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.


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

Vince Lombardi Was Wrong

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  That phrase has been closely associated with the legendary Green Bay Packer football coach, and often very widely quoted.  He supposedly used it as early as 1959 in his opening talk of training camp for the team.  Here in Wisconsin, publicly stating that the coach was anything less than perfect is tantamount to heresy and I’ll probably be tarred and feathered sometime next week.  Bring it.

My point is contextual in nature though.  Recently the company that I lead, Visual Impressions, was named a finalist in the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year awards.  There were thirty four companies that made it to the final list and in our category (Small 1 – 99 employees) there were a total of nine companies named.  The black-tie award dinner was fantastic, with Governor Scott Walker giving the keynote address.  It was the Academy Awards of companies that make stuff.

At the awards, right before they announced the winner in our division I reflected on all the great people that give tremendous effort daily at Visual Impressions.  Our talented and creative staff accomplishes more than just screen-printing or embroidering apparel all day.  They provide for their families.  As our customers aren’t just local, every order we ship drives the economic engine for this country.  Shirts that we have decorated are everywhere in the nation, and some even get shipped abroad.  You’ve seen them, you just don’t realize it.  Some of the shirts we’ve printed even have a higher purpose, such as the ones we printed after the Boston Marathon tragedy that raised a tremendous amount of money for the One Fund Boston. (Read my blog article about that experience here – When Lightning Strikes)

That’s how I know Coach Lombardi was wrong.  Winning truly isn’t everything.  It was ok in my heart when Tailored Label Products  won, and we watched them celebrate one table away.  (Congratulations to them – they are awesome by the way!)

Sure it was extraordinary to have Visual Impressions be acknowledged as one of the best run companies in the state.  That doesn’t hurt.  However, I know how incredibly hard our staff works to make Visual Impressions the leader in our industry.  It’s our daily journey that counts.  Our dedication to quality and continuously improving our process has led us to the success and growth we’ve achieved. 

It’s why we are a certified sustainable printer by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.  Leading the decorated apparel industry in sustainability is part of our value proposition, and we leverage that fact every day when building our relationships with clients.

It’s why we participated in the very first ScaleUp Milwaukee program which was dedicated in developing the local Entrepreneur Ecosystem.  Getting out of our comfort zone and learning something new will pay off large dividends in the future.

It’s why we love participating in local non-profit fundraising events and activities.  Giving back matters.  It’s not all about you.

It’s why our customers turn to us in the first place.  There are tons of companies that can print a t-shirt or embroider a polo shirt.  Our customers know and appreciate the level of service and dedication to quality that we provide every day.  They constantly turn to us to help resolve some challenging order, or impossible request.  Hitting homeruns for them is a great feeling.

Well, I guess that’s enough chest thumping for now.  Whew.  I feel better too.  All the tuxedos and pretty dresses have been put away, and everyone is back to work.  We didn’t get to snake through the crowd, high-fiving everyone on the way.  I would have loved to hear owner Jay Berman’s speech thanking our staff, customers, vendors and friends.  I’m sure it was a good one.  We’re still the same company.  We’re still going to be giving 110% every day for our customers, striving to improve and learn something new.  Maybe next year our name will be called.  Until then…

Pathways to the Brain Trust – SGIA Congress of Committee’s Success

Last fall I was invited to participate in the 2014 SGIA Congress of Committees in Fort Lauderdale.  This event, held this past week, brought together the top print industry professionals for a series of meetings that focused exclusively on how the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association can improve, develop, and strengthen their impact for the companies they serve.  It was an amazing event, and I was honored to participate and represent Visual Impressions and the garment decorator industry as a whole.

If you aren’t a member of the association, I’d like you to explore the opportunity for a few moments.  The SGIA is an association that only has one purpose; to make your business stronger.  In the headline above I called it the “Pathway to the Brain Trust” and that’s exactly what the association delivers.  While the event I attended was a mash-up of the who’s who in the print industry, the association taps these people for their experience, skill, and creative imagination to try to understand not only what’s happening in the printing industry now, but where it’s going in the future.  Huge amounts of resource materials are available to you as a member, as well as access to just about anything that could positively affect your business.  With a groundbreaking print industry trade show, and an outstandingly written journal, members have the business advantage over their competitors.  Check out the association website and see for yourself – www.sgia.org.

