Did you know that it takes 713 gallons of water to make just one cotton t-shirt?
Okay, well maybe that statistic is somewhat skewed because no one manufactures just one t-shirt. What it’s really about is the water that it takes to grow the cotton. It’s a lot.
It’s still a scary proposition for our planet and our limited resources. Last night one of our insta followers tagged us in a post about this, and I knew that I had to say something.
Our whole business being what it is, we print thousands of new cotton t-shirts every year. Does that concern me? You know me, of course it does. We try to make as little impact on the planet as possible in our screen printing. Are we going to shut down and stop taking orders of new shirts? Well, no. I don’t think that our going out of business would effectively solve the problem.
I do know that there are things we (and you and everyone) can do to at least slow this crazy train down.
Less consumption, for one. Think about how easy it is to go to any Target or WalMart in your area and buy a cheap graphic tee. Or think about the festivals and markets you go to. Rather than loading up on an armful of t-shirts and tank tops because you just gotta have ’em all, be choosier. Maybe choose one you truly love this trip. Choose one made with premium quality cotton, from a WRAP-certified manufacturer who uses the most sustainable methods. It’s a start.
Reuse your old tees. It doesn’t take Einstein-level thinking to figure out how to put your old worn-out t-shirts to new uses. Cleaning rags, for one. Cut them up and sew new things like bags and skirts and belts. Cut off the collar, twist it up and bam – soft bracelet! Stop throwing things away, people!
Eschew Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion is where garment designers create a limited supply of a new, trendy style for the mass market. If it sells, it may become permanent. If not, they didn’t bet the farm on it and have unsellable inventory. Neat-o, huh? It is for the manufacturer. In three months (or hours) when that style is no longer fashionable, guess what happens? They get thrown out, maybe donated. But what’s the point? Better to buy classic looks that stand the test of time than to bend to every fashion trend. One of my favorite shirts is a striped tee from The Gap that I bought over twenty years ago.
Watch Your Washing. It’s not just the making, but the care of the t-shirts that can make a big impact. Wash in cold water whenever possible, hang dry and leave out the ironing. If it’s wrinkled, hang it in the bathroom while you shower. It not only saves water, but reduces carbon emissions from using less electrical energy.
You knew I wasn’t going to say stop buying t-shirts altogether, right? Listen, they’re comfortable, easy to care for, they look cool, and they can last a long time. Like any other type of garment or product, we need to be more mindful about what we buy.
Hey! Check out this super cool t-shirt designer/printer that only reuses tees: Stay Vocal
Shiny things are cool. And though I love my shiny things, I never really thought to print in metallic before. One day a regular client of ours texted me a photo of a singer on stage wearing a tee with an extremely shiny silver image on it. I couldn’t really tell what the image was, but based on the blurry quality it was clear that the photographer was having a very shiny time. Our client asked if we could do something like that.
My first thought was Hell yes, go to a show and get sweaty drunk? Then I realized he meant the shiny shirt.
Of course I said “Yes,” even though we had never done it, but that’s kind of our motto around here. Say yes and figure that shit out later. It’s worked so far.
I did some research and it turns out there a few ways to achieve a metallic look on apparel. One is with foil, one is a metallic ink and another option is heat pressed vinyl. There’s also welding a piece of metal to a t-shirt, but I don’t really think that will catch on. So I’ll talk more about the first three.
Applying foil to a t-shirt is a two-step process and it’s actually pretty cool. First, a layer of adhesive is screen printed onto the tee with whatever design is needed. After it’s cured, a section of thin foil material is heat pressed on top. When it’s pulled away, the foil in the glue-printed areas sticks and the rest is discarded, leaving the design in shiny, pretty foil.
After trying a sample in silver, I thought it looked amazing. Well, amazing in that it definitely achieved the shiny look I had seen in my client’s band photo (which was blurry if you remember). It shined. It was silver.
