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Eco-Friendly Explained, from "Advantages University"
By Tonia Cook Kimbrough
April, 2010

Is eco-friendly jargon about as clear to you as a smog-obscured skyline? Here’s what you need to know about being green.

How Eco-Friendly Does a Promotion Have to Be?

Before planning clients’ eco-friendly promotions, clarify with them what environmentally friendly really means from their perspective. For example, are they satisfied that a promotional product is recyclable – the materials from the item can be reused? Or can the promotional product simply have a certain amount of recycled content – a percentage of pre- or post-consumer recovered material – in its makeup to satisfy the customer?

Some clients will require that products are organic. They seek options created from materials grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. They may also care if the raw material used to create the product is sustainable, causing little or no damage to the environment because the resource is abundantly available and renewable. It might be important that the product chosen be biodegradable, ultimately breaking down naturally and absorbing back into nature relatively quickly once disposed of.

A keytag made from corn plastic, for example, could potentially meet a client’s demand for an object that’s organic, sustainable and biodegradable. As a viable alternative to traditional plastics, which are petroleum-based, corn plastic would also be a good choice for clients wishing to send a message about energy conservation.

Finally, when planning an eco-friendly promotion, consider not only the promotional product but how it will be imprinted, packaged and distributed. Are environmentally friendly inks required? What kind of paper will be used in the direct-mail piece that accompanies the product? (You might need to find a vendor that offers FSC-certified papers and soy-ink imprinting for the collateral.) Can the piece be distributed in bulk or delivered by hand to reduce the use of transportation?

Every element in a program is an opportunity for promotions that are greener from both an environmental and profitability standpoint.

Are Naturally Dyed Garments Worth the Hunt?

Natural dyes – those found in nature – are made from substances that can be organic, are biodegradable and are typically nontoxic. Indigo is an example. These dyes can create beautiful colorings of textiles. However, it’s worth noting that for many natural dyes to adhere to fibers there may be a toxic process involved (the use of a mordant, often a heavy metal ion).

Your best bet is to seek colors that come from the use of substantive dyes, which are typically made from edible materials, such as Turmeric (which dyes fabric a shade of yellow) and transfer their colors via the simple act of steeping the material in the substance. While all this information isn’t necessary to you being able to sell eco-friendly garments, it is useful when talking with suppliers and manufacturers of apparel. Ask questions about the textiles and dyes used in the garment you plan for a program.

5 Earth-Friendly Options

Curious about what to look for when sourcing for earth-friendly promotions? Try searching for these options:

  1. Biodegradable corn plastic is used for everything from pens to mugs.
  2. Solar-powered technology "fuels" earth-friendly flashlights, calculators and more.
  3. Organic cotton, bamboo or hemp makes apparel "green."
  4. Recycled PET transforms traditional polyester and plastics into environmentally correct choices.
  5. Naturally appealing products like plant seedlings, seed packets and even imprinted walnuts provide a clever alternative to man-made promotional items.

Acceptably "Green" Marketing Claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its Environmental Guides, often referred to as the "Green Guides," in 1992 and revised them in 1998. The Guides indicate how the FTC will apply Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices, to environmental marketing claims. For information on how to comply, go to

Green up Your Expertise With These Online Resources

  • DMA Environmental Resource Center ( provides tools and publications to assist businesses in understanding environmental issues and teaches ways to conduct marketing in a more eco-friendly manner.
  • California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment ( shares helpful information related to Proposition 65, the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. The Proposition was intended by its authors to protect California citizens and the state’s drinking water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals. However, many businesses across the United States have used Prop 65’s standards as a measuring stick to ensure green practices and products across state lines.
  • EcoLogo ( is Canada’s environmental certification program that provides companies and consumers assurance that the products and services bearing its logo meet stringent standards of environmental leadership. EcoLogo has become recognized worldwide and is a leading certification mark in North America. It has been successfully audited by the Global EcoLabeling Network (GEN) as meeting ISO 14024 standards for eco-labeling.
  • Green Seal ( is an independent nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to safeguarding the environment and transforming the marketplace by promoting the manufacture, purchase and use of environmentally responsible products and services. Products with Green Seal certification have met rigorous, science-based environmental leadership standards. More than 3,600 products and services in over 286 categories have been certified since 1989. 
  • Forest Stewardship Council ( oversees a certification system that provides internationally recognized standard-setting, trademark assurance and accreditation services to companies, organizations and communities interested in responsible forestry.
  • Organic Trade Association ( advocates and protects organic standards so that consumers can have confidence in certified organic production.
  • U.S. National Organic Program ( develops and implements national organic standards via the United States Department of Agriculture.

Eco-Apparel Terminology

With new "crops" of eco-friendly textiles entering the apparel marketplace, you’ll find it helpful to brush up on some "green" options:

  • Organic fabrics use no pesticides, herbicides or insecticides during the growing cycle.
  • Soy silk uses liquefied proteins (a by-product of making tofu) forced into fibers which are then spun.
  • Ingeo corn fiber is created by extracting starch and then sugars from corn, and processing them into a form which can be spun into a yarn or woven into fabric.
  • Fortrel EcoSpun polyester is made out of recycled plastic bottles and is frequently used for fleece.
  • Biodegradable fabric has the ability to naturally break down and return to raw material or to be absorbed by the earth. The Federal Trade Commission guidelines say only products that contain materials which "break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time when they are exposed to air, moisture and bacteria or other organisms" should be labeled biodegradable.
  • Natural bleaching means that hydrogen peroxide was used to whiten fibers, rather than a chemical such as chlorine.
  • Bamboo fabric is made from the cellulose fibers of the plant. It’s naturally antibacterial and 100% biodegradable and sustainable.

Where’s Green Going?

Green is moving ahead in consumer appeal, but perhaps at a slower pace due to the recent recession. According to a 2009 report from Mintel Oxygen, demand held steady compared to 2008, as 36% of Americans said they either "almost always" or "regularly" will buy green products. Looking ahead toward 2013, the research firm forecasts 19% growth in green product choices, particularly in personal-care products and household cleaners.

Which Ink for an Organic Tee?

Eco-concerned apparel buyers will likely wish to avoid plastisol inks, which use phthalates (basically liquid plasticizers) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), when imprinting their organic apparel. Luckily, proven alternatives do exist. Wilflex Oasis, for example, is a formaldehyde-free, water-based line of inks. Wilflex Epic uses non-phthalate ink technology yet is designed to print and perform like standard plastisol inks. QuantumOne uses non-PVC resins and non-phthalate plasticizers, yet prints and cures much like plastisol.

Water-based inks are the safest choice for those seeking a green screen-printing option because there are no phthalates or PVC in them, nor are there metals, mercury or lead. The final imprint produced has a very soft hand and appeals to the senses, giving an impression of "green" to back up its actual attributes.

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