Stepping Over a Duffel Bag Full of Money

Here’s a mental picture for you.  Imagine a big, black duffel bag crammed full of money sitting squarely on your shop floor.

Everyone in your company, including you, walks around this bag of money all day.  Every day.  Yesterday.  Tomorrow.  Wednesday of next week.  Nobody ever stops to pick it up.  “It’s too much work.”, is what everyone says.  “I’d like to pick it up, but I’m too busy.”, is another.  “I’m not working on that…orders have to ship!”

So that bag of money just sits there.  Waiting.

Singles, fives, tens and twenties.  A few nice fat rolls of hundreds all rubber banded together.  It is really heavy, but you wouldn’t know as you don’t stop to try to lift it.  How much money is in there I wonder?  It’s going to take two hands to lift that bag and when you do it’s going to look like you just robbed a bank.

Intrigued yet?  Do you want the money?  Some shop owners have picked it up.  They’ve unzipped that bag and showered their shop in greenbacks and used the money to reinvest in new equipment or even just a nicer bottom line at the end of the year.  Make it rain!  Wahoo!

So what am I talking about?  Can you guess?

Sustainability of course.  Frequent readers will know that this is one of my pet topics.  (There he goes again!)  There’s a good reason.  I’ve been picking up that bag of money for years.  I know exactly the effort it takes to lift that bag.  

Oh, and the greatest thing about that bag?  It replenishes itself.  It’s like a money tree.  We harvest that money constantly.  In fact, the more that you do to work for that bag, the bigger the bag you’ll need to contain all the money.  Dollar bills on the floor get messy.  Pick ‘em up!

What do you think?  Are you interested in learning how?  If so, read on!  If not, I guess you can go back to posting food pics on Facebook.  Everyone there is just waiting on the edge of their seat to see another camera phone photo of your dinner.  Oh look, lasagna with house grown herbs.  Nice.

Learn the Dance

Starting a Sustainability Program is easy.  Keeping at it is the hard part.  Like anything, there are some basics things you are going to have to learn.  They are like dance steps.  Step, step, step, twist, turn, step.  Cha-cha-cha.  You are dancing.  Here are the basic moves you’ll need to make before you can make that cash grab:

Step One: Get a Committee Together

Some projects you just can’t do by yourself and this is one of them; assuming of course it isn’t just you and your dog in your shop…  To make any Sustainability Program really work, it’s going to take some good discussions about what’s important to your company.  It’s going to be a debate.  What do we want to do?  What is important?  What is easy?  What will we need some help with figuring out?

This means you’ll need upper management or the owner’s support, and the accounting department involved as someone has to count that duffel bag.  A department head or two is good, but if you can get some regular production folks from the floor involved that’s fantastic.  These will be the people who will have to implement whatever policy or program you invent, so it’s good to get their input on it from the beginning.  This committee will be your core team to write policy and procedures, to delegate tasks that need to get handled, and to investigate and research your interests to find out how to do something.  Remember the old adage, “Man supports what he helps create.”  The more people you get involved with your program, the more people will help you push for success later.

Step Two: Decide on What’s Important

This is going to be a good discussion and it might last a few meetings.  Why are you implementing a Sustainability Program, and what’s important to you?  What are some of the low hanging fruit that you can get some immediate success with and build momentum?  You don’t have to narrow it down to one thing.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but decide on a direction and start the journey.  Don’t be afraid to fail either.  Starting from scratch, you are going to bump along and make plenty of mistakes.  It’s ok.  The best part?  You will learn from them and move in a different direction.

Your committee should decide and set a SMART goal for each thing you want to try.  If you don’t know, a SMART goal stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.  Saying you want to reduce your energy bill isn’t a SMART goal.  True, it is a goal, but it isn’t defined enough.

Writing down that you are going to reduce your energy costs by 20% by the end of the year, and then listing all of the methods you are going to implement to achieve the goal, how you are going to track your effort, who is responsible for certain tasks; that’s setting a SMART goal.  Get it all down on paper.  Study it.  Refine it.  Make people accountable for actionable items.  Make it public to your company so everyone knows what you are trying to achieve.  Bring in their ideas, and train people on how they can help.

If your goal is important to you, it’s going to have to be important to everyone in the company.  Make it a big deal.  Celebrate it.  Own it.

Step Three: Start with Benchmarking

To get started, measure where you are now.  This is the hard and boring part, but incredibly important.  Trust me, I hate math too.  (I am an artist in my heart after all – wrong side of the brain for math)

Dig up all of the invoices for the last few years from your utility companies, waste disposal companies, and any consumables you use.  Consumables being ink, chemicals, boxes, tape, emulsion, thread, pellon, etc.  Everything it takes to decorate a shirt. I like to divide these up into two spreadsheets.  The first one is just about energy consumption, the second is for the consumables.  Breaking these down into chunks you can see helps determine where you have been, but more importantly gives you an idea if the changes you will be making are working or not.

For a pre-formulated Excel Spreadsheet for your Utilities click here.