I participated in three committee meetings, but had more discussions in between or around the events as well.  Here are some tidbits of information that I think others may be interested in learning:

Tag Words & Accurate Information.  Each association member has the ability to tag their company with words that will show up in a search function.  Unfortunately, a good number of companies don’t accurately portray their company with tags.  The association uses a referral network, http://www.sgia.org/printer_search/  to direct these searches.  SGIA is continually being approached by your potential customers looking for a new vendor.  This is a great way to maximize your membership, as they gave out over 8,000 referrals last year.  To make sure you have the ability to get these referrals, make sure your SGIA membership profile is accurately filled out with great tags that portray all the offerings your company provides.  Also, make sure that your company’s contact information is filled out as well as well.  A good number of the referrals come back with statements that they can’t get a response from the company’s they have contacted.  This is future business opportunities that go missed because of inaccurate information or staff that don’t return a phone call.

SGIA is Revamping Their Website.  A lot of hard work and thought has gone into their Drupal-based website redesign.  They hope to have everything launched and running in March.  There will be added content and it will be more user friendly for members looking for information.

Benefits & Services.  – Besides the plethora of webinars, articles, great content in the journals, SGIA is working to add some new benefits this year.  Some of these include discounts on UPS shipping, credit card processing, the ability for web to print online storefronts, and discounts on software like Corel.

SGIA Journal.  This is one of the best resources on the market for print companies.  I don’t know if you have picked up a recent copy, but each issue is packed with great articles all positioned to make your company better.  If you are a garment decorator, there are now 4 issues a year just for our industry.  What’s really great about the journal is that the folks at SGIA spend a good amount of time compiling the information and authors for each issue.  There’s only 30% of the issue devoted to advertising, so the pages are crammed with information.  The top thought leaders in the print industry are the authors too.

-Sustainability.  One of my favorite topics.  I’m proud of the fact that SGIA takes a lead position on this topic.  During the committee meeting here’s what I learned:

-SGIA has definitely defined itself in the conversation as the leading expert in sustainability education.  The Peer to Peer group meetings are a great way to start the journey for companies.  A good number of them use this as the launching point for their sustainability journey and most end up becoming SGP Certified printers.  (www.spgppartnership.org)

-Sales Force Training. There could be some development education for sales force training.  After all, what good is it to have a sustainability program if you can’t get the message out about the good you are doing?  Your sales force or customer service team needs to be able to accurately discuss your program with intelligence and understanding.  What is the benefit to your customer?  Why should they care?

-SGIA is the trusted advisor to companies building their programs.  Information on energy reduction, carbon footprint calculations, how to recycle, examinations of the soft costs of sustainability, inks & chemicals, and other hot button issues are all available to SGIA members.

-Shop Towel Rule – this landmark regulation is in your lap as a shop, but do you know anything about it?  Even if you use a third party contractor to handle your shop towels, you are still affected by this law.  You “own” this process, and how the shop towels are handled, treated, disposed of, or laundered still affects you.  You need the complete chain of custody for your shop towels, and need to understand where the waste water is going.  Look at your contracts folks.

Garment Decorator Meeting Notes.  There was some healthy discussion here on numerous topics that Garment Decorators face every day.  Some of the better discussions were focused on:

-Employee Training.  How to find and recruit better employees?  How to train the ones we have?  SGIA already has some good resources online and in the journal, but they will be adding to the discussion more information this year too.  Have you taken advantage of the information on the website?  There are tons of information on wage comparisons, how-to training guides, pre-written job descriptions, webinars, and other videos that you can use.

-E-Commerce.  We had some great conversations about how companies are increasing their e-commerce platforms and how to make it easier for others to use.  Websites that have good customer service and employee social media strategies have better success.  Social media is driving the bus, but your market niche is the road you need to be traveling on.  Find out where your customers are, and use the social media channel that works best to target them.  Younger markets are using Instagram.  Business professionals are on LinkedIn.  More families and moms use Facebook.  Posting on Fridays is the best, but for e-mail blasts send these out on Saturdays, when your audience has more time to read them.

-On-shoring.  More orders are coming back to the US for production.  With increased costs for labor and transportation, it seems that some of the larger jobs that would be outsourced to firms in other countries are coming back to the United States for production.

-“Burst” Production.  This was the new term I learned at the meetings.  This simply is the ability to handle inconsistent and sometimes high volume work at a moment’s notice.  More companies are strategically placing themselves ready for this as they develop the infrastructure and capacity for this by having production available for work.  Presses could sit idle with downtime in between jobs, and Bam!; get booked for jobs that have tighter deadlines.  This is a value add for companies looking for contract printing and part of the new wave of on-shoring production.  Funny, all this time I thought that this was just normal production in the garment industry.  Now I have the accurate name for it.

