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Sustainability Challenge – Embroidery Stabilizers

If you embroider apparel you are very familiar with this problem.  After your machine has completed the run, the next step in production is to remove the excess embroidery stabilizer (or pellon, backing, or whatever you call it in your shop).  Depending on the version, this could be tear-away, white, black and many varying thicknesses.  Most often you will have to cut closely around the item.  The remaining material is discarded.

And there’s the problem.  We just throw it away.  For the past year or so, I have been trying to find an after production use or strategy to recycle this material.  At Visual Impressions we run 120 embroidery heads with two complete shifts.  We nearly fill a dumpster every two days with this material.  We currently recycle every other material in the building: paper, plastic, cardboard, metal, batteries, light bulbs, electronics, etc.  Finding a source to pick up and use this has been proven to be the biggest challenge to date.

The stabilizer material is some sort of cotton and polyester composite fiber material.  I have discussed this with our vendor and salesperson, and although there is some interest in the discussion, nothing has developed yet.  To me, it make perfect sense that this stuff could be shredded and chopped up to be used for stuffing, insulation, filler, or maybe recycled back into its same form again.  I have shown it to about a dozen recycling companies now, and nobody has an answer.  This seems like a big opportunity for someone to step up.

So, if you are an embroidery shop out there in production-land, what are you doing with your stabilizer material?  Is it just going into the dumpster?  Are you recycling it somehow?  I would love to hear from you.  Maybe there is some way we can pool our voices and find a solution to this challenge.

Contact me at and let’s help each other!

Wish List for the Decorated Apparel Industry

I had a really interesting conversation yesterday with an equipment vendor of ours.  During the dialog he asked “What do you wish for everyday that would make your job easier?”  Of course, he was just trying to sell but it was great fodder for a blog article so here goes (in no particular order)!

  1. Recyclable Materials.  As many of you know, I’m big on sustainability.  There’s a feel good, karma building factor to it; but the main reason is it helps build your margins and reduce your operating costs.  We have some good things going at Visual Impressions with our sustainability program.  One facet of this is our recycling, and after getting it going this year we’ve recycled over 12 tons of cardboard, paper, plastic and metal in four months.  We’ve also reduced our dumpster pick up from three times a week to two.  I feel that we could reduce this to once a week or even once every two weeks if I could find someone to recycle the embroidery pellon backing.  This is the material that’s used to stabilize the sewing on garments so the thread is more secure.  In the past year and half or so, I’ve sent this material off to at least 10-12 companies to see if we could work something out.  With 120 heads of embroidery working two shifts, we go through this stuff like crazy and there is a lot of material leftover that just gets thrown away.
  2. More Consistency with Apparel Blanks.  It seems that we are running into issues more frequently now that stems from challenges with dye lots from apparel manufacturers.  Have you had this in your shop?  For example, half your mediums look great, but the other half have dye migration challenges.  I’ve seen color shifts with blanks in the same box too.  Let’s not forget hems and pockets that aren’t sewn straight.  These are all from major shirt manufacturers.  Their degree of what’s acceptable is pretty liberal, and we’re left holding the bag sometimes.  Ding.  Tighten up!
  3. Vendors That Get It.   Some vendors are great, always at the top of their game and they will provide you with expert and immediate customer service.  Others…well, let’s just say they are the ones that we’re always eye-balling their competition.  Although price certainly helps, it doesn’t do much good if we have to wait three more days for something to come in due to your inventory issues.  You would think that someone would connect the dots between their sales staff and their operations staff.   (And let’s not even start with companies like American Apparel, who have legendary warehouse challenges)
  4. The “One More Hour” Card.  If you’ve ever played Monopoly you know there’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that you can play to help your game.  I’d like a “One More Hour” card to use on those days where you have tons of orders to ship, but you are up against the window with your freight pick-up times.  Bam!  One more hour!  Like a coupon, maybe you can double it on Fridays.
  5. Bigger Pool of Trained Potential Employees.  Occasionally you have to hire new people for all the obvious reasons.  I’m often amazed at the smaller and smaller pool of experienced designers, printers and operators available.  We’re constantly on the lookout for great employees, and often have to “grow our own” by just finding folks with basic skills and great attitudes.  It would be great to see if we just placed an ad and qualified people answered, instead of the steady stream of people with zero experience.
  6. What are yours?  Please leave one or two of your wishes in the comment section below and let’s share ideas!

