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Working towards Sustainable Fashion in the Print-on-Demand Industry

By on February 27th, 2020 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Last year, I decided to declutter my closet. I thought it would be an easy game because I don’t buy a lot of clothes, but in the end it took me several days to achieve my goal—a neat, organized selection of apparel that I wear regularly. Marie Kondo would be proud.

But opposite my tidy closet was a pile of unwanted clothing that definitely didn’t spark joy. Even after donating the still-wearable apparel and recycling the rest, most of the items will end up in landfills anyway.

My garbage pile is a small drop in the ocean of waste the fashion industry generates. Everything from the amount of clothing we discard to discouraging statistics about fashion being one of the main offenders in pollution shows a deep problem within the industry.

As an on-demand drop shipper, Printful is part of this industry. And even though on-demand production is ahead of the fast fashion brands in terms of sustainability, we don’t want to stop there. That’s why sustainable fashion—a movement that wants to advance the fashion industry towards more ecological processes and social justice—is on Printful’s agenda.

Let’s talk about how sustainable fashion wants to change the industry, why such a reform is needed, and what Printful is doing to be part of the movement.

Sustainable fashion is the new norm

Sustainable fashion is a scientific, data-driven movement that aims to make sure that our clothes are manufactured, sold, and used in the most sustainable way possible. It wants to change the industry on all levels of the supply chain, starting from sourcing the materials to producing and selling apparel.

What’s more, sustainable fashion doesn’t just champion changes that are good for the environment. It also aims to address the social issues that concern the workers of the industry, such as low wages and poor working conditions.

I find it promising that the call for sustainable fashion comes from customers. People are aware of the industry’s problems and they want to do better, demanding that companies follow along.

demand-for-sustainability
Source: Nielsen

Retail chains are realizing they also have to comply with what people are asking for. But brands have to understand that they have to go deeper than simply using marketing buzzwords to appease an eco-conscious audience.

For example, in 2019 the UK fashion retailer Boohoo announced they’d stop using wool in a bid to be more environmentally friendly. They reversed the decision a couple of hours later after being heavily criticized by their customers, partly because wool is a relatively sustainable fiber.

Despite the shaky start, Boohoo has since shown that they care about meaningful improvements. Last year, the retailer released their first recycled collection, and they’re now more transparent about their social responsibility initiatives

Tricking customers into thinking you’re sustainable—aka greenwashing—won’t do. Become sustainable to actually drive change, not just to follow (or pretend to follow) customer trends.

To understand why working together towards sustainable fashion is necessary, it’s important to be aware of the main issues in the world of fashion.

The current state of the fashion industry

The worldwide revenue of the fashion market is predicted to rise from $481.2 billion in 2018 to $712.9 billion in 2022. That’s good news for shop owners, but it could become a worrying statistic for the environment and, by extension, all of us.

fashion-market-predictions
Source: Statista

Luckily, the fashion world has never been more eager to become more sustainable. 

The main problem to tackle is the pollution created by producing and selling apparel. To understand the extent of the issue, let’s look at the product life cycle for one of the fashion industry’s favorites: the white cotton t-shirt.

Cotton apparel is comfortable, durable, and breathable. Cotton is also relatively cheap to grow and harvest, so it comes as no surprise that it’s the most widespread non-food crop in the world. 

Unfortunately, it has some drawbacks. Cotton farmers use pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. These mix with the water and drain into soil, affecting the biodiversity of the land and limiting fresh drinking water.

Growing enough cotton for a single t-shirt takes up to 731 gallons of water (that’s enough for one person to drink for 3.5 years). In comparison, producing enough polyester for a t-shirt requires 4 gallons of water.

After cotton is harvested, it’s sent to a textile mill where it’s manufactured into a rough gray fabric. The fabric is then bleached, dyed, and treated with chemicals to achieve the desired look—a soft, white roll of fabric that’s sent to a sewing facility and turned into t-shirts. All these production steps can lead to environmental damage because of the chemicals and water they require.

Finally, the t-shirts have arrived at your favorite retail store. You buy one and wear it. But what happens to the rest of the t-shirts you saw on the rack? The ones that don’t get sold often end up in landfills or get burned, resulting in more emissions and pollution.

But now that the fashion industry and its customers are aware of these problems, the enthusiasm to change towards the better is at an all-time high. Everyone is looking for solutions that will turn the industry around, so that every cotton t-shirt gets to our closets in a sustainable way.

Printful’s experience as a print-on-demand business

Print-on-demand (POD) services might just be one of the keys to an environmentally friendly fashion industry. Let’s explore how Printful’s product catalog and stock, printing techniques and equipment, and the way we run our facilities help our customers work towards owning sustainable fashion brands.

Our stock

The biggest advantage POD companies have over big fashion retailers is that on-demand produces less waste.