     -SGIA at MAGIC.  This has been a huge success and SGIA is continuing this as a good recruitment tool for the association.  If you don’t know, MAGIC is the largest apparel show in the United States and concentrates on the retail fashion market.  A lot of printers attend this show, as you can get a good sense as to where the t-shirt industry is heading for design motifs, colors and trends.  SGIA has partnered with some garment decorating industry manufacturers and positioned a press demonstration in the Sourcing area at MAGIC.  This led to some great interactions and has positioned SGIA as the “Best of the Best” for industry knowledge.  Because of this there was some discussion as to the viability of doing the same thing for the PPAI or ASI shows.

     -Wearable Technology.  This is a wave of the future coming to you.  There was some interesting discussion, both at the committee meeting and also during some dinner networking events, on this subject.  This subject is how companies such as Nike, adidas, Apple and others are positioning sensors and other devices in the garments.  These can be interfaced with devices for bio-feedback, music, lighting, heat sources or other fantastic ideas.  How are these to be printed?  How can these garments be decorated later?  Can your company be part of this future?

All in all, the SGIA Congress of Committees was a great event and I was thrilled to be a part of it.  It’s exciting to be on the ground floor of the future in my industry and to see so many great people involved.  If you are not a member of SGIA, I highly encourage you to look into it (www.sgia.org) and to learn from the best.  The association’s sole function is to make your company better.  Getting the “behind the scenes” look that drives that home is the brain trust of the members and SGIA staff members that meet continually to improve the print industry.  Bravo SGIA, bravo!

2014 ISS Long Beach Wrap Up

Marshall HollywoodSixteen degrees and snowing…  That was the weather in Milwaukee when I left for the sunny, and high seventies/low eighties weather of Long Beach, California for this years Imprinted Sportswear Show.  If anyone needed a reason to jet out and check out what’s the latest from hundreds of vendors and trade experts; that just might be the best.

From my perspective though, this year’s largest apparel decorator event kicked off 2014 in a big way.  Crowds were not only huge, but overwhelmingly optimistic on their business outlook for this upcoming year.  I spoke with printers, shop owners, vendors and industry media, and everyone was pointing to this year being a great one.  Let me tell you, that is really encouraging.  Why?  Well, it’s been my experience that sometimes this industry puts on the “doom and gloom hat” and that’s one party favor that’s sometimes hard to take off.

From the shop perspective, the dozens of folks that I spoke with were all on the hunt for something special for their company.  New equipment, the latest styles of apparel blanks, ink, chemicals, emulsion, screen-frames, embroidery, heat transfer, dye-sub, applique, shop supplies…you name it, they had it on the floor.  It was great bumping into long time industry friends and making new ones.  I had a huge list of people that I wanted to see, but if I missed you – I just flat ran out of time (or I came by your booth and you were too swamped)!!

For the third year running, I taught a class on Sustainability and how shops can lower their operating costs by adopting a better strategy for running their companies.  The turnout was great, with 30 some-odd people in the class, but the interaction from the group was better.  It is always wonderful when people open up and share, and I am very thankful that these people took time out of their day to learn something new. (Thanks!!)  Adopting a Sustainability program has proven that you can do the right thing, while operating with bigger profits.  If you took my class – I’m still challenging you to start your program and work towards getting your Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) certification!!  www.sgppartnershp.org

So what were my show highlights from the floor?  I’m not going to name everyone that I spoke with (who would want to read that?)  But maybe some of the experiences stand out…here goes (in no particular order):

1.  Loved the huge booth for the alphabroder rebranding, not to mention the great live model catwalk with the latest fashions.   It was a good splash!!

2.  Catching up with Bill Hood hanging out in the Action Engineering booth.  That guy still knows everything.

3.  Was it me or were there less dye-sub machines on the floor than last year?  I swear at the 2013 show, you couldn’t turn around without seeing another “entry-level” dye-sub machine available.  That’s still a great process, but I just don’t want to see every yahoo around starting a t-shirt decorating business in their dining room.

4.  Speaking of technology and equipment, I’m really excited to see where the new developments with some major equipment manufacturers will ripple down and inspire others.

a.  Kornit’s Avalanche Hexa printer is a 6 color direct to garment printer that features the traditional CMYK channels, plus an additional red and green channels for an extended color gamut.  Visual Impressions already owns an Avalanche, so we are intimately knowledgeable about the blazing speed and color control of this series printer, but having Hexachrome based process printing really adds something to the mix.

b.  M&R’s new direct to screen printer with the LED exposure unit is still knocking everyone’s socks off.  Debuted at the 2013 SGIA show in Orlando, the company’s dedicated showroom for this product was standing room only all weekend.  It’s great to see sustainable technology improving existing equipment.  Why was everyone interested?  You can image a full size sep on a screen and expose it in under one minute.  I timed it with my art, so that’s no foolin’.  Couple that speed with not having the huge electricity hog that is an exposure table, and that’s a big winner.