Are You A Red Printer?

By now everyone is completely familiar with the ubiquitous term “Green” for environmental concerns.  Being a responsible steward of the environment is not only good for your overall karma, as it’s the right thing to do; it’s also proven to be great for business.

As we’re in the graphic communications industry, I’m sure you are aware of the color wheel.  The opposite of green on the color wheel is red.  So environmentally speaking, if you aren’t a “Green Printer” does that make you a “Red Printer” if you don’t develop a sustainability program?  Think about it.  What are you doing in your shop today, that’s environmentally friendly?

Just recycling your soda cans doesn’t count.  Is that the best you can do?

Have you ever looked at what it would take to get something going and really do it right?  The adage “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” is really true.  I am extremely proud of the fact that Visual Impressions, where I’m the COO, just became the next printer in the United States to become Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) certified (  Our journey took a little over a year, and with a lot of hard work, creative thinking, teamwork, research, and support we accomplished our goal.

Well, so what you ask?  What did you really accomplish you may wonder?  Quite a lot actually.

First we established a Sustainability Committee.  This is a group of interested staff members that are tasked to develop our program and give their mental effort to drive our actions.  We wrote a Sustainability Mission Statement that we use to guide our business, and for 2012 we voted to work to reduce our energy expenditure by 20%.

The committee developed SMART goals that focused our efforts, and laid the roadmap out for success.  We worked all year on this effort and employed many tasks, such as installing motion sensors for lights in common areas like break rooms and bathrooms; lowering our dryer temperatures to correct levels, adjusting the thermostats in the shop and office, fixed equipment to perform better, keeping equipment turned off when not in use and other ideas.  Small, easy and seemingly inconsequential things add up to big savings.  Did we reach our goal at the end of the year?  Actually no, but we did save 17.82% from our energy costs compared to 2011.  As we’re in a 100,000 square foot facility and operate on two shifts, this was a good chunk of money.  If you think about it in terms of your energy cost per imprint – we reduced it by 28.38%.

I also appointed a Sustainability Coordinator, Jake Gallas.  Jake is one of our key managers already, and he is a great asset for this initiative.  Most of the leg work moves through him, and he delegates the effort out to his staff.  He also is responsible for coordinating all the training and daily follow up with our crew.

We signed up for an Energy Audit from our local utility and they provided us with a detailed report on our energy consumption.  They also professionally validated a lot of our efforts and offered some tips to keep them moving forward.

Jake and I participated in several months of SGP support Peer to Peer webinars run by Marci Kinter from SGIA.  These were wonderful, hour long talks that walked us through all the different facets on building our program and preparing us for our third party audit that earns you the certification.  This was invaluable.

Through the SGP program we calculated our carbon footprint, measured our VOC’s and HAP’s, wrote policies and procedures on crucial aspects of the company (some were new; some were just formalizing existing ones).  We also designed a training program for sustainability, safety and hazard communication for all employees.  Because of the program, we also had some great conversations with our existing vendors and suppliers, and changed a few ways we order materials.

Our sustainability efforts weren’t just limited to our main goal of energy reduction either.  We also had worked on several challenges such as eliminating the use of masking tape in the screen room, reusing cardboard boxes in a better way, recycling our ink into a new color, finding a recycler to help handle our materials, sourced a new shrink wrap for pallet wrapping, and other projects all aimed at the three “R”s – Reduce, Reuse or Recycle.

We also are participating in two local Milwaukee Sustainability Programs – ME2 & ME3.   We started with the ME3 program ( – if you watch the documentary video we are featured) and obtained a grant that allowed us to bring in a team of engineers to audit Visual Impressions to help find ways to reduce our energy.  They gave us a short list of potential projects, and we chose to examine the efficiency of our natural gas operated dryers for screen-printing.  We are also using the grant money to convert our office lighting to LED’s.

