Blog / Beginner's handbook / Sustainability at Printful: What We’ve Done in 2020
When we surveyed a group of Printful customers, 83% of you stated that sustainability is a must-have for your brand. We hear you—sustainability is important to you, to our team, and of course, the planet. We strive to be the environmentally conscious company our customers want us to be, and we’re taking realistic steps to get there.
2020 was a hectic year, yet we still found ways to grow and work on our sustainability efforts. Keep scrolling to learn what we’re doing to improve our production, and add more eco-friendly products to Printful’s product catalog.
Did you know that 85% of all textiles produced by the fashion industry end up in landfills? That’s a lot of pollution right there. And what’s more—due to overproduction, one in every five garments ends up in a landfill without being worn even once. I know I’m guilty of this–sorry to the sweater I wore once and then got rid of a few months later.
There isn’t one magical solution to fix every sustainability issue in fashion production, but that doesn’t mean industry players shouldn’t be doing anything. At Printful, we do what we can to make a positive difference, and we’re taking small, yet meaningful steps toward sustainability. We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep. Our strategy is to be realistic and make choices based on data and research.
This is what Team Printful has been up to last year.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “eco-friendly” means “not environmentally harmful.” It’s a broad definition, especially when everything we do has an environmental footprint. When it comes to fashion, this term can be understood in numerous ways: the product is made of organic cotton, sustainably sourced or recycled materials, and so on.
Since the definition is so extensive, each company defines “eco-friendly” based on their own best (or not so best) judgment. Without a proper definition, it’s easy for shoppers to get confused, and for brands to take advantage of that confusion.
Printful considers a product to be eco-friendly if it’s made of at least 30% organic, recycled, or biodegradable materials.
Even though it would be great to have 100% environmentally friendly materials for all products, it’s currently not realistic for two reasons.
First, we have to work with what our suppliers have. Most environmentally friendly apparel they offer comes within the 30% range. Some manufacturers market their products as eco-friendly even if they’re only made of 5% sustainable fabrics or materials. This is up to each company to decide, but we felt 5% is too low to call our products eco-friendly. We decided to aim for the largest, yet realistic number for our threshold, hence the 30%. As soon as products with more eco composition are available, we’ll revisit our definition, and hopefully one day we’ll be able to reach 100%.
Second, not all products can be made from environmentally friendly materials. For example, athleticwear is typically made from synthetic materials that offer unique characteristics like stretch, making it more comfortable for the wearer, and some athleisure fabrics are quick to dry. Polyester is often more durable than cotton, so we feel it shouldn’t be phased out completely. However, it’s our job to look for ways to make it less harmful to the environment, like finding recycled polyester.
Now that we know what eco-friendly looks like for us, we can shape our product strategy, grow our eco-friendly product collection, and strive to reach more than a 30% threshold.
In 2020, we added 49 new products to our catalog, and 10 of them are part of our eco-friendly product collection. Our most recent additions are the Organic Cotton T-shirt, the Eco Hoodie, and the Organic Ribbed Beanie. The hoodie and the beanie, as well as the Recycled T-Shirt we launched last year, are already among our most popular products.
Right now we offer 14 eco-friendly products, and we plan to add more in the years to come. In 2021, we have our eye on adding 20 new eco-friendly products to the Printful product catalog.
Learn more: How to Start a Sustainable Fashion Brand: the Complete Step-by-Step Guide
Introducing new products to our catalog takes time: from a few weeks to several months. We don’t just pick the trendiest products out there. Adding a new product means doing research, testing the product, and checking where it’s available. It also requires our team to look into new production techniques or adjust the existing ones. If it’s a completely new product, we ask our teammates to test the products themselves to ensure the product is up to par with our quality standards.
Curious to find out more about how new products make their way to Printful? Check out how Printful adds products!
Have you ever seen a product that claims to be environmentally friendly, sustainable, or organic, but has no third-party seal of approval? Or perhaps it has a certification logo that doesn’t look like it’s legitimate. I’ve seen quite a few products marked with “eco” or similar sustainability claims that have raised my suspicion; and as it turns out, placing self-made seals that look authoritative is a common greenwashing practice.
Sprinkling “eco-friendly” all over a product’s description or packaging won’t make it come true. That’s what third-party certification is for.
We want you to know which of our products have been certified, so we’ve added the sustainability product certificates that are available to us—such as GOTS and OEKO-TEX—to all the products that have them. We gather this information from our suppliers and pass it on to our customers so they can use it in their product descriptions, website, social media, and other brand materials. The more information our customers have, the more transparent they can be with their customers.
In 2020, we established the Printful Green Team—10 colleagues from all of our facilities that are researching sustainability procedures and solutions we can use to reduce waste, and generally exploring new ways we can become greener.
One of the ways our Green Team can improve sustainability at Printful is through recycling. So they’re making our internal recycling system smoother and keeping the whole Printful family (we’re 1,400+ now!) informed about the best recycling practices.