5.  Loved discussing sustainability with everyone on the show floor.  Very impressed with PolyOne, as they were out in front with their marketing on the subject.  (Also very happy that they are committed to being a patron for SGP for 2014 – great job!!)

6.  Good seeing Rodney Blackwell with TShirtForums.com – that’s one cool cat!

7.  Ink Kitchen – Tom Davenport and Rick Roth have a new adventure starting for this industry.  Stopped by their booth for a chat, and Tom asked me to help contribute some content this year towards their effort!!  Happy to help.  Good job guys…  http://theinkkitchen.com/

8.  Two things really intrigued my sustainability class, and they are worth a mention as there was some good discussion regarding these topics…

a.  SmartWasher – the latest in squeegee cleaner – parts washer development.  Replace that parts washer you get from Safety Kleen with a new sustainable technology called “bio-remediation”.  Essentially this is a process where microbes suspended in a fluid eat your excess ink when you clean them in this washer.  Their branded process is called “Ozzy Juice”.  It’s far cheaper than how most shops do this, and a lot safer.  www.chemfree.com  – there’s a free 30 day trial available.

b.  How Visual Impressions has virtually eliminated the use of masking tape with our screens.  I wrote about this in the April edition of Impressions (“Making Economic Sense of Sustainability” – http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/nielsen/impressions_201204/#/56).  If you are using static frames, we outsource ours from a company called Graphic Screen Fashion, as they have a Screen Sealant process where they border the frame where you would put the tape and then caulk the edge between the mesh and the frame.  Frank and his crew were at the show, and they actually had a copy of the article on the table.  http://www.graphicscreenfashion.com/

9.  Got to chat for a bit with Marci Kinter from SGIA.  I’m ready for next month’s SGIA Leadership Meeting in Ft. Lauderdale.  Yep, another chance to leave the snow and work where it’s sunny and beautiful.  (Watch it rain now…)

10.  Had a great time at the Thursday night official “unofficial” meet-up.  Over twenty or so folks showed up and discussed everything under the sun over wings and beer.  Many thanks to Greg Kitson for help organizing, and to everyone that stopped by!!  Awesome!!

11.  Loved talking to people and they tell me that they read my blog or articles in Impressions!!  Thank you very much for taking the time to read my musings…I love it.  I just want to help people in this industry.  It’s wonderful to get feedback and expand on ideas that I’ve shared previously.  One of the benefits is always learning a different aspect of something that I’ve worked on or struggled to resolve.

12.  That PolyOne party Friday night was awesome!  Now that’s how you throw down.  Just curious how everyone was able to work the booth on Saturday morning…

13.  (it’s lucky!!)  January is already almost over.  How’s your year going so far?  2014 is going to be a great year for this industry I can feel it.  Maybe I’m just an optimist though.  I know there are some companies that are struggling, and want or need to improve now.  Need some help?  Contact me at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s talk about how I can help you achieve your goals.

Move Your Company to a Greener Standard – the Why, What and How of Sustainability

Getting started with any new initiative is always difficult.  It’s easy to “talk” about something, much harder to actually “implement” the idea.  This holds true with pushing your company into a more sustainable direction.  You can’t swing a dead cat without bumping into another article, blog, TV news show, or talking head giving us facts about how someone, somewhere is saving the planet and millions of dollars by adopting a greener way of doing business.

But for the average small business that seems like a pie in the sky pipedream.  They are working hard just to find new customers, get orders shipped and meet payroll.  Let’s not even start the discussion on healthcare.  So how can “green” compete for attention with all of that?

First, it starts with a simple conversation.  What can you do, and why do you want to do it?  Is it because it’s the right thing to do?  Is it because your customers are starting to ask about it or demand more from their supply chain?  Is it because you want to create bigger margins by lowering your operating expenses?  What is driving this bus?  Get a few like-minded folks with your company together with some coffee and sit down and detail your needs and objectives.  Get to the “Why”.

Maybe it isn’t time to write an official policy yet, but once you have the why listed, you can start with the what.  “What” as in what you can do about it.  Every company is different, but a lot of the low hanging fruit for sustainability initiatives all center on a few things: energy reduction, recycling, reducing landfill, reducing the carbon footprint, continuous improvement and efficiency, and reusing materials in some way.  What interests you and makes sense for your company?

