I want to get T-shirts printed. Should I go with bamboo or organic cotton, silkscreen or embroidery?

Q: I want to get T-shirts printed. Should I go with bamboo or organic cotton, silkscreen or embroidery? [rssbreak] A: Back before.

Q: I want to get T-shirts printed. Should I go with bamboo or organic cotton, silkscreen or embroidery?


A: Back before I was putting green advice into print, I was hawking my own T-shirts through local shops. (Some of you might even have one of my old Ani DiFranco-inspired “One woman army” Ts in your closet.)

Seeing as how, at the time, my day job involved fighting for sweatshop worker rights, my main focus was making sure the workers who knit the fibres and stitched the shirts were fairly paid.

You can imagine my horror years later to find that the ink used on the majority of North America’s screenprinted Ts – you know, the kind that cracks after a few washings – is most often made with PVC. Yep, that polluting heavy-metal-laced offgassing devil of a plastic containing health-disrupting phthalates.

This is very bad news if you’ve been screenprinting T-shirts in your home, but it’s even worse for print shop employees who work with plasticol day in and day out, curing it at 160°C, which only encourages more offgassing (not to mention the high energy use).

The happy news is that today a number of companies are making PVC-free water-based inks to get your slogan/band name/baby’s picture out there on your chest for the world to see, and a growing number of printers like Axis Gear on Dundas West offer them.

And be sure to ask how the screens are cleaned. Instead of washing their screens with air- and water-polluting lacquer thinners, bleach and petroleum-based mineral spirits, Axis uses low-VOC biodegradable solvents.

The T-Shirt Guys on Logan use biodegradable soy-based solvents, an important move, since according to the company, 2 ounces of toxic solvents typically go down the drain for every 12 T-shirts printed.

Getting your logo embroidered on is a pretty clean way to go, since it only involves a needle and thread and is extremely durable, though it’ll cost you more. Is that thread organic and dyed with eco-friendly dyes? You might be pushing your luck on that one.

As for the T itself, hemp has the smallest eco footprint, but most manufacturers blend it with conventional cotton, and the T’s aren’t fair trade. So I’d pick straight-up organic cotton over bamboo or soy blends, because it’s way less subject to chemical processing.

(FYI, the Competition Bureau has just announced that it’s misleading and illegal for anyone to label their clothing bamboo when it’s actually a rayon chemically processed from bamboo pulp.)

Ideally, the fabric itself would certified fair trade to avoid farm-side abuses, and you definitely want to make sure your shirts were stitched in a respectable working environment.

Major blank T-shirt companies like Gildan, Russell Athletic and Fruit of the Loom have all been at the centre of anti-sweatshop campaigns in the recent past. Though they’re now working with labour rights orgs to improve conditions, there’s still a long road ahead, according to the Maquila Solidarity Network. (See maquilasolidarity.org for more info.)

One of your most conscientious yet still stylishly cut options comes from the social enterprise Me to WeStyle on Carlton, where 50 per cent of profits go to charity partner Free the Children. It offers both straight-up (Turkish) organic cotton, bamboo and recycled polyester blends, all cut and sewn in Toronto. (The entire supply chain has been certified fair trade by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.) It’ll also do water-based screeprinting.

Pure Blankz (pureblankz.com) offers even more certified organic cotton blank shirts from India (though it’s not certified fair trade), coloured with natural and low-impact dyes. Screenprinting is only available on jumbo orders.

You may not be a fan of its ads (or its notorious owner), but omnipresent hipster chain American Apparel definitely has the widest selection of blank organic cotton Ts, tanks, V-necks, long-sleeves and undies in a rainbow of colours at retail and wholesale prices.

Bonus points: they’re made with 100 per cent USDA organic U.S.-grown unbleached cotton and coloured with low-impact dyes approved by Global Organic Textile Standard. All are woven and stitched in a retrofitted, solar-panel-decked L.A. factory.

Looking for something a little trashier? (I mean that in the highest sense of the word, of course.) Ecogear (eco-gear.ca) makes super-cool Ts using 35 per cent recycled pop bottles and 65 per cent pre-consumer cotton clippings, thus avoiding the water-intensive cultivation of new cotton (though melting pop bottles into fibre is indeed energy-intensive). Those clippings aren’t organic, but they are saved from factory floors. All printing is done with low-formaldehyde, water-based inks.

Got a team to outfit? Stormtech (stormtech.ca) makes a couple of high-performance technical Ts and polos out of 50 per cent recycled quick-dry polyester. Both Axis Gear and VC Ultimate (vcultimate.com) will custom-logo them for your team, and both offer several other organic cotton and recycled technical models. (Axis also carries hemp.)

By the way, if you’re really dedicated to having the greenest Ts in town, scour second-hand shops for used blank Ts and print on those instead.

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Send your green queries to ecoholic@nowtoronto.com

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