The ME2 program ( is also grant based, and its focus is helping companies with support for major capital investments, and we are using the money to acquire a new Kornit Avalanche direct to garment printer.  The sustainability savings here is focused on driving more orders to be digitally printed, rather than traditionally screen-printed – which requires more effort, energy and process.

Our 2013 SMART goal that our Sustainability Committee developed is to reduce our landfill by 50% by the end of the year.  We’ve finally teamed up with couple of recycling companies, and have put in place a program to segregate and recycle our waste cardboard, paper, plastic, metal, batteries, electronics, light bulbs, and waste chemicals.  One final material that we’re having trouble with is finding someone that can use our scrap embroidery pellon stabilizer.  At the time of this post, I have six companies working on it.  (If anyone is recycling this material, please contact me!!)

All in all, we have made tremendous progress from doing virtually nothing at the end of 2011.  (Then we just compacted and recycled our cardboard and soda cans)  Since then our sustainability program has provided a value of well over $140,000 (savings and grant money combined).  Not bad for a first year initiative.

So, if you are a “Red” printer and feel that this sustainability stuff is just a feel good, tree hugging exercise with little real value, think again. What are you waiting for?  Take your first step and start with some low hanging fruit.  Here’s what I would do:

  1. Contact SGP and learn how this program can help you.
  2. Start a sustainability committee.  Discuss what you can do with at your company.  Set some simple goals.
  3. Get an Energy Audit from your local utility.  It’s probably free.  They will come out and poke around your building and should give you a report on what you can do to save energy.  Follow their recommendations.
  4. Turn stuff off when not in use.
  5. Talk to your vendors, suppliers and customers – what can they do to help?
  6. Does your local area or government have any sustainability programs?  Contact your chamber of commerce, city or county government, or just simply Google some key words.  There is grant money available for switching out our lights, improving your building, even buying new equipment.

Hope this article helps you, and maybe even inspires you to do something different.  I authored an article in Impressions Magazine in 2012 that may help you too –

Remember, you can’t do it all at once – just getting started is the key.  You also, can’t do it alone; it’s a group effort.

I have many pictures of different sustainability ideas on my Pinterest board “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop” –

If you need help, please let me know and I’ll be happy to discuss how to get things going.

Why a Sustainability Program Makes Economic Sense for Your Shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISS Long Beach Show Recap – Big Success!


I just returned from an outstanding couple of days at the Imprinted Sportswear Show in Long Beach California.  I’ve attended many of these types of shows over the years, but this one stands out for several reasons.  First, and the most obvious reason, was that I gave a presentation on building a sustainability program in an apparel decorator shop.  Second, I was representing my new employer, Visual Impressions, and was very happy to see some great interaction with the vendors at the show.  Although, I didn’t get to see everyone I had hoped to (time limitations), I thought I’d recap some of the major highlights of the show and share with everyone.