It has a very vintage look to it. It’s not perfect and flat like a solid color print, there are teeny tiny gaps in places. This could be due to the black heather material I printed/pressed it on.
I sent a sample off to our client, which they loved. A few months later, they made an order with foil, although they went with gold rather than silver. After pressing some trial shirts, I decided to get in touch with them to make sure it was the look they were going for. It turns out that even though they liked the silver, they wanted something with a more consistent, flat (yet still shiny) look (more on what we did later).
Bottom line: Foil can be a super cool look, but it will be on the vintage-y side, more like gold leaf than chrome bumper.
You can also use a metallic gold ink. There are a lot of choicesa nd not all get the same effect. The first one I tried was super dull. Like an aging heavy metal band from 1989, it looked a bit tired and washed up. It should not wear spandex.
Another gold was much shinier and had more of the metallic look, but still wasn’t exactly what our client was going for.
Bringing Back Vinyl
Let’s get this out of the way. I’m not a huge fan of putting vinyl on tees. I admit that it can have a very clean look, and my obsessive-compulsive need for clean lines gets a lot of satisfaction in pressing vinyl. I will always prefer putting ink on shirts over vinyl. Ink wears better over time and it just feels better on the shirt.
That said, putting vinyl on jackets and other items that aren’t going to go through the washer every week is something I can get behind. Which is how we came to use gold vinyl on our client’s tees.
They decided to get some promo bomber jackets for their team (and these bombers are the bomb, bee tee dubs). The black ones would get gold crowns and lettering and the look worked so well I sent them another sample on a tee. Winner winner, vinyl dinner (um, gross). Yup. I did it, I put vinyl on tees. I lived. They loved it.
The look is super shiny, metallic and consistent. Our client is happy, so that’s a shiny happy win.
Foil me once, shame on you…
I haven’t given up on the foil. First, I really love the vintage look. It’s not right for everyone or every design, but I know there are people who will think it’s the very thing they want. I’ve also read about some tricks to filling in those tiny gaps by mixing the glue with colored ink. I will have to go back to the lab and see what happens.
Is that a weird question? I mean, after all, it says, “vegan” on it. Of course it’s vegan. It’s right there in the phrase.
Yup, I get it. Except I’m not talking about the message printed on the shirt. I’m asking what’s behind the printing of that shirt.
Is it vegan?
Before we get into some answers, let’s think about a situation we can all relate to.
You’re at a restaurant and you ask your waitperson if your selection is vegan. They pause, consider, and say, “Uhh, yeah. Sure. I think so. Hmmm. Probably.”
How do you feel about that? Kind of… annoyed? Frustrated?
That’s often how Jenni and I feel when we see someone selling t-shirts plastered with a catchy vegan phrase and ask, “Is your printer vegan? Do they use vegan inks or sustainable methods?” and we’re met with blank stares – or worse, total apathy.
Annoyed. Frustrated. Somewhere a unicorn just died.
Even as we clench our fists and mourn mythical creatures, we’d much rather educate than berate. Better results, ya know? Besides, we’re not perfect. We do our best. Caring is numero uno.
Hopefully, you’re one of those vegans who really does care about more than how much cash they can make in the vegan marketplace. As plant-based eaters, I believe we’re also default environmentalists. If we’re going to put our message out there for the world to wear, we should at least try to move in the right direction.
For you, Caring Vegan, I’ve jotted down some information that will help prepare you for your next run of vegan tees. Read on!
No Worms Were Harmed in the Silk Screening Process
We can clear our consciences right off the bat with this little nugget. In silk screening, also known as screen printing, a mesh screen is used as a stencil to push the ink through. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the screens were made of silk. As you might have already guessed, silk is not vegan. Oh no! What to do?
You can chill on this one. The good news is that, these days, screens are made from nylon, not silk. The term silk screening is still used, because, well, we’re used to it. Also, nylon screening doesn’t sound as artsy-fartsy.
Now that we know the worms can relax, let’s move onto inks. Are they vegan? Are they safe?