The third leg on the sustainability stool is “How”.  How is more difficult as it involves work.  You are already busy.  Adding more to your plate can be a non-starter for some.  This is where developing some SMART goals can help.  As you may know already, SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.  To get started with your “How”, develop your SMART goals with your team.  Don’t write this yourself, use your workforce to develop the plan as they will be the ones that will assist you in implementing it.

For example, let’s use the number one sustainability goal for most companies, energy reduction.  Writing a SMART goal centered on this topic could look like this:

Specific – we want to reduce our overall energy spend by 20% for the year.  Last year we spent a total of $50,000 on our electricity, natural gas, propane, and water consumption.  20% of $50,000 would be a $10,000 a year savings.  To achieve our goal, we would need an average reduction of $833.33 a month.

Measureable – By listing the goal of the combined utilities of $833.33 a month, you can easily get that on a spreadsheet and as the bills come in, determine if you are meeting your goal or not.  Be sure to also look up previous years spend on these consumables and get that down on the spreadsheet to use as a comparison.

Achievable – Is this goal achievable?  You don’t want to set your goal too low – say for our example at 1% reduction.  Nor can you go too high – for example 80%.  Make your goal something that is lofty, but a target that you can hit.

Realistic – Similar to achievable, but more grounded.  For our scenario, maybe energy reduction isn’t a good choice as you don’t own your building or have little control on how you can change energy consumption.  A realistic goal is something that you have direct control over.

Timely – Also listed sometimes as Time Driven.  Your goal is specifically for one time period.  In our example, it’s a one year based goal.  As time goes by, you’ll see the results of the effort you are putting into your goal.  Is it working or not?  What can you change to make it better?

To close, building a sustainability program takes good communication, effort and drive.  It is easy to get sidetracked, discouraged and confused.  If it was as easy as checking the mail, everyone would do it.  The payoff of getting your program built is huge, so it’s worth the struggle.  There are plenty of resources, help, information and assistance out there for you.

Not sure where to start and need some help?  Contact me at matkinson4804@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to assist you with your efforts.

2013 Work Sets Up Goals for 2014

First, thank you for reading my blog!!  I appreciate your time and hope that I have contributed something valuable for you.

So the year 2013 has finally come to a close, and like a lot of people there is some time for some introspection.  All in all, it was a good year.  I owe a lot of accomplishments to my great support team at work (Visual Impression’s awesome staff) and my family at home (wife Jody and son Jack).  Without them, I’m really just a squirrel in a cage running on the wheel by myself.  Some highlights below:

1. Blog.  My goal this year for the blog was to build readership through the use of social media and write at least one blog article a week aimed at the decorated apparel industry.  Using the WordPress analytics tool, I’d say my goal was an outstanding success.  For 2012 I averaged 1 reader per day, and only had 291 readers for the entire year.  Granted, I rarely posted and never really marketed the site so even that number is surprising.  2013 however, was a different story.  I averaged 32 readers a day and had 12,000+ readers for the year.  My record readership for one day was 452.  8,572 readers were from the US, but other readers were from 118 different countries.  Top five blog articles were:

Creating Art for T-shirts: Common Rookie Mistakes Defined

When You Are Up To Your Ass In Alligators

When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts

20 Biggest T-shirt Shop Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

10 Creativity Tips for T-shirt Designers

2. Impressions Magazine Contributions.  I have really enjoyed my relationship with Impressions Magazine.  This year, I had a lot of fun writing pieces for the magazine or their newsletter.  Just recently I also put together a video Tech Tips for them (the last one on the list below) which was another enjoyable challenge.  In my mind’s eye, I don’t really think of myself as a writer but between these contributions and my blog, it’s proven to be a good outlet for me.  Here are the links to the pieces from this year:

Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop

Secrets to Rush Order Success

Key Traits for Customer Service & Sales Teams

Key Traits for Your Art Department

Key Traits for Your Receiving and Shipping Departments

20 Tips for Hot Market Printing

Key Traits for Your Screen Room

Beat the Heat: 20 Tips for Hot Market Printing

A Social Media Game Plan for Apparel Decorators

Key Traits for Screen Printing Press Operators

Multi-Media Decoration of Color Blocked Hoodies

3. Boston Strong.  The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon and how two college students responded using our Ink to the People website (www.inktothepeople.com) proved that there is indeed hope for this world.  My blog article summed up the initial reaction (When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts ) but it didn’t end there.  Since then, they have raised almost a $1,000,000 for the One Fund Boston and they are still going!  I am very proud to be associated with this inspiring effort.  Check them out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/StayStrongBostonStrong.  If you haven’t already, buy a shirt!!

