let things go a bit.  The problem is that when the top of your press looks the backside of sheep right before shearing season, you’ve got problems.  Dust balls and stray pieces of lint can filter down into the print causing small areas in your image to not print.  Keeping your equipment tidy is professional.  Everything has its place, and it’s neat and orderly.  If it helps, paint lines on your floor where inventory is to be staged.  Clean on Friday’s so when you come in to work on Monday everything is ready to go.  Shop pic:

If you don’t have a Preventative Maintenance Schedule on your equipment please start one today.  Ideally you want a log sheet for each piece of equipment.  Log the equipment model and serial numbers.  Use the manual to review the servicing needs and schedule them on your calendar.  Order your most commonly used spare parts and keep them available.  Murphy’s law is going to dictate that the exact moment you need to get that crucial job out for a client is the time that something breaks down because you haven’t lubricated your press in six months.  Shop pic:

Keep good care of your squeegees and flood bars.  Squeegees should be sharp.  Flood bars should be free of nicks or burrs.  Want a giant mess on your hands?  Wait until that screen rips due to a nicked up flood bar.  You’ll think twice about throwing these on the concrete floor, or leaving them in a big pile.

Make sure your platens are centered on your press.  Keep getting complaints that your prints are off center?  Could be your platens aren’t lined up exactly with your screens.  The shirts are loaded right, but because of the relative positional relationship between platen and screen, the print becomes off-center.  This may be true of only one or two boards on your press.  Do yourself a favor and make this examination part of your weekly preventative maintenance routine.

So there you have it.  Five basic ideas that could help your shop save you tons of money in the long run with misprints.  It usually comes down to one or two basic things when something goes wrong.  When you have a problem, back-track the challenge and find out the root cause of the situation.  Even though the issue occurred on the press, most misprints can be tracked down to a management issue.  Don’t just start blaming the printer for your misprints either, make sure they are set up for continual success by having a good management team supporting them.  If your shop is having problems in these areas and you need some help sorting it out, shoot me an e-mail at and let’s set up some time to talk about it!