Are Screen Printing Inks Vegan?
Now and then, we get this question from some of our lovely customers. I wish more people would ask (or care). In fact, one of our customers spent time calling around Los Angeles with that question, only to be disappointed by printers who either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Sound crazy? We thought so.
Thankfully, there’s a simple method we use to find out if the ink we want to use is made with animal products or tested on animals. You ready for this? We call the manufacturer.
Mmm-hmm. Yup. That’s it. Even better, we get answers. Sometimes we have to wait on hold while they find their chemical engineer, or we have to rephrase the question. A lot of people don’t immediately understand what “vegan” would mean, so we educate them and ask more specifically about whether or not the ink contains any part of an animal. We’ve always received informative, respectful answers. It’s just that simple.
So if you ask your printer if they use vegan ink, they may not know what you mean. Hey, that’s okay, this is your opportunity to educate them. If you explain nicely, rephrase your question and they give you flack (or don’t know), consider going elsewhere.
Soft Hand, Cold Heart
So you’re at your local vegan fest, festing it up with your jackfruit tacos and all the Soy Dream you can handle, and you find yourself at a vegan apparel booth. Wow, those are some sick vegan tees. So soft, and you can’t even feel the print. You just gotta have one!
Hold up there. Before you plunk down your vegan cash, let’s talk about how those t-shirts are printed. To get a really soft hand like that, screen printers use either water-based ink (we’ll get to that in a minute), or possibly a method called discharge printing. Essentially what a discharge print does is bleach the dye out of the shirt, then a water-based ink is applied for color. What’s the problem?
Discharge inks are highly toxic. There’s formaldehyde and a whole cocktail of other chemicals that you’re not supposed to breathe while printing (or ever). Why should you care about what some screen printer is breathing? Well, that bleaching cocktail at some point not only vaporizes into the air, some of it gets washed down the drain. Where does it go? Some of it gets filtered and sent back to you as tap water. Some it goes out to the ocean, unfiltered. Some of those animals that you fight so hard to protect live there, remember?
Recently, there have been developments in discharge printing that allow for an enzymatic process. That means “natural” enzymes are used to bleach out the dye rather than toxic chemicals. Still, there a couple things we need to consider:
The dye from the shirt is still released somewhere. Where did it go?
What constitutes a “natural” enzyme? Where do they come from? Animal source? Do you know?
If we’re going to demand that people not use animal products, we should demand to know how that vintage-feel t-shirt is made. It affects both our environment and the animals.
Water Based Ink is So, Like… Sustainable, Man
Water-based printing is great. It looks good, it feels good on the shirt, it even sounds really environmental. After all it has water in it! That must be awesome! The assumption is that, unlike plastisol-based printing, it’s the best thing for the environment. Why, just take a sip of this water-based ink, it’s delicious. *disclaimer: don’t do that.
So now you understand that water-based ink is not just water and harmless color made from unicorn breath, it’s actually made with solvents and other chemicals. Not that plastisol ink is chemical-free, but the cleaning methods are very different (and the way we do it, sustainable). Water-based printing can be done sustainably, so knowing how things should be done will help you choose wisely.
What About the Shirts?
Well, thankfully, most shirts are typically cotton or synthetic and no animals are used. However, there are no innocents in textile manufacturing. Virtually every method affects our world in some way. Here’s a great source of information on the different fabrics and their impact on the planet: http://www.greenchoices.org/green-living/clothes/environmental-impacts
Vegans Are Environmentalists
As you can see, no t-shirt printing method is 100% perfect for the environment. It’s about making an educated, conscious choice. You can’t please everyone, but having solid answers for your customers is a pretty big deal.
If you care about the environment and the animals, it’s worth asking your screen printer about their methods. If they can’t (or won’t) answer your questions, it’s the same as a waiter not telling you if your meal is vegan or not.
You wouldn’t accept that, so why accept anything less than vegan and environmentally-friendly screen printing?
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