  1.  I’d like to give the primary shout out to everyone that signed up for my class, “Sustainability: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle and Lower Your Operating Expenses”.  Everyone that attended the class was involved from the start and we had a great interchange of ideas and tips.  If you were in the class, please give yourself a pat on the back for being so forthright with your questions and for sharing how you are doing it in your shop.  Great job!!  I’d love to hear back from you on how you implemented any of the ideas I presented or that others shared.
  2. Another big thank you to Laura Caskey with Nielsen Expositions for making my first time giving a presentation at the event so easy.  She was very organized and wonderful to work with.  Thanks!
  3. Jay Berman (owner of Visual Impressions, my employer) and I had a wonderful dinner with Greg Kitson, owner of Mind’s Eye Graphics, and Deborah Sexton, owner of Saracen Communications and long-time industry journalist.  It was fun sharing how everyone entered into this industry and thoughts on the future.  I’d also like to publically thank Greg for mentoring me on the presentation process with these shows, as I appreciate the help and support from a long time veteran.
  4. Had a great breakfast on the Queen Mary (sorry no ghosts were in sight), with Jay, Rich Pulliam with Midwest Sign & Screen Printing Supply, and Marci Kinter with SGIA.  I’ve known Marci seemingly forever and have spoken to her countless times on the phone, in webinar panels, and by e-mail, but unbelievably have never met her in person.  It was great opportunity for me.  Getting some insight on the current and future state of the Consumer Product and Safety Information Act challenges with our industry ink was extremely enlightening and worth its weight in gold.
  5. I also loved meeting and sharing some ideas with Rodney Blackwell with  He’s a super guy, and I really like the free exchange of ideas on his forum.  Lots of new and future industry superstars go there first to start their journey in the biz, and Rodney gets to help them along their way.  Thanks for your time Rodney!  Keep up the good work!
  6. I was really amazed at the growth in the digital sector in the industry.  Every other booth has some sort of new digital printer, sublimation or process.  Anyone who thinks the future of the industry isn’t moving to digital is delusional.  The standout printer of the show is the new Kornit Avalanche. (see  for their press release)  This is going to be a revolutionary machine in the industry, and it’s not just about the blazing speed either (300 shirts per hour) as they have increased the print size to a huge 23.5” x 35” image, and also the availability to run two completely different jobs simultaneously on the two platens.  This equipment can take an art file from the web and print it on a shirt without any art department prep or human involvement.  To me, this was the standout piece of equipment at the show.  Before the show they had over 40 of these placed in shops around the country, and I spoke with a salesman later Friday evening at a reception and they sold four at the show.  This is the direction we are heading folks.
  7. I also find it strangely amusing that people that interested in getting into the DTG market are not calculating the cost of the ink, pretreatment labor step, and other variables into their purchase price ROI calculations.  They all want the $20k printer, but aren’t looking past that purchase price and into the true cost of the printer which is their ink and labor.  (which also depends on their production volume – I get it)  I spoke to several people at the show and to a person they were dismissing this calculation and just focusing on the “get it in the door” price.
  8. Speaking of strangely amusing, I also am left wondering why so many printers have not even heard of the regulations for lead and non-phthalate inks as mandated by the CPSC.  For those of us that want to do this right, any increase in cost that we may have to add to the price of doing youth shirts is going to be undercut by some uninformed slob down the street that doesn’t even care.  Even some of the larger shop owners and production managers I spoke with aren’t following or worrying about this.   This is going to get uglier than it already is now.
  9. Another great new piece of equipment to see is SignTronic’s ScreenMaster, which is a fully automated direct to screen system that not only images the screen, but washes out the emulsion and dries the screen for you.  (here’s the link to the video  This was extremely cool, and a big thanks to Lee Bryhn for walking us through the system.  You can get about 30 screens an hour through the machine, and basically reduce your screen room labor down to just a few people, as the equipment does all the work.  Big price tag, and if you need more than 30 screens an hour it’s going to be too slow, but a great innovation.
  10. Loved talking shop with all the great folks at Wilflex/Polyone and NazDar.  Good to see them, and I’d like to say thank you to Rob Coleman for his insights with the CPSC regulations, Peter Walsh for just being Peter Walsh, but for also help arranging for a DM4 demo, and to Adam Scaife for introducing us to Dave Swart Director of Operations for New Buffalo Shirt Factory.  Great hearing Dave’s insights on the industry, operations, and resolving challenges.  Good seeing Carl Busey, and talking shop with him too.
  11. On a personal note, I’d like to give thanks to my new employers Jay Berman and Todd Richheimer with Visual Impressions.  They are truly great people to work for, and are actively involved with the business and “get it”.  I’ve been working for them since August and really love the attitude, feedback, enthusiasm, and respect that they have shown me.  Thanks for picking up the tab for me for this show and for next month’s one in Orlando.  If you do business with Visual, you know what I’m talking about when I say they are great guys…if you haven’t placed an order with us yet – it’s not too late!  Try us and see the difference.
  12. I’d also like to give some thanks and credit to my wife Jody for helping me as always.  She motivates me constantly to be a better person, see things that I don’t, and to remind me of not only where I’ve been – but more importantly where I’m going.  Thanks babe!  Daisy.
  13. Lastly, if I missed seeing you at the ISS Long Beach show, there’s another opportunity a few weeks away in Florida at ISS Orlando.  I’d love to spend some time with anyone and compare notes on how to resolve challenges, improve, motivate staff, build a better schedule, handle CPSC regulations, talk about sustainability, or just catch up on life’s struggles.