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

By 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 biodegradable vegan NeoPigment inks we use are made by Kornit, and they’re water-based, toxin-free and non-hazardous. 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. To help you with the wording and marketing, download free copy and visuals templates at the bottom of this article. Use them as you wish and let your customers 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. And don’t forget to download your free copy and marketing visuals templates you can use on you store, social media, and email.

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. Mr W

    Good to hear that you are making progress! But as a brand we are going to move away from printful because of the plastic poly mailers! It’s crazy that there is 2 plastic bags used with 1 shirt! And second there are too few sustainable shirts available and tje current ones are so pricey that we canno’t compete with our rivals. Too bad, i love printful and the service is top notch, but no enough effort put into the sustainability! Example there are bards like Stanley & Stella and Continental Clothign which provides much better quality and more sustainable products than Printfuls Bella + Canvas or Gildan. This is too little too late kind a thing.

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      We’re working on limiting the plastic packaging, and our teams are developing other sustainable initiatives and eco-friendly products. Hopefully soon we’ll have more news about sustainability to share.

  2. Carsten Brogaard Pedersen

    Great to see the steps your taking and still working towards. I have a question, in denmark were we live, there is a site where one can register ones website if your working towards sustanability and get a badge to show on ones website. Do you know of a international version of this, which could be used for us that own stores and sell printful products?

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Hi Carsten! I haven’t heard of such international website, but I’ll look into it and add it to the article in case I come upon it.

  3. Hannah Fraser

    I have just started using Printful and I am excited by the opportunities! However as soon as I started promoting, many of my customers said they would only buy if they are recycled or eco-sustainable materials. I am a public figure advocating for the Earth and the oceans, and I cannot be seen to be using unsustainable products in my line. PLEASE add yoga leggings, ladieswear, swimwear etc to the eco product line. I would be able to make so many more sales and promote Printful wholeheartedly! Many thanks for this great platform, Hannah

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      Hi Hannah! Thanks for reading your article and the feedback. Our teams are looking into some recycled fabric options that would allows us to expand our product catalog. We’ll keep everyone posted as soon as there’s news!

  4. Sergiy

    Hi Ilze,

    I have read the article but I couldn´t find any source of your shirts and other material that you print on. Is this information available somewhere?

    Thank you

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey Sergiy! Each product has the information about fabric content in the description. In addition, you can use our filters and select products that are made from, for example, organic cotton or organic cotton/recycled polyester blend. We also have published a list of our suppliers over here > https://www.printful.com/quality.

  5. maria

    Do you sell for all the parts of the world?
    What kind of materials do you use for printing appareal? I mean, is a cotton t-shirt made from what kind of material? Is it organic or does it have plastic?
    Regards

    1. Edward Zarins

      Hey! We ship worldwide but there are some shipping restrictions right now due to the Covdid-19. You can learn more about our products and read their descriptions from the product pages. 🙂

  6. Natalie Forrester

    Hi llze, Edward and the whole Printful team!

    Firstly, fantastic article, really nicely put together in an easy to comprehend way with lots of pictures… what more can us creatives ask for! I am new to Printful and just launched my store a few weeks ago.

    I 100% can back up your statement regarding the water wastage in screen printing. I studied printed textiles in university (I actually have a BDes in it) and after screen printing even just one fabric, we would bring the screen into the hose down room and spray it until clean (this would happen even for samples or change of colour). I don’t even want to get into the inks we used but the names say enough: acid dyes, pigment, spandex, foil never mind discharge (bleach out), devore, heat transfer press. I am so incredibly happy to have found Printful, now I just have to learn Digital Marketing..ick!

    Although, I must admit, like the people before me, I am extremely keen to see new eco-friendly packaging, that’s how I came across this article, I was looking for a release date of new packaging. After skimming the comments I imagine your sustainabiliy team is working overtime on this new developement and for that I would like to thank you all in advance. Without Printful my business (which I attempted to do in 2006 after graduating) would not have been possible.

    Namaste,
    nat.
    live in art.

    PS. LOVE the biodegradable phone covers.. fab quality, colours are stunning 🙂

    1. Daniela Bergmane

      Hey Natalie, thank you very much for sharing this! We really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, as well as the kind feedback. 🙂

  7. Kaitie

    As an eco-centric brand, I’m really struggling with your eco-friendly collection. Many of the “eco-friendly” items contain polyester and other fabrics that are huge contributors to micro plastic pollution. This section should be reserved for products that are 100% cotton, bamboo, hemp, etc. Lots of products in this collection are also Gildan brands. Gildan is NOT an eco-friendly or socially responsible parent company. Their brands like American Apparel should not be considered sweatshop free or ethical. See: https://amp.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/12/the-new-american-apparel-claims-of-ethically-made-abroad-clash-with-reality

    Further, the product catalog needs more transparency. Many products do not include what brand it is coming from. Please include all of the brands in the description!! This makes it difficult as a buyer and seller to invest with confidence.

    I also agree with the above comments about a need for compostable packaging and more style options for 100% cotton. more colors from next level And Bella+canvas would be great! As well as a new natural color eco tote- the color is getting awful reviews.

    Please continue to grow as a company with action not just promises!!

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Kaitie, thank you very much for your feedback! We completely agree that there’s a lot of work ahead of us, however, we view the sustainability journey as a marathon rather than a sprint, so instead of rushing and pushing new products, we’re slowly building our catalog and evaluating the options. All the products on our eco-friendly collection that have polyester in the fabric composition consist of recycled polyester. Natural fibers might sound great, however, cotton production, for example, consumes a lot of water and can’t always be called eco-friendly. Sustainability is very complex and we’re looking for the best ways to improve our performance in this area over time.
      In addition, please feel free to reach out to our Customer Support if you have any questions about the product or the branding. We don’t always include the brand name in the title, however, it’s possible to filter our products by brand name and our goal is to include this information in the product description over time.

  8. Ben McDonald-Stuart

    G’day! As an eco-focused artist I appreciate you expanding your eco-conscious products, but also the biggest reason I moved away from this service was because of the amount of plastic used in the packaging.
    As you would be aware, there are many “green” alternatives available these days. I would happily pay a premium for these, as I am sure many of these artists would agree.
    Look forward to seeing what becomes available in the hopefully near future!

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Ben, thanks for reaching out and bringing up this topic! While we still have a long way to go, we’re aware of this issue and are trying to reduce plastic usage and unnecessary packaging in general. We’ve just introduced triangle boxes for our posters in the US that don’t require plastic caps and we’re planning to implement this type of packaging in the EU as soon as our supplier has the capacity. It’s just one example, but we’re committed to carrying out similar projects for different product categories in the future as well.

  9. Devon

    Here is a great example of sustainable mailers. I have no affiliation. Just saw them on my FB feed today. Would I be able to buy these and send them to Printful warehouse for you to use for my orders?

    Best,
    Devon

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Devon! Unfortunately, we’re not accepting another packaging, but we’re certainly planning to improve ours in the future. For example, we’ve already introduced triangle boxes for posters to avoid using plastic caps and other similar activities will follow.

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