4. Sustainability.  The idea of focusing a better way of manufacturing (printing) for business has proven to be a great platform for me to use at Visual Impressions and beyond.  At Visual Impressions, we’ve lowered our operating costs significantly by focusing our efforts into four core objectives: Energy Reduction, Materials (Ink, Chemicals, & Supplies), Courier (local deliveries), and Trash/Recycling.  If you are in the apparel decorating industry and haven’t started a sustainability journey, I urge you to look into it.  It’s a fantastic way to build margin, while doing things better for the planet.  How can you lose?  Some key highlights for sustainability for 2013 include:

a.  Speaking at ISS Long Beach again on “Sustainability – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle AND Lower Your Operating Expenses”.  I’m giving the same talk again this year – but with new and updated information.  Register for it at http://tinyurl.com/loms9eu.

b.  Speaking at SGIA 2013 in Orlando on “Sustainability Pays Back” – this was a great show, and I even had a client in the audience!

c.  Panelist at the 2013 Wisconsin Sustainable Business Conference for the “Profit in Sustainability” breakout session.  You can view the recorded panel discussion here – http://tinyurl.com/k7cquot

d.  Last but not least, being named to the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Board of Directors in December.  Being part of SGP on a national level is a great honor for me and I’m very proud to be working for them to advance sustainability in the printing business.  With Visual Impressions obtaining the certification, that makes two companies that I’ve captained through the process directly.   www.sgppartnership.org

5.  Fitness.  On a personal level, I started going to the local YMCA on a weekly basis.  I’m averaging 3 or 4 visits a week, depending on my schedule.  I’m certainly not getting any younger (turning 50 in 2014) and going to the gym has been a great release and outlet for me.  I love listening to Spotify while I workout.

a. Ran and finished my first 5k run ever!  The Dragon Dash 5k for my son’s school was great!  http://www.thedragondash.com/

b.  On Thanksgiving I ran and completed the 4 Mile Turkey Trot in Memphis with members of my family, despite the 22 degree weather.  http://memphisturkeytrot.racesonline.com/  It was very challenging for this old guy, but I finished 1987 out of 3100 runners, and 105 in my age group!  Happy not to be last.  A few days before this race I ran over 5 miles in Memphis on their Green Line – it was super!!  http://greatermemphisgreenline.com/

c.  Visual Impressions had a Biggest Loser competition.  We had 10 teams of 4 people compete to see who could lose the biggest percentage of weight by the week following Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful experience and a lot of fun.  My team came in 2nd place, and I lost almost 6% of my body weight during the competition.  At the final weigh in I was down to 208 pounds.  Thanks YMCA!!

6.  ScaleUp Milwaukee.  Visual Impressions participated in a fantastic entrepreneurial program called ScaleUp Milwaukee (www.scaleupmilwaukee.org).  The goal of the program is to develop skills and critical thinking with existing businesses to grow their business in the following year.  I wrote a blog article that better describes the classes, Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee.  Our goal for 2014 – 18% growth.  It is a big, hairy and certainly achievable goal.  Anxious to see how it pans out!!

7.  Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Nomination.  Here’s a great Visual Impressions team award!!  Of the 34 companies nominated only 9 are small businesses like Visual Impressions.  The winner will be announced in February 2014.  http://www.wmc.org/news/breaking-news/2013-wisconsin-manufacturer-of-the-year-award-nominees-revealed/

8.  Having our Visual Impression’s team achieve the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Certification (License Certification ID: 0413-1364915293), this was a year’s worth of effort and some outstanding improvement for the company.  The certification is with an independent third party audit; and achieving the certification has allowed us to market our company and acquire new client’s with our efforts.  Being an industry leader is a good thing…

9.  Finally finding a company in Milwaukee for Visual Impressions to partner with for our recycling…only interviewed 6 or 7 companies…  Pioneer International makes it incredibly easy and since March of 2013 we have recycled 26.9 tons of cardboard, paper, plastic and metal.  www.pioneerintl.com

So what professional goals are targeted for 2014?  Here’s the list so far:

1.  Major participation with the SGP Board of Directors.  My goal is to represent the decorated apparel industry with this group and get more printers, suppliers and industry media involved.  I already have one supplier, PolyOne committed to becoming a major sponsor. (Thank You!!) If you want to learn more and can help, please contact me and let’s discuss why you should get involved!

2.  SGIA Leadership Committee.  I will be traveling to Ft. Lauderdale in February for the committee meetings and looking forward to serving on the garment decorating and sustainability committees.

