The Sustainability Challenge

Going ‘green’ could save you money. (Yes, really.)

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of implementing a sustainability program in a business. Years ago, when I moved from the art director’s chair to VP of operations, I found that building a sustainability program helped me focus on all the right metrics for evaluating the inner workings of a company.

Efficiency. Cost. Employee training. Error rates. Waste. Performance. Quality.

It helped me dig into the “why” something was or wasn’t working the way it should. Yet, I see so many companies in the decorated apparel industry that are operating with the wrong notion about sustainability. Sure, it’s good to go “green.” But why is that important?

I’d love to tell you to do it for the environment. That it’s the right thing to do. Planet Earth needs your help. But sadly, that isn’t going to move many businesses toward that goal.

Saving a truckload of cash will. Are you interested in that? Most people I know like money. The more of it, the better.

So, let’s think about how starting a sustainability program can work in your favor from a financial perspective. This is a challenge that’s worth taking on, trust me.

Getting Started

Let’s get this out of the way. One reason a lot of shops don’t start on the sustainability journey is they believe that it’s going to cost them money. A good sustainability program works when it’s all-encompassing in your business. It’s in your DNA. But that isn’t how you start. You start by identifying the easiest ways you can do something differently. Measure how you do it now, change something, and then measure the result. Was it better?

For example, let’s say you want to move your shop into becoming completely paperless. Currently, you go through about three cases of office paper a month. You can get these for about $32 a case, so that’s $1152 a year. 

But, you spend a lot of money printing that paper and walking it around, not to mention storing it later. It goes in job jackets, the work orders travel from department to department by someone carrying them, and occasionally, they get lost, or some other problem occurs. 

What if you measured how many minutes per day you’re spending lugging paper around? Let’s say that in a shop of 10 people, they spend an average of an hour a day doing this. So, while the average American wage is $27.11 per hour – that seems high for our industry – let’s use $20 for the example: 
1 hour ($20) x 261 (number of workdays in 2019) = $5220.

So, for our example, that’s $1152 + $5220 = $6372.

But what about the cost of the technology? You can get a small computer tablet between $60 and $300 just about anywhere. Let’s meet in the middle and call it $180. Ten tablets (one for each employee) x $180 = $1800.

By not printing that paper, and going digital, this shop could save an estimated average of $4572 per year.

Remember, this is just one aspect of running the business. This is why starting a sustainability program is so effective in reducing costs, as it makes you examine the “why” you are doing something.

Look To Your Consumables

To quote my friend Greg Kitson, of Mind’s Eye Graphics: “People don’t know what they don’t know.” 
You operate your shop and use that brand of ink, emulsion, thread, shrink wrap, chemical, or another consumable because someone made a decision a long time ago. For years, you’ve been placing repeat orders for the supplies “just because” that’s what you always do.

Every one of your suppliers seeks to improve their product line on a continual basis. They have teams of smart people working night and day to create new products, too.

You may even have some of these new products sitting there on a shelf, unopened, unused, untested.

As my supplier friends in the industry often lament, one of the biggest challenges in developing these new products is simply getting shops to try them. 

Sound familiar?

As someone who has managed this process, please be sure you’re using the products correctly. Plenty of people blame the item for non-performance, but if you take a closer look, the item wasn’t being used correctly. This is true, especially with ink or emulsion.

Sustainability thrives on three tenets: Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

For consumables, let’s look at reducing the amount we use, and talk about ink in particular. 

As I mentioned, many shops are quick to blame the ink as underperforming. You see this all the time, especially in screen printing apparel when you have to double-stroke a white underbase for opacity. Talk about a money saver! 

Imagine the amount of ink and time you could save each year if you single-stroked your white underbase screens. Let’s say the underbase screen uses about $0.02 worth of ink on average. And let’s say our example shop prints 500,000 impressions that need a white underbase every year. That’s a savings of $10,000 in ink.

But it’s the lost press time that is the most valuable. 

