The internet is packed full of companies that will take a design and create pretty much any kind of merchandise out of it, from t-shirts to mugs to phone cases and beyond. The trouble is that the majority of these companies are shells, all funneling back to the same sorts of sweatshop-style factories in places like China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Even if the company you order from is based in the US, UK, or elsewhere, the place they turn around and buy their merchandise from – at pennies on the dollar – very much isn’t.
As providers of US-made, union-supported, and ethically produced merchandise, we know the unique challenges of producing ethical and eco-friendly merchandise like t-shirts. It’s not just about the printing process – it’s about the entire supply line:
- Where and how was the cotton grown for the shirts? Are they sustainable fabrics?
- Where and how was the cotton turned from plant material into yarn and fabric?
- Is it organic cotton, or were pesticides used?
- Where and how is the fabric cut and sewn into shirts?
- Where and how are the shirts printed with your designs?
- What kind of waste is involved in the production and transit processes?
- Who performs the labor for each step of this task, and how are they treated?
These are questions of great importance to us. They’re also all very difficult to track and quantify. Even just digging into one aspect of t-shirt production can be a messy issue.
Let’s drill down into just one, then: the production stage, where a simple, design-free shirt is printed with a design for your organization or event.
What is Shirt Printing, Anyway?
If you’ve worn or handled graphic tees over the last decade or so, you’ve probably noticed a few shifts over the years.
Designs that used to fade over time now stay bright and vibrant. Designs that used to feel like they were printed on with melted plastic are now ink-baked into the shirt fabric itself. Colors don’t run or bleed the way they used to, designs don’t tear around the edges where fabric is stressed by non-ink, non-fabric materials, and there are even more options for placement and size of designs.
All of this is fueled by advances in the technology behind shirt printing. There are at least five different ways that a shirt can be printed, though one more modern option is proving to be the most eco-friendly option and is the one many companies are shifting towards today.
Method 1: Screen Printing
You’ve probably heard of screen printing before, even if you’re not sure how it works.
Here’s the process.
- A design is created. This design should be relatively simple and low-resolution, using single blocks of color, no gradients or complex patterns.
- The design is broken down by its component colors, and each color’s pattern is transferred to a fine mesh screen. This screen uses a special chemical emulsion to block off every section of the screen that won’t have that color on it, leaving a stencil for that color.
- A blank shirt is placed on a printing press, and ink of the designated color is pressed onto and through the stencil screen, leaving that color’s pattern on the shirt.
- The ink is then cured with heat to seal it.
- The process is repeated for each color/pattern until the full design has been printed on the shirt.
Screen printing is still a popular method of creating printed t-shirts, but it’s only truly viable at scale and with simple designs. At small scales, it’s not very efficient, and it wastes ink and other materials that can’t be recycled, reused, or repurposed when the printing process is done.
Method 2: Dye Sublimation Printing
Dye sublimation printing is also known as all-over printing because the method used is able to print around the sides and sleeves of long and short sleeve shirts, and even over seams, unlike other printing methods that only print on the flat front or back surfaces of the shirt.
It’s also relatively simple in concept, if not in execution:
- A design is created. It can be as simple or complex as the designer wants.
- A special printer using special paper and ink prints the design in reverse onto transfer paper.
- The paper is pressed to the shirt where the design should be. The whole package is then heated under pressure to sublimate the ink into a gaseous state, where it is absorbed into the fabric of the shirt.
There are a few significant drawbacks to this method. One of the biggest is that it doesn’t work very well on cotton fabrics. It’s a lot more effective on polyester. Polyester – basically a kind of plastic – is not very eco-friendly because it’s not biodegradable, it’s a petroleum product, the dyes necessary for coloring it are not sustainable, and it’s very likely a leading source of microplastics found in water around the world.
“The majority of polyesters are not biodegradable, meaning that the polyester fabric shirt you bought last season will not decompose for 20 years at best and 200 years at worst.” – Good On You.
Overall, dye sublimation printing can yield some impressive results, but the trade-off is that the whole production line, from the creation of the fabric to the end of life of the shirt, is environmentally devastating.
Method 3: Heat Transfer Vinyl Printing
Also known as iron-ons, heat transfer vinyl is the one that produces the shirts with a plastic-feeling texture to the designs, which tend to flake off and degrade over time and with washing.
Here’s how it works.
- A design is created. It is usually a relatively simple design made up of a few elements without much complexity because the design needs to be cut out from a sheet of vinyl.
- The design is cut out, leaving the elements of the design trimmed and ready for transfer.
- Heat is applied to the elements to melt and infuse them onto the fabric of the shirt.
This creates a stiff and plastic-feeling design on the surface of the shirt. The remaining excess vinyl is either discarded (terrible) or recycled (a bit better). The process is easy and inexpensive but not viable for mass production, limited to fabrics that can withstand the heating, and is generally quite slow to produce shirts.
One interesting note is that the process of heat transfer printing can be repurposed in other ways. Some innovations to the process include using recycled vinyl, coffee material, and even cork instead of vinyl in the first place.
This can make it a lot more environmentally friendly and sustainable, though the issues with the texture of the printed design (and, of course, the rights of the workers doing the trimming and printing) are still important considerations.
Method 4: Airbrushing
Airbrushing is, in some ways, similar to screen printing. The primary difference is that instead of using a template and a printing press to squeeze ink onto a shirt, a spray gun is used instead to air-spray ink using stencils.