3.  More public speaking events on Sustainability.  I’m already slated for the ISS Long Beach show, but am also participating at the Manufacturing Matters conference in Milwaukee at a breakout session on the business value of sustainability – http://www.manufacturingmatters.org/sessions/sustainability-driven-business-value

4.  Recycling – Embroidery Stabilizer.  This is the backing material that we use to keep the embroidery secure on the garment.  Currently there isn’t a way to recycle this material.  This is a project that I’ve believe will change the embroidery industry if we can find a way to recycle this material on a broader scale.  Embroidery shops all across the nation are throwing this material away and it’s all going to landfill.  At Visual Impressions, we fill two 8 yard dumpsters a week with this stuff.  The problem is that it costs more to transport the material to be recycled than what it is ultimately worth.  If you have an idea on how this material can be used, or if you are currently recycling it I’d love to hear from you!!

5.  Social Media growth and networking.  I’ve spent a good deal of effort growing this part of my personal branding and it’s paying off every day.  If you are not connected with me currently, I’d love to network with you to share ideas and learn from each other.  Here are my major channels:

LinkedIn – www.linkedin.com/in/marshallatkinson/

Twitter – www.twitter.com/atkinsontshirt/

Pinterest – www.pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/

Blog – http://atkinsontshirt.blog/

6.  Visual Impressions.  As stated previously here, we are all about growth…but this growth has to make sense and be beneficial to both parties.  We want to be your trusted apparel decorator that you can turn to for any order or program.  We are currently adding personnel, equipment and infrastructure to accommodate the growth and get ready for 2014.  It’s an exciting time to be in this industry as there are a lot of new technologies emerging.  Contact me and let me know how we can help you with your success!  marshall@visualimp.com or (414) 379-6231.

7.  Fitness.  Keep working out weekly and have my weight consistently under 210.  I’d like to run in at least two 5k runs and one 10k run this year.  I’m considering this a professional goal, as my improved fitness has helped me daily with my work goals.  I do a lot of thinking while I’m running or sweating my butt off in the gym.  More than one blog article was “pre-written” while doing laps or grunting through some reps with weights.

8.  Professional Networking.  It’s great to share experiences and stories with others.  Learning and growing are always on the forefront of my mind.  Let’s learn together!

9.  More articles published in industry trade magazines.  I’m still going to write for Impressions, but I’ve also have been asked to contribute to Wearables Magazine and Stitches Magazine this year.  I’m on their Advisory Boards as well.  I’m writing my first piece for Wearables right now!

10.  Be a great husband and father.  Really this should be my number one goal, but it’s a personal one too so it’s good to end the list with this one.  Since working for Visual Impressions I’ve come to appreciate a better work/life balance than what was my daily life in Florida.  The grass is greener over the fence sometimes…   I love you Jody & Jack!!

T-shirt Life-Cycle Questions – What To Do with Those T-shirts

Recently I attended the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Conference as a speaker on “The Profit in Sustainability”.  After the event, one of the other speakers on my panel (AJ Gordon with Gordon Aluminum Industries – http://www.gordonaluminum.com/) sent me an e-mail follow up, and was wondering about the life-cycle of t-shirts.  He is in the aluminum manufacturing business; and in his industry all the scrap is melted down and reused.

As someone who has been in the decorated apparel business I have probably more t-shirts than your average guy.  The majority of them are shoved into my closet or drawers, and are all usually items that either I designed or had a part in the printing process for an event.  In the basement, I have boxes and boxes of them.  Why am I saving them?  I have no idea.  As time marches on, I’ll add to the collection too.  I’m positive that the average person on the street has a big collection too.  Let’s face it, we love t-shirts!!  I’m happy and proud of this fact as it supports my family every day.

But you have to wonder why we hoard all these t-shirts and if maybe there’s a better repurposed use for them?  Do I really need to keep them?  Do you?

To that end I did some good ol’ fashioned internet research (remember when you had to go to the library to do that?  Yes, I’m that ancient), and dug up some interesting tidbits.  To share…

I found this great quote from a white paper on sustainability (http://tinyurl.com/nlnfu5v) to set up the discussion from Klaus Toepfer the executive director of UNEP “Consumers are increasingly interested in the world behind the product they buy. Life cycle thinking implies that everyone in the whole chain of a product’s life cycle, from cradle to grave, has a responsibility and a role to play, taking into account all the relevant external effects. The impacts of all life cycle stages [materials and manufacturing, use by the customer, disposal and handling at end of use] need to be considered comprehensively when taking informed decisions on production and consumption patterns, policies and management strategies”   

So, do you think that is true with t-shirts?  Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I’d say that this quote may be true for other products, but not so much with t-shirts.  Sure, your average consumer probably wears their favorite shirts for decades and then relegates them to the “can’t throw it away” pile, or maybe if they are crafty sews it into a quilt, a rug or something.  A good percentage of folks probably donate to their local homeless shelter, Goodwill, or charity clothing drives every year or two.  Shirts also see a second life from garage sales, and hand me downs as well.