For a conservative estimate, let’s say the press is valued at $300 per hour. That’s what the shop wants to make per hour for its automatic screen-printing press. Because print stroke speeds differ, let’s say the double stroke adds another three seconds to the action. At $300 per hour, that’s $0.249 per stroke. That time is valued at $124,500 per year.

By changing this one facet of production, this example shop could save $134,500 per year in lost opportunity costs if they eliminated the need to have a double stroke on their underbase white screen.

I’d say it’s worth the time to improve that challenge, don’t you?

Get an Energy Audit

One easy way to help control your expenses and get an easy win for your sustainability program is simply by getting a commercial energy audit from your local utility company.

In plenty of areas, this is offered as a free service, but there may be a small fee. As this is a popular thing to do for an understaffed service, there often is a wait.

An energy audit is exactly what it sounds like. The utility company will come out to your shop and inspect how you use energy in your building. They will review your lighting, HVAC, equipment, windows, door seals, thermostat, appliances, and anything else that could be a problem. 

About a week or two later you’ll receive an informative report detailing what they found. There usually is a laundry list of action items you can implement to save on your energy expenses every year. Some of these are not obvious.

For example, at a shop I previously ran, it was recommended after an energy audit that we get an air leak survey on our air compressor. This was a simple test where a technician uses a high-frequency sound scanner to locate small air leaks in the lines that run around the building from the compressor to the equipment. Our air compressor service performed the audit; and it cost about $500 to do. 

However, we obtained a $250 grant from the state by filling out a form. The final cost was only $250. The technician was able to find 27 air leaks in the lines that we repaired. This is important as the air compressor kicks on when the pressure drops. A steady stream of leaking air cost an estimated $4500 worth of additional electricity per year to keep the pressure steady.

I also learned that for each screen-printing press that has an air leak you can hear, that adds about $100 a year to your energy bill. If your press sounds like a snake hissing at you, that sound is actually money escaping.

Energy also can be contained in how you run your shop. Have you ever thought about how you are using energy? What’s plugged in? Maybe the machines that are left on, or the start-up procedures you do every day?

Think about solving those challenges to drop your energy use and cost!

Preventative Maintenance

It’s been said if you don’t schedule maintenance for your equipment, the equipment will schedule it for you. Usually at the exact wrong moment.

Do you have a preventative plan in place for your shop? Are you following it? Is everything clean and in working order? What’s broken or not functioning correctly? It doesn’t have to be the obvious machines either.

A few years ago, I was walking around on the production floor when I came upon one of the staff members banging the side of the computer monitor with his hand. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“I’ve had it with this stupid computer!” he said. “It freezes up, and I have to restart it to get it to work. I hate it.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “How long has this been going on?”

“About three times a day for the past six months.”

It took him a total of about 10 minutes to restart the computer and get back to where he was so he could finish. That meant that the shop was wasting an average of 30 minutes a day with this irksome computer. 

That guy made about $15 an hour, so that was $7.50 in labor a day that was being wasted – about $900 in six months. Which is about $300 more than a new computer might cost.

It’s these little things you find that add up to big savings at the end of the year. Are you solving them and documenting that? How much money can you save at the end of the year by resolving these challenges?

What You Need To Do

First, get to the point that you want to accept the Sustainability Challenge. Are you there yet?

Most of this stuff is common sense, but you might have to do some research or ask for help. It’s OK. There are plenty of resources out there that can get you going.  

Start with a committee in your shop with people who can help. Your ownership team needs to be present, as well as someone from accounting. Get managers and regular employees, too. You want ideas from all levels represented.

Then, ask “why are we starting this?” Is it to save money? Attract better customers? Be environmentally responsible? All of the above?

Next, brainstorm the first steps. What are the top challenges you want to conquer? Is there any low-hanging fruit that can be picked right away to gain some early momentum?

Schedule that energy audit. Review your list of older equipment. Talk to your suppliers and customers. 

Your goal is not to improve everything all at once, but instead to get better every day by making better choices.

Are you up for the challenge? You can do it! 


Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at marshall@marshallatkinson.com.

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