Traditional shopping chains produce items to sell, so they’re always manufactured in bulk to save money. Meanwhile, Printful only prints a product when a customer places an order for it, creating items that already have a known buyer. 

This lets us avoid overproduction—excess items that don’t get sold and have to be thrown out or burned, which several retail giants do. With 92 million tons of textile going to waste in the fashion industry each year, a business model like this is a game-changer.

Waste in POD mainly comes from the items that are damaged during printing, and Printful’s rate for damaged items is within the industry standard.

Printful donates returned items to local charities and offers damaged apparel to animal shelters who can use them for their needs.

The products we print on and where we source them also matter. That’s why our team of merchandisers is constantly working on adding new items to our product catalog, and one of their 2020 goals is to diversify Printful’s collection of organic and eco-friendly products.

Sourcing and adding premium products that yield high-quality print results take time. For each item, we test samples from several suppliers to see which works best. After our team is sure which product is the winner, it’s added to our catalog. This involves taking product photos, developing the product page, doing follow-up tests, etc.

Adding sustainable products means finding sustainable suppliers. One of our long-term partners is Bella + Canvas, a clothing manufacturer with care for the environment embedded in their brand identity. Bella + Canvas uses solar energy, limits water use, and recycles waste by-products to make sure their products can sport the eco-friendly tag.

What’s more, we only buy the products we need to fulfill our customer orders. Ordering stock only when we need it goes hand in hand with the idea that products only get printed when an order is placed.

Printful stocks the most popular product variants and orders any others only when an order for it comes in. 

We use our data to constantly work on the catalog by removing unpopular items or products that often get damaged during printing. This way we don’t keep stock that doesn’t get used and has to be disposed of, avoiding textile waste.

Our equipment

We aim to make the printing itself as eco-friendly as possible. We’ve invested $27 million in state-of-the-art printing equipment, and we will continue investing in the newest technologies from companies who care about sustainable fashion.

We’re proud to partner with the specialists of DTG printing, Kornit. Thanks to their commitment to and efforts in sustainability, Kornit printers produce almost zero wastewater and use less energy, lowering our carbon footprint.

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is more sustainable than older apparel printing methods, such as screen printing. Not only does screen printing use a lot of water and plastisol inks that don’t biodegrade, but it’s also tended towards bulk orders which can lead to overproduction. In comparison, DTG printing is more eco-friendly because items get printed only when there’s already a customer for them.

printing-tech-Printful

The inks we use for printing are water-based and free of harmful chemicals. We take care to dispose of any left-over ink according to our supplier guidelines, so we’re not harming the environment.

Our facilities

Our facilities in North America and Europe are based close to where our customers are. This means we can ship products faster and cut the shipping distances, resulting in less air and water pollution.

We recycle (paper, cardboard, plastic, and batteries), and use energy-efficient LED lights in our offices and fulfillment centers, and we’re always looking for new ways to save energy. For example, last year we moved our European production facility to a Class A building that’s built using the latest technologies to eliminate any energy waste.

europe-fulfillment-Printful

We’re also making our internal process more efficient across all fulfillment centers. Limiting the use of plastic for single item DTG shipments has already allowed us to avoid using 1.55 US tons of plastic, and we look forward to reaching new targets this year. Another goal is to reduce the amount of fabric scraps left when producing our cut & sew products.

While there are still issues to address, print-on-demand is gradually becoming a less wasteful and more sustainable alternative to the traditional bulk manufacturing and selling model. And that’s good news for both brands and consumers.

If you’re a small business owner who uses print-on-demand companies to fulfill your orders, I suggest emphasizing all these POD advantages to your customers. They’ll be happy to know that they’re supporting a more sustainable fashion business model!

What comes next

People need clothes. Fashion is a beloved industry that’s part of our identity and economic growth despite its environmental and social flaws. But in order to treat the environment and people who live here better, the industry has to step up.

As a company that enables fashion store owners, we’re taking responsibility for the impact our business has on the world and working to help our customers’ brands become more sustainable. And we’re excited to share this journey with you!

To get inspired for the next steps, let us know in the comments the way your favorite brands are participating in the sustainable fashion movement.

Ilze is on the lookout for the little things that make all the difference, be it a new ecommerce trend to help your store, or the right book to read on a Saturday morning.

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  1. Lexy

    Great article! However, there is no mention of the plastic poly-mailers used for shipping. I’ve been asking and waiting over 2 years now and that is a vital part of sustainable POD practices that my customers and I have repeatedly requested. Still waiting and hoping to see the switch soon!

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Thanks for reading the article! Our teams are looking into making our packaging processes better, and we’ll share any news as soon as we have them!

  2. Laura

    I did get a comment from a customer recently about the plastic packaging that your garments come in. Is there a way to change the plastic bags to something more eco ?