In late 2020, Green Team held recycling training for 30% of Printful employees, and the rest of our team will have it throughout 2021. Since we want sustainability to become a part of Printful’s culture we’ve included the recycling training in our onboarding process as well.
All-over print products are very popular among Printful customers. But how are they made? Imagine a roll of fabric. Now place an imaginary t-shirt silhouette on it. And another one, because t-shirts (typically) need two parts. Get it printed. Now cut the layouts and sew them together. That’s how all-over print products are born at Printful. Glad you don’t have to do it yourself, right?
In 2020, we found a way to optimize the way we lay out our prints, saving more fabric, and reducing our waste. It’s like fashion production Tetris!
Previously, 42% of our fabric was left over and thrown out. Last year we reduced it to 35%, and our team is looking for ways to lower this number even more.
To paint a picture of how much our 7% improvement actually is—we fulfill around 125 all-over print hoodies every day, and by optimizing the layouts we’ve saved more than 8 future hoodies from going to waste each day. That’s 2920 hoodies per year—enough to clothe the entire population of the Falkland Islands!
Having more environmentally friendly packaging choices is important to our customers, yet it’s one of the most difficult things to do. Plastic materials—like mailer bags and additional plastic wraps—are good at keeping your products safe and sound till they reach your doorstep. However, we’re working on finding ways to reduce our plastic use.
Previously, we used to wrap all of our DTG orders in an additional plastic mailer bag. It’s convenient for multi-product shipments since the extra bag keeps the items from rubbing against each other and therefore possibly impairing the print quality. But, we found that single-item orders didn’t have this problem since there’s only one product in the bag. So now we use only one poly mailer bag to package them.
For posters, we started using triangular boxes to replace tubes with plastic end caps.
By making both of these packaging changes, we’ve saved more than 38,325 lbs (17,384 kgs) of plastic since February 2020.
In some Printful locations, we’re also experimenting with using cardboard packaging for phone cases, switching over from plastic to paper tape for securing our boxes, as well as exploring environmentally friendly void filler options for box shipments to boost our sustainability measures.
In the years to come, we’ll keep looking for more ways to improve our packaging and reduce plastic use even more.
Fashion manufacturing creates fabric waste, so we were on a hunt for a solution to give our fabric scraps and damaged or returned products a second life, or at least a chance to not end up in a landfill.
In 2020, we continued to donate part of the returned or damaged items to local charities like Goodwill, the American Kidney Fund, and Red Cross. Additionally, we found a solution for recycling the fabric scraps produced in our Mexico and Charlotte facilities.
We’ve started collaborating with multiple waste management services, and in 2020 they’ve recycled a total of 162,866 lbs (73,884 kgs). That’s the weight of fifteen adult elephants!
Our two main waste management partners are Geocycle and Martex Fiber.
Geocycle creates cement using fabric waste. Yes, you read that correctly—cement. According to Geocycle, they have a unique industrial process called co-processing. They burn the material and use the heat to power machines that make cement. Even though burning creates gas, Geocycle collects it to make sure it doesn’t end up in the air that we breathe.
As for Martex Fiber, they collaborate with numerous companies and recycle over 160 million pounds of waste each year. They turn textiles into reusable fiber materials, like green home furnishings, fill products, and green building materials.
Every item that’s produced—in fashion or any other industry—creates some sort of waste, and we’re very glad to have found these waste management options for a seemingly unsolvable problem.
Our next area of focus is finding reliable recycling partners for the rest of our facilities.
There are many processes that create waste and contribute to the carbon footprint of apparel companies, like shipping and printing. All these processes are necessary for us to provide quality products and services for our customers, yet there’s always something that can and must be done to reduce their environmental impact.
While even the smallest change can make an impact, we’re striving to change the big picture of our production processes. To do that, we need to get the numbers straight. At the end of 2020, we started calculating our carbon footprint, as well as overall waste (not just fabric scraps) across all Printful facilities and offices.
Our carbon footprint calculation will be done using the widely-used Carbon Inventory Method, and we’ll base it on the product journey: from the second the product arrives at Printful’s doorstep, to the moment it reaches the end customer. It’s quite a bit of math, but getting precise numbers is necessary for many relevant, large steps to follow toward sustainable production.
We’re committed to taking more sustainability measures, making our future more green, and doing it the right way.
We’ll continue to be transparent with our customers and communicate about our progress.
It’s a long road to becoming more environmentally friendly, yet we strongly believe that every move—no matter how big or small—is an important one. We’re putting realistic and tangible goals first, and looking ahead to find new ways to improve. If you have any ideas on how we can become better, leave them in the comments below.
There’s still a lot to do and a lot of mistakes to learn from, but we’re getting better every step of the way. We know sustainability is important, and it’s uplifting to see our customers showing passion for a greener future. Our sustainability journey is a long one, but we’re happy to be on it. And what’s more—we’re glad you’re joining us for the ride.
To learn more about our sustainability practices, take a look at our Sustainability and Responsibility page.
Vinsenta is a Marketing Project Manager at Printful. She has a degree in Translation & Interpreting, as well as an MBA. Her passions include storytelling, business administration, and self-development.
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