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Be Socially Responsible - Your Business Depends on It
From Stitches' State of the Industry 2009
May 2009
By Julie Cajigas

As our country moves into a period of change, where sustainability and social responsibility are focal points, it’s important that decorators take a strong position on the safety and labor practices of the garments and products they sell. "One of the ways we ensure safety is to know our products," says Gino Ventresca, general manager of National Embroidery and Transfers Ltd. (asi/299298). "We don’t keep a large number of vendors because we want the cheapest price that day. We also don’t go on ASI’s ESP Online and look for the cheapest product," he says. "Consequently, we have fewer vendors, but we know them well and we know their products. We don’t want to have a product that’s not going to be safe."

Stitches talked to readers about the issues and legislation that you need to be aware of as we head into the latter half of 2009.

1. Supplier transparency. The first step toward social responsibility and safety is choosing the right suppliers for your materials. "We try to use the suppliers that have made a commitment to support the companies that support human rights, fair trade and humane treatment," says Meredith Kowalsky, owner of Prestige Monogram. "That’s really important to me, and I go out of my way to support those suppliers."

Many suppliers in the decorated apparel industry, including American Apparel (asi/35297), SanMar (asi/84863), Bella-Alo (asi/39590) and Broder Bros. Co. (asi/42090), take a strong stance on social responsibility and product safety. Not only do they ensure that standards are met, they also publish details about their practices on their Web sites. Broder Bros., for example, has this to say about social responsibility on its Web site: "Broder utilizes accredited third-party audit companies to ensure its business partners are socially compliant with all applicable international and local laws."

Check your chosen supplier’s Web site for any information on its policies and be sure to contact the supplier directly about its policies.

2. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). The CPSIA is a piece of legislation that has brought about many changes, the most important of which is regulation of lead and phthalates in children’s products. Other areas the act affects include mandatory third-party testing for children’s products, tracking labels in children’s products, inspection of proprietary laboratories and identification of supply-chain and import safety management. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Act, as some believe it promotes a fearful approach to product safety and an unsafe preference for safe children’s products as opposed to products for adult use. While these regulations may be somewhat difficult to understand, many independent testing companies are ready and waiting to help you verify that your products conform. One good thing about the Act is that it deters clients from purchasing direct from China – this means customers will be more willing to buy USA-made products from you at a premium price to avoid any problems with the safety or manufacture of their logoed products.

3. Going digital. According to a number of studies, including one by Ronald Fuchs and Michael McCann, Ph.D., C.I.H., published by the Center for Safety in the Arts in 1988, the chemicals involved in the screen-printing process may be hazardous to humans. The inks are also not particularly environmentally friendly. "One of the most troublesome parts of screen printing is the plastisol ink, which contains PVC and phthalates," says Chase Roh, CEO of Anajet Inc. (asi/16000), in his book The T-shirt Revolution, Building Your Business Using a Digital Apparel Printer. "These are some of the most environmentally damaging materials made by man and phthalates used as a plasticizer are highly carcinogenic."

How are decorators getting around the potentially damaging aspects of screen printing? By choosing to go digital. "One of the reasons we got a digital garment printer is because we did not want to do silk screening in-house," Ventresca says. "It’s not eco-friendly and it’s dangerous; we are and have always been looking at the environment." When Ventresca is approached with a silk screening request, he simply explains to his client why he doesn’t offer silk-screening in-house – and if they still prefer it, he contracts out the work. Many digital garment printers work with water-based inks, which means not only are they safe, they are also an environmentally responsible method of decoration.

4. Sustainability. Providing eco-friendly options to your clients is a great way to show your commitment to the environment, but it’s important that you ensure the suppliers are using eco-friendly practices to produce, finish and dye, and ship the products. For example, some garments crafted of so-called "eco-friendly" fabrics do more damage to the environment in their production process than other, synthetic fabrics do. "We’ve tried to offer sustainable options," says Don Tillquist, owner of Coastal Embroidery LCC. "However, they haven’t been all that successful for us. We foresee green products becoming even bigger once the prices begin to come down." – JC

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