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      We’ve limited the use of plastic in our packaging, and our teams are looking into limiting it even more and researching alternatives. We’ll keep everyone posted with any updates!

  3. Reagh Greenleaf Jr.

    As an artist/designer with a nature-centric brand, I really appreciate this article. I sell my designs on a combination of locally screen printed t-shirts, and a wider range of colors/styles fulfilled by Printful. I have a practical suggestion that I would love to see Printful implement:
    Please start using biodegradable mailers for apparel products. There are several brands. I use them for my locally printed stock, and feedback from customers has been amazing. Here’s how it’s shown on one of my product pages:
    https://rambletree.net/collections/vt-stock/products/rambletree-unisex-tee-vt-stock

    Please check out my sustainability page, which also includes info on carbon-neutral shipping with carbon offsets via Cool Effect (which anyone can do for their business):
    https://rambletree.net/pages/minimizing-impact-shipping

    Since my Printful POD items currently ship in polyethylene mailers (instead of biodegradable/PLA mailers), I include plastic film recycling information on my Printful packing slips. Anyone reading this is welcome to copy and use it:

    Please Recycle polyethylene mailing bag in Plastic Film receptacles:
    -Not zero-sort recycling.
    -Remove shipping label first.
    Learn more and locate: plasticfilmrecycling.org

    Thanks, and please let us know if progress is made on sustainable material mailers.
    Best,
    Reagh Greenleaf Jr.
    http://www.RambleTree.net

  4. Louise

    It is good to see Printful starting to become more sustainable & explaining their sustainable practices. It would be great if you switched to compostable or another type of sustainable packaging. I would also like to see the all over print products such as yoga leggings made from recycled material. It is becoming difficult to compete when most of the activewear available now uses fabric made from recycled fishing nets or water bottles.

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Thanks for the feedback, Louise! Becoming more sustainable is one of our top priorities, and we’ll give our customers more updates as we reach new goals!

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Not at the moment, but we’re limiting the use of plastic in our packaging, and we’ll keep everyone posted with any updates we have!

  5. Justin

    I recently ordered 3 hats. I have been ordering my products from Printful for over 4 years. When I opened the box I was stoked to see that the hats were not inside individual plastic bags. At first I thought it may have been a mistake though after reading this article I see that it was intentional. Thanks Printful for taking action to reduce the use of plastics!

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Hi Justin! Thanks for being our customer, and we hope that our future initiatives will also make you happy!

  6. adi

    Well, your shipping packaging completely negates any points towards sustainability that you make in the article.
    The presentation and the plastic use is so disappointing. Please look into compostable mailers. PLEASE. You can get them from China, or noissue.com (who also get them from china)

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Thanks for reading the article, Adi! I agree that plastic packaging is part of the problem, which is why we’ve already made some changes to limit the use of plastic in our packaging. But we know that there’s still lots of room for improvements, and we’re working on them. We’ll keep everyone updated!

  7. Katarina

    I love this article and that you have this as a priority! However, not all Printful eco products are stocked on each side of the pond. If I’m selling in Europe, and marketing products as eco-friendly, the products also need to be stocked and shipped from Europe.

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Katarina! Our merchandiser team will expand our product catalog in Europe, and this includes eco-friendly products. For example, this year we already added Unisex Organic Cotton T-Shirt, which is stocked only in our European fulfillment center.

  8. jo

    I appreciate the efforts you are making to help keep our earth from dying, but I gotta tell ya’, in the photo of your “A Class Building”, it appears that you have a high ceiling, which is a HUGE waste of energy and resources. At this point, you need to add a dropped ceiling so you aren’t air conditioning all of that open space up there. I see this a lot with businesses that use warehouses, but do not understand why no one has made architectural changes if the space is not being used.

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Thanks for reading the article so carefully, Jo! I’ll give this feedback to our facility managers.

  9. Liv

    Please please please use eco friendly mailers, or at least give us the option to send them to you, and then have you use them instead.

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      We’re looking into making our packaging materials more eco-friendly, and we’ll keep everyone updated on our progress.

  10. Liv

    I’d like to see more eco friendly fabrics! Royal Apparel has many! Thank you for thinking about this Printful.

  11. Rebecca

    Ilze (and the whole Printful team), thank you for making this a priority and for helping point out the benefits and the need to move towards sustainability in the industry! I’d like to echo the other comments and say biodegradable packaging would be a much appreciated next step! I’m also curious, do you guys have any fair-wage initiatives or policies that you follow? This is another area that is important to me, and I would love to be able to say that orders from my Printful store support fair and sustainable living for both our planet and its people.

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for reading the article! We monitor our wage practices to ensure we’re competitive in the market, and we strive to be an Equal Employment Opportunity employer, but we don’t have any formal policies in place as of yet. I’ll pass your comment on to our HR department. You can watch some of our employee stories at the bottom of our “About us” page to learn more about the people working at Printful.

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