General Textile Screen Printing

Sustainable Strides Toward a Smaller Business Footprint

Becoming a sustainable business is not a single step or a decision to become “green.” Rather sustainability is a continuous process that requires a broad view of your business from multiple perspectives. That is, before beginning this journey toward sustainability, be prepared to be self-reflective, critical and honest about what you’re doing and the associated impacts you have. It does not have to be disruptive, expensive or difficult. It does, however, require you to move beyond your current comfort zone and business as usual.

Second, consider that sustainability encompasses the operations of the entire business: every process, activity and function. Be prepared to consider the bigger picture. Sustainability is a company-wide change in mindsets, views and practices related to operations.

Finally, sustainability incorporates a triple bottom line approach to evaluating a business’s/individual’s overall impact and performance. These are the environmental, social and economic impacts, often referred to as planet, people and profit.

What it takes

True sustainability is about having a neutral impact on our overall environment. The past industrial approach to business has been about extraction and maximization of economic return, with little consideration to other factors. It was about consumption, incorporation and use of raw materials at a lower cost than what the result could be sold for. The reality is, this can’t go on.

We live in a global economy and most of what we now use is produced in other areas, consuming resources and impacting those communities. Resources are being consumed faster and there is a limited supply of energy, materials, capital and labor available. Without a focused commitment to becoming sustainable, we’re headed for a future based on limited availability, shortages and much, much higher cost.

This trend has been recognized by the developed nations of the world for some time. The significance is in the developing economies of China and India particularly, where 2.3 billion people are moving toward becoming middle class consumers as their low-cost, labor-based economies produce more and more of the goods and materials we use in our daily lives.

We see this right now in our industry as we face almost weekly rising cotton and energy prices. This has been widely covered here in Printwear as well as the media at large. Sustainability begins with each one of us. Anything we do to reduce our consumption of unnecessary materials and energy will help.

The three p's

The most common starting point for those looking to become more sustainable is to look at one’s overall impact on the environment. This deals with the materials you use, how they get to you, and the impact all of this has on the world in which we live. Most of us have heard about carbon footprints or our impact on the generation of CO2 in our environment.

Everything we do has an impact on the generation of carbon. Greenhouse gases created from the production of goods and energy as well as those generated from transportation all come into play. By making conscious decisions to use recycled materials and to reuse materials will help here. But that isn’t enough.

The second area is social responsibility. This has to do with how materials are used and produced. The U.S. textile industry has been hit hard, including the larger screen printers and embroiderers, as domestic production has moved to lower-cost markets where labor practices are significantly different.

When we turn a blind eye to exploitative social practices, we’re really discounting the true cost of manufacturing. This is exactly what the sustainability movement is all about—exposing the total cost of everything we create and consume. Using prior economic practices masks these costs at the expense of all of us in the long run.

The corporate giants like Nike, Disney, Levis, the Gap and others are feeling the pressure to address this component with their outsourced vendors. Most are now requiring certification and audit of their labor practices in order to be an approved contractor.

The third component is the economic element—the total economic impact incorporating far more than just the raw materials, labor and manufacturing cost to create products. It also includes supply chain (transportation impact), post-production costs (energy production and consumption), waste disposal (landfill), and post-resource recovery or remediation. These areas have been completely ignored with past accounting practices and greatly understate the true costs involved.

Another very important aspect of the economic element is the value you deliver to the local economy when you produce something. When you manufacture something, every dollar of sales you create is multiplied seven times in the local economy. You’re creating income for other suppliers, services, labor and so forth. Manufacturing has the highest multiplier of any economic activity.

Look at the U.S. today. We’re slowly recovering from the Great Recession while economies like in China, India and other countries where manufacturing have moved are already well on their way to recovered growth. They’re able to recycle capital in their communities faster and deeper than we are and, consequently, recover faster.

When you compare activity like distribution and tourism, the multiplier is only two or three. Likewise, when you buy from large companies and big box stores that buy their inventories off-shore, earn their profits from the local purchase and then move those profits out of the area, the impact on local communities becomes clear. The message is simple: sustainability is about buying and trading locally for maximum value.

