Shirtworks is known in the industry as ‘the ethical printer’. Images gets the lowdown on the company’s journey from printing college-wear to becoming Soil Association-accredited, and its plans for a green future

In the mid-1980s, Andy Timmins was running a health food shop in Oxford when he and fellow trader Paul Hunter spotted a gap in the market. “People were coming in and saying: ‘I really need some T-shirts, where can I get them?’ So Andy and Paul bought a heat press, pre-cut flock letters and some transfers, and started doing small orders and retail sales. And that’s where Shirtworks started”, explains Arron Harnden, the company’s current managing director.

One of their original target areas was pre-printed transfer designs of ‘80s pop bands; however, the demand wasn’t as great as the pair had hoped and so they looked around for other ways of generating income. Noticing that the tourist market in the famous university city was badly serviced at the time, they made up a few designs based on the Oxford University logo (this was in the days before it was licensed – Arron says that Shirtworks was the first company in the country to offer the two-colour collegiate style that is now a standard student item) and started selling sweatshirts from an old ice-cream bike. They quickly added a second bike and farmed out work to a printer outside Oxford, but as demand increased from Oxford University’s various colleges and the city’s shops, they decided to invest in a mini dryer and a carousel. And so began the company’s journey into mass production.

As the tourist industry boomed in the late 80s and early 90s, the pair moved into a proper workshop and started employing people, all the time keeping an eye out for the next opportunity. Corporate orders along with business from the various colleges’ clubs and societies saw Shirtworks rapidly expand. “We bought a Tas auto and a couple of Hopkins carousels, real nuts and bolts kind of equipment,” says Arron, who joined the firm in 1991.

David Ramonez works in digital production at Shirtworks

Finding a USP

In 1994, a move was made to a bigger unit on the outside of Oxford, on Osney Mead industrial estate. “We then went through a period of maniacal growth when we got a website built in 1993. Nobody had a website in those days, which is crazy to imagine now. We were one of the first T-shirt printing companies to have a website so from between the mid-90s through to 2000, we were at our peak growth period.”

In 2000, the company moved to a new unit on the industrial estate. The challenge around this time, explains Arron, was developing a USP. “It was becoming increasingly competitive as everyone was building websites and Google was starting to rank, say, a company in Leeds, right next to us. Obviously in Oxford our rent and our rates and our wages are high, as is the cost of living here. It became easier for customers to find companies with lower costs who could therefore offer cheaper prices.

“What we also recognised was that in the mind of the customer, T-shirt printing was just T-shirt printing. They didn’t appreciate that there is an art and a skill to printing, and that two different printers in two different locations can print the same job with a slightly different outcome. And so we decided to make our USP being an ethical company.”

The company is switching to all Soil Association-approved inks by 2019

It took many months of examining processes and materials before Shirtworks gained accreditation from the Soil Association in 2004, making it one of only two companies in the UK at that time to go down that route. (Shirtworks is also accredited by the Global Organic Textile Standard [GOTS], which is aligned with the Soil Association.) “That’s been our aim ever since,” explains Arron. “We continually examine our processes and offer our customers in the UK, Europe and the US an ethical alternative. It’s not an easy road, because there can be complications and costs when you’re trying to be an ethical business, but it’s our philosophy and one that we want to push forward with.”

Shirtworks now offers screen printing, DTG printing, transfer, vinyl and embroidery. At present, 20% of its business involves selling organic garments, with 5% of its work done using Soil Association-approved inks. All the Madeira rayon threads and backings used on the embroidery orders are approved as well.

Plastics phase-out

As ever, Shirtworks has proved to be slightly ahead of the curve and while the company has moved out of the tourist market as licensing of the Oxford University logo made it a difficult market to flourish in, it has continued to grow as companies who wish to demonstrate a socially compliant chain are now seeking out its services and ethical credentials.

Shirtworks is known for its ethical approach to garment decoration

While the company inevitably has to roll with the market to a certain degree and offer non-organic as well as organic products, it is constantly trying to move as much of its proposition into the Soil Association-accredited domain as possible. “What we’re about to do is completely phase out non-approved plastisol inks. We’re going to use 100% Soil Association-approved inks by Fujifilm Sericol, so by 2019, all our inks and processes like screen reclamation will be Soil Association- and GOTS-approved. They’re not as simple to use as your standard plastisols, but with a bit of skill and practise we’ll be able to offer 100% GOTS-approved and Soil Association-approved printing to everyone as standard.” Shirtworks will be using two water-based inks from Fujifilm – Texiscreen Aqua AJ and Texcharge TC – along with Pioneer Ultra YC, a PVC-free, phthalate-free plastisol ink.

“We’re taking our lead from the general feeling there is now about the use of plastic and oil in general in products,” explains Arron. “We think that in the next 10 years, it’s not going to be just plastic bags that are phased out, but a lot of industries will be looking at phasing out plastic wherever they can or finding biodegradable alternatives.”

The company by default doesn’t offer bagging, and uses recyclable bags when bagging is requested. However, Arron has researched alternatives as some clients (especially retailers) will always request bags and he has unearthed some made in Indonesia from the plant cassava. “They’re going to replace all of our recyclable bags, which is in line with us trying to phase out all plastic in our production processes,” he says.

Around 20% of its business is through selling organic garments

The company offers screen printing, DTG, transfer, vinyl and embroidery

Another development is the new website build that Shirtworks has just embarked on after months of research and development. It’s expected to take six months, with the site being ready in early 2019. “You can’t afford to stand still in this game,” Arron notes. “What we realised a few years ago, along with other companies, is that customers want an automated and easy self-service experience when they hit your website. They want instant gratification and so a lot of effort as gone into building a user experience that is as ‘unsticky’ as possible. But it’s an extraordinarily difficult task in this game because while what we do isn’t rocket science, trying to get all the information out of a customer can be difficult. The devil is in the detail and can make the difference between them really loving their product or being ambivalent about it. We’ve looked at everybody’s user experiences and we think ours is one of the better ones, if not the best.”

Shirtworks’s current investment period will come to an end next year when the site is launched, setting the company on its path for the next decade. It won’t mean any let-up in research and development though: while it’s known as an ethical printing company, the real USP of Shirtworks is the team’s ability to spot, understand and act on growing trends.

Going green

For those who are inspired to follow Shirtworks’s lead, Arron suggests first contacting an organisation such as the Soil Association that can help with auditing and regulation. “We chose the Soil Association, but it was by no means easy to achieve, nor is it easy to manage and stay accredited. They audit us every year, and every year it seems like it gets harder and harder. And there’s a reason for that – they want to see positive movement, constantly. No company is perfect; when you’re busy, you can’t always get it right. We have minor compliance issues that we need to correct each year and that’s fine, that’s all part of being audited and inspected.

“If a company can’t afford that, because it does have an annual cost and it does have a time cost too, then opt for the basics. Buy more expensive and better inks, and commit to going through the pain of trying to make those water-based ink systems work, because they’re not as straightforward as using plastisol out of a pot.

“They’ve also got to look at how they recycle their waste, and also measure and monitor how much energy is being used per unit produced and then attempt to reduce it each year.”