Marshall Atkinson discusses the many and varied merits of garment decoration businesses working in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way

We live in some interesting times. Besides the constant product disruption in business, our capitalistic efforts in the last century have put a growing burden on our planet. In the past few years, many corporations, such as Gildan, Kornit and PolyOne, have focused their efforts on becoming more environmentally friendly.

If the big boys are interested in this, why doesn’t it trickle down into the smaller company world? (Meaning: your company, to be exact.) When I speak to shops about this topic most people either don’t know where to start or think it is just the domain of larger companies. “We are too small to make a difference,” they say.

Their biggest headaches are all about growth, being eaten alive by the online commerce world, personnel challenges and, for some, just making payroll. Going green sounds nice, but who needs that extra work? What’s the payoff anyway? For a lot of shops just doing anything beyond recycling their drink cans seems like a pipe dream.

Let’s change that

The benefit of any long term, serious and organised effort with sustainability is always more efficiency (getting more work completed with easier methods), bigger financial rewards (more money at the end of the year) and a competitive advantage (better customers).

Let’s break these down, one by one.

More efficiency

Sustainability is focused on doing more with less. In the decorated apparel industry what does this actually mean? More shirts embroidered or printed at lower operating cost. More orders completed per day. Less downtime. Better trained staff, using superior tools, producing higher quality work.

Picture in your mind your shop floor. Imagine all the processes needed to produce an order. Let’s say that a process in a department takes five steps to complete. If you can figure out how to complete the same process with three steps, then that’s more efficient. If you remove a consumable, or use less of it, during the process then it becomes cheaper. If you can handle the same workload, but complete it faster then your efficiency pushes the operating costs even lower.

Regardless of the size of your shop, this holds true. However, most smaller shops are reluctant to start a sustainability program as it seems too daunting – too much effort and too little payoff.

The trick is to just get started: review every step in your business and simply ask, “Is there a better way?” Often, there is a different technique, product, machine, training, method or even employee that can push the limit on the current status quo.

Why indeed?

For example, let’s look at the battle that’s going on with film vs computer-to-screen (CTS) systems for screen printing. I realise these machines are expensive and possibly out of reach for some smaller, manual shops, but it is a good topic to review for illustration purposes.

If you are a printer that burns over 50 screens a day, you should seriously consider this equipment, from an efficiency and sustainability point of view.

With film, each separation plate is laboriously printed either on a per sheet or on a roll basis. How many screens do you go through a day? To calculate the cost of your screen room, if you don’t already know it, simply add together labour costs plus consumables.

Using CTS, you eliminate the need for films forever, and the labour cost per screen drops dramatically. At 50 screens a day, your return on investment on a CTS system is going to be around two years. After that, the money goes to the bottom line for the remaining operating life of the equipment.

Also, let’s mention that when using a CTS system you can keep a small halftone down to about a 4%-5% range, eliminate moiré completely, avoid that vacuum table step and set up faster on your presses as each screen is perfectly registered to any others for the design.

Bigger financial rewards

What if you adopted this mindset and pushed it into everything you do? Sustainability isn’t about just worrying about using an organic cotton blank, but about truly thinking about efficiency and performance.

For example, take a look at a simple product such as masking tape and how it is used in the shop. How and why are you using it? Have you ever tried a different brand? Is one brand easier to apply or take off than another? Do you even need it in the first place? What if someone marketed a tape that would dissolve in the reclaiming process, would you buy that instead? Think of the labour your shop could save if you didn’t have to tape screens at all. There are products on the market now that do that.

Once you start on this journey what you will find is that there is an endless series of questions that all spawn more questions. As you are pinballing your way through the discovery for the answers, you’ll unearth some very interesting things about your core operational processes.

Want to use a better performing press wash, ink system, thread, equipment, software or other tangible product? When was the last time you investigated anything? I talk to so many shop owners and managers who think that changing anything in their shop won’t make a difference. They carry a big disbelief about supplier claims. I get it. However, you do have the power in your own hands.

Scientifically prove that it is worth it by conducting your own trials. Most suppliers can give you samples for free. Benchmark your current state and constantly compare against the new results.

Throw the data on a spreadsheet and graph the results over time if you start using something new.

When costs start dropping and the graph looks like a sinkhole opened up as the line plunges to the bottom of the chart, you’ll soon realise why all the big companies are so interested in sustainability. It just makes pounds and sense.

Blacken your bottom line not by raising prices on your customers, but by saving money with the tasks you are already doing.

Getting started

Here’s the easy part. If you want to get going with this, it really doesn’t take a tremendous amount of effort or any secret training. I always advise just getting some key members of your staff together for an hour and discuss the idea. Write down all the easy ways your company can do better on the sustainability front. Score wins with easy victories.

Some examples could be with using energy, such as paying closer attention to the thermostat, installing LED lighting, switching out older appliances for newer, energy efficient ones, or even installing motion sensors in common areas like break rooms, bathrooms or supply areas. Even not just turning on your flash units on press until you need them can save money. A lot of shop staff members do things from habit, not by need.

Look at your preventative maintenance schedule and make sure your equipment is well cared for. Lots of shops postpone this stuff as they are ‘too busy’. However, that hissing noise you are always hearing at your press from the air cylinder leaks is costing you hundreds a year in electricity on your air compressor to keep the pressure constant. It’s even worse when there are multiple leaks.

Sustainability is also about doing things more efficiently. The products you use in your shop are a good target for research. Trying to use a better performing ink or screen mesh choice so you don’t have to double stroke for opacity is being sustainable. It’s a results-driven, performance-focused activity. Look at the top ten most commonly purchased items in your shop and see if there is a better item available.

The cost objection

One mindset that always comes up is price. Usually better-performing-anything costs a little more. Most of the time it’s worth it. If you are using the cheapest thread on the market for embroidery, for example, and are plagued with constant thread breaks are you really saving any money? What if you switched to a more expensive but better made and stronger thread? How many more runs per day could you get out of your machines? Don’t let your accounting team control your production decisions.

Performance equals efficiency, which also equals sustainability. It’s a golden circle, not green. That’s what saves you the moolah…

For long term success, build the sustainability idea into your staff’s job functions. After all, performance and saving money should be part of their job descriptions anyway.

Marshall Atkinson is the Professional Services director for InkSoft, and program owner for the new InkSoft Production Manager software. In his Professional Services capacity, Marshall provides coaching to shops on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning and strategy, employee motivation and management and sustainability.