Airbrushing is not typically a production-level type of t-shirt printing. It’s generally more ethical for producers, who can work at their own pace and produce shirts with an artistic flair, but that’s not suitable for large production runs or production on a strict timeline.
It’s why you’re more likely to see airbrushed t-shirt designs at small local art shops and carnival stands than you are on a mass-production website.
Method 5: Direct-to-Garment Printing
Also known as DTG printing, this is the most innovative new method of printing ethical tees, hoodies, sweatshirts, tote bags, and other garments and is broadly considered to be the most sustainable t-shirt printing practice used in mass production today.
One thing you may have noticed about other printing options above is that they all use some kind of intermediary process. Whether it’s creating a stencil, cutting out vinyl, or printing onto transfer paper, there’s always that middle step where material needs to be used and the excess discarded.
You don’t have this kind of middle step with DTG printing. With DTG, you use a specialized machine much like your consumer-level inkjet printer, except designed to work on fabrics.
You create a design digitally, feed it into a computer-controlled printer, and feed a shirt through the printer. The printer can be surprisingly high-resolution, use complex patterns and gradients of color, and print on pretty much any fabric using the right kind of ink.
Even the inks are sustainable:
“DTG is widely regarded as the more environmentally sustainable printing method. The water-based inks used in DTG printing are free of toxic chemicals. Because designs are printed directly onto the fabric, there is no need for additional materials like screens or paper, reducing the amount of waste.” Gelato
There are just a few downsides with DTG: the designs are more prone to fading over time, sunlight exposure, and washing, and the printer itself is generally quite expensive to own.
Beyond Eco-Friendly: Other Issues in Sustainable T-Shirt Printing
The last point we made about DTG printing is an interesting one to discuss. How long should a T-shirt last?
There’s a very tangible environmental impact to discarding a shirt and buying a new one to replace it. The less frequently you need to replace your garments, the lower your environmental impact will be.
This is impacted, as well, by the materials; a shirt printed with water-soluble inks on organic, biodegradable materials might not last as long as a fully synthetic product, but it’s much better for the earth when it’s eventually discarded and can potentially even be recycled. Recycled materials are also among the most eco-friendly materials available.
There are other issues with t-shirt production as well.
How much transportation is needed to produce the shirts? Even the most ethically sourced and environmentally friendly processes are still going to be terrible for the environment if the supply chain process looks like this:
- The cotton is grown in China.
- It’s then shipped to India, where it’s ginned and turned into fabric.
- The fabric is shipped to Vietnam, where it’s turned into shirts.
- The shirts are shipped back to China for printing.
- The printed shirts are shipped to a warehouse for a vendor in the USA.
No matter how environmentally friendly those individual processes are, international shipping is horrendous on the environment, so minimizing it is pretty much always better.
Another consideration is balancing how labor-intensive the process is with the workers involved. At Ethix, we aren’t just focused on eco-friendly production; we want high-quality treatment and ethical employment for the laborers involved in every step of the process.
Even an environmentally friendly cotton farm deserves to be written off if the workers are mistreated, forced to work long hours for low pay, with no representation and no recourse. The same goes for the people involved in creating fabric, sewing it into shirts, and the act of printing itself, not to mention post-printing fulfillment.
How We Produce Ethical T-Shirts
We put our money where our mouth is. At Ethix, we recognize that “greenwashing” is a big problem in modern commercial culture. Businesses often want to be seen as doing the right thing, but when it starts to cut into profits, they pay it lip service at best.
How are we different?
We commit to transparency.
Understanding an entire production chain is complex. Rather than simplifying it to mere terms like “ethical” or “unethical,” we acknowledge the vast array of variables, stages, and participants involved. Simplifying this multifaceted process into a single label would be an oversimplification.
While we are proactive in advocating for ethical and sustainable practices within our production, our engagement with employees, and our operations, there are nuances to consider. A significant portion of our merchandise is produced in the United States using domestic materials. However, while we’re keen on encouraging our clients to collaborate with the few existing union shops in the U.S., it’s essential to note that not every step in our production chain involves unionized labor. Most of our offerings are Made in the USA and adorned with union printing. Typically, union shops come into play during the final stages, such as “cut/sew”, printing, and shipping. Earlier components, like cotton farms, ginning mills, and fabric creation, aren’t frequently unionized, though some might operate as worker-owned cooperatives.
We also partner with Canada and select meticulously vetted fair-trade organizations abroad. As part of our broader mission, we aim to galvanize larger organizations (or groups thereof) to commit to ethically robust factories, helping to grow demand that might someday foster more unionized and cooperative workplaces.
We’re always ready to shed light on our entire process, address your queries, and ensure you’re content with the ethical backbone of our products. Whether it’s an online purchase at our store, a design service, drop shipping, or a bespoke store collaboration, our priority is to blend the ethics of our sustainable products with a commitment to our team. This means you can be confident in receiving eco-friendly custom merchandise grounded in our sincere dedication to transparency.
We’d love to help you create your sustainable custom t-shirts and hear your ideas. Whether it’s v-necks, unisex, fast fashion, tri-blend, organic cotton tees, print-on-demand products, or even custom merch, we have you covered! Please contact us for any questions or to get started with any of our services today.
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.