But is that “melting them down” like the aluminum block example?  How many T-shirts currently exist right now that are like mine – just stuffed into a box in the corner and forgotten?  Repurposing is one thing; completely recycling the material is another.  Looking at the product life cycle “cradle to grave” generally there are five stages in a products life cycle: Raw Material Acquisition (growing the cotton), Manufacturing (making the t-shirt & decorating it), Distribution Storage & Retail (selling the shirt), Use (you actually wearing the shirt), Disposal and End of Life (what happens to the shirt).  (Recently there was a great segment on NPR Planet Money on t-shirts that’s worth watching if you want to see some video footage on the product origins of your average t-shirt – http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/#/title.)  So that being said, is there a cost effective way to take the discarded t-shirt and use it as a resource for fibers to make another product?

Actually there is.  Cotton is a lot like paper in that the fibers can be broken down and made into new things.  This is important, as if consumers want to make a difference they can shop for items that are constructed out of recycled content fibers.  The more of the demand for this type of item, the more fibers may be kept out of landfills as the demand for this material stream will increase.  According to the EPA, a little over 5% of the stuff that goes to landfills is textile waste.  (http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/textiles.htm#facts)   That’s why keeping your old t-shirts out of the landfill is important, but it is just not always crystal clear to your average consumer.

When you donate your clothing to a local charity your t-shirts are sorted according to quality.  According to a Council on Textile Recycling study (http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/images/clothing-life-cycle.png), 45% of items donated are resold or repurposed as secondhand clothing.  30% are recycled into rags, and the remaining 20% is converted into new fibers that end up as carpet or fibers for industry.  The remaining 5% goes to landfill.

So what are the apparel manufacturers doing on this front?  Let’s take a look at a few for examples…

Patagonia is doing something wonderful with their “Take Back” program (http://www.patagonia.com/us/common-threads/recycle)     On their website, they posted that they have recycled 56.6 tons of their product into new items since 2005.  I love this.  Their industry leading idea is to take any of their items back for repair or recycling.  They make it easy by giving an address that you can ship the item, or you can bring the item into a store and they will take care of it.  Here’s their policy: http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=5175#recycle

Here’s one newer t-shirt manufacturer that is taking a different approach – SustainU.  Check out this excellent TEDtalk by their founder Chris Yura about his approach to manufacturing t-shirts and how sustainability and the millennial generation will change consumers approach to business – http://www.sustainuclothing.com/store/en/the-future-of-clothing/

Gildan has a great approach to sustainability as well, and has devoted a lot of effort to doing things better but are they devoted to repurposing their shirts like Patagonia?  Check out their webpage – http://www.genuinegildan.com/en/environment/goals-targets/

Hanes is also taking a stance on sustainability, and they have a brand that uses recycled polyester called EcoSmart and uses recycled cotton waste to make socks – http://www.hanesbrandscsr.com/environmental-responsibility.html

So at the end of the day, where are we on the subject of repurposing t-shirts?  Probably in the infancy of a better movement in my view.  As it takes more and more valuable resources to grow cotton and have it converted into fibers to make t-shirts, I think you are going to see more apparel being constructed from recycled synthetic materials (the polyester content in your 50/50 shirt) and more t-shirt manufacturers taking a harder look at recycling cotton fibers from the consumer waste stream.  However, to make it a fully operational function of their process they are going to have to take a better approach similar to how Patagonia has staked out and make it easy for consumers to get the material into their hands to be repurposed.

As a t-shirt printer, maybe that means we need to become a source point for that collection.  We are already segregating our cardboard, paper, plastic, metal, and other materials for recycling.  Adding one more item to that could be something that we could take a closer examination and see if we could make a difference.  It all has to start with the industry supply chain communicating together and understanding steps to make it a reality.  Who is going to lead that effort?

I’d love to hear your viewpoints on this subject in the comments section below!!  Let’s start the conversation with a simple question “what do you do with your t-shirts that you don’t wear”?

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.  (www.sgppartnership.org)   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 maktinson4804@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to consult with you on how to get started.