Things you can do now

The following suggestions are really the low hanging fruit—the beginning steps where you can have a big impact with minimum effort. I want to stress this is only the beginning and true sustainability goes well beyond these suggestions. It starts at the top. When the owners of the business have a true understanding and commitment to the concept of environmental neutrality is when sustainability can be achieved.

Begin by forming green teams. Focus on minimizing your impact through the concepts of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Concentrating on the concept of value added helps in this context—consider whether a customer would pay for it if you were to list this step on the invoice. If the answer is no, I find ways to eliminate it.

Most of the time we can find ways to eliminate, combine or replace with something of higher value and less effort. This is about becoming as efficient as possible. Simple habits, such as printing emails only when absolutely necessary or changing font sizes and margins of printed pieces can reduce paper use by substantial amounts.

Reducing also means purchasing supplies from companies that have a commitment to sustainability. There is a concept called cradle-to-cradle which tracks the total impact of anything from the time it is created (cradle) through the use, recovery and recycling, to the next generation (cradle). In the printing industry, FSC-certified papers and the use of postconsumer recycled paper are great examples.

Around the shop

Another excellent area on which to focus is energy consumption. Change out light fixtures to high efficiency T5 fluorescents. In our building, we chose T5 fixtures over traditional high bay metal halide warehouse lighting. The T5 lamps used 247 W compared to 1,200 W for the older lamps, with no loss in illumination. This 79 percent reduction resulted in annual savings of $6,650 for an 8,000-sq ft. production area.

Other big energy-users are flash panels and dryers. Pre-warming press pallets to 130°F can cut flash times from four to five seconds to half- to one- second—a 500 to 1,000 percent reduction in energy. The use of high tension, retensionable screens and quartz tube flashes deliver the maximum benefit.

Using natural gas dryers can reduce energy by two thirds, even more with a radiant electric dryer. While high-efficiency gas dryers are more expensive initially, they more than recover their costs over the life of the dryer. Investment recovery will be even faster as energy costs continue to rise.

Finally, you can do a great deal to reduce water usage just starting in the screen department. Cut your consumption by more than three quarters by investing in soak tanks. These 250 to 400 gallon tanks will accommodate up to 10 screens at a time. You’ll need two tanks, one for washout after exposure and one for reclaiming.

By exposing and soaking, the water will rehydrate and dissolve the unexposed image area. Washout time is reduced from several minutes per screen to less than 30 seconds. Often all that is required is a final quick wash that takes less than 10 seconds. Typical washout uses three to five gallons of water per screen. Using this approach you will reduce that to one or almost two gallons.

Using a reclaiming tank works the same with almost identical water savings. A dual strip chemistry converts ink residue to a drain safe, water soluble material and softens the emulsion for quicker reclaim. Use a 2,500 to 3,000 psi pressure washer for maximum efficiency. These use low volumes of water at high pressure.

These are some simple examples of what you can easily do with just minimal effort. Even very small shops can have a meaningful impact in local communities. Everyone wants to support companies that are doing their part to make our world a better place. The possibilities are great and, as you gain momentum in your efforts, your contributions both physically and as an example to others will serve you well.

To learn more about becoming a truly sustainable company, check out these resources:

Mark Coudray

About the Author

Mark Coudray
Mark is founder and President of Coudray Serigraphics, a textile screen printing company and Coudray Graphic Technologies, a digital imaging and prepress supplier to the industry. He was inducted into the Academy of Screen Printing Technology in 1989 and has served as Chairman of the ASPT twice. In addition, Mark is the recipient of 18 SGIA Golden Image Awards, 2 Swormstedt Awards, Magnus Award, and the Parmele Award (2001). He is past SGIA Chairman (2000). He has served a total of 24 years as an SGIA Director. Mark is a noted industry author with Screen Printing, Impressions, Print Wear, Images, and other trade publications with over 275 articles, columns, and technical papers as well as an industry presenter at tradeshows, conventions, and technical symposiums. He is best known for his extensive work in controlling color halftone printing, quality, and production management of the screen printing process.

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