Enter your monthly utility information for a few years back, as well as your current totals.  For costs, I use the total amount on the invoice, taxes, fees and other charges.  Also for each month, add up and enter the total amount of impressions you completed on orders in the appropriate cell.  Remember, a front print and a back print will equal two impressions.  This isn’t the total shirts decorated, but total impressions produced.  Embroidery, digital or screen-printed…it doesn’t matter.  Whatever you produced goes in this cell.  With all the information for each month, you can calculate what it really costs you to produce anything in your shop from an energy standpoint.  Do you have this figure calculated in your overhead when you quote jobs?  Is this figure larger or smaller than you thought it would be?  How would reducing this dollar amount affect your bottom line?

For a pre-formulated Excel Spreadsheet for your Consumables click here.

This one is a little more complicated.  Change the vendor names at the top, and add in the total spent for each year for each vendor.  Enter your other information too, so the spreadsheet calculates correctly.  Total number of orders, impressions, dollar amount spent on utilities, garbage and also any money saved on recycling (that gets deducted)  The spreadsheet will automatically add everything up and give you an average cost per order and an average cost per impression.  Is this figure larger or smaller than you thought it would be?  What vendor do you spend the most money with per year?  What do you think they can do to help you achieve any sustainability goals?  Check out the cost per order and cost per impression totals for each year.  That’s what you have spent and what you are currently spending.  Is this more or less than what you thought it was going to be?

For the majority of shops this is going to be new information.  Over the years, I’ve spoken with hundreds of shop owners and production managers and these two items are almost never calculated.  It’s crucial and valuable information.  As time moves on, keep adding the information to the spreadsheets.  Compare to past history.  As you lower your operating costs, increase efficiency and workflow, and make changes you can track your progress.  If you are making a positive difference you’ll start to see your cost per impression drop.  It’s going to fluctuate.  Some months, it might even go up.  Why is the question you want to be asking.   Also, if you are top of things it may even start some new conversations about other areas of opportunity you can try.  Remember, this is a journey not a race so there’s no end point.

Twist and Shout: The Pirate Move

Sustainability is famous for the three “R’s”.  Which to me, always sounds like what a pirate might say.  aRRR.  (just for fun, say it out loud right now – aRRR!!)  Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.  These three concepts are the building blocks for any Sustainability Program.  Let’s explore, matey.

Reduce means exactly that.  For energy consumption, can you just simply use less?  Maybe installing a programmable thermostat in the office so you don’t have a war over what the temperature the controls are set on could be a good place to start.  Turning off equipment, using software to power down computers at night or when not in use.  Properly maintaining equipment, so they don’t work as hard for the same production result.  Adding best practices to how you use flash cure units on the shop floor.  There are probably hundreds of things you can do in your shop to reduce your energy.  Get your committee together and make a list, I’ll bet you can come up with a long one very quickly.  Use a whiteboard and leave it up.  Add to it over a few days.

For consumables, this might mean sourcing or trying out new products or techniques to see if they are a good fit.  Ask why a lot.  Why are we using this product?  Have we ever tried anything else?  What’s on the market?  Ask your suppliers for help.  Go to a trade show.  Even changing one thing can make a huge difference.  Test things out in real world scenarios.  A good many suppliers can give you a sample for free or reduced cost.

Reduce also means determining if you are using your supplies properly.  Are you following best practices?  Are your employees doing what they are supposed to be doing in production?  For example, instead of using the properly tensioned screens with the correct mesh, your shop band-aids a print problem by double stroking the underbase screen, or even adding a second screen to the print.  That’s twice the screens, and twice the ink needed for that one job.  Not a big deal, until you add that up over the course of a long print run, or even production for the entire year.  Ask why!  Work backwards to determine why that’s acceptable and make the change to eliminate those cover-up decisions that your production crew will make just to get the job out the door.  Best practices are exactly that.

Reuse is all about repurposing existing materials to extend their natural life.  Then you don’t have to purchase new stuff.  Reusing emulsion drums for garbage cans, defective or misprinted t-shirts for rags, cardboard boxes, even the clear bags that Gildan t-shirts come in when you order a case of t-shirts.  Reuse as much as you can, and that’s less stuff you’ll have to buy later.

It also could be saving screens for a longer period of time in case there’s a reorder, so you don’t have to reburn them.  Maybe you are constantly printing the same designs for a client every week.  Get a rack by your press so you can store them close by and the screens will be conveniently staged where you need them when that reorder comes in.

Recycling is a clear choice as maybe you already do that at home.  What about in your business?  In your shop you probably have more items that you can recycle.  Soda cans and plastic water bottles are obvious, but other things might include: computers, batteries, hydraulic fluid, fluorescent light bulbs, polybag remnants, paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, wood pallets, etc.  Your area or municipality might have a recycling program that you can take advantage of, or you may need to find a local recycling business to partner with you for your program.  Sometimes this can be really tough to find the right partner, but stick with it.

For everything that you can recycle, that’s less material that has to go landfill.  This means that you can reduce your waste disposal in your dumpster, and that’s a great easy way to start saving some money.  Be sure to track that.

In some cases you can get money back for your material too, especially if you compact it.  Recycling payouts are calculated on what the material is worth and vary with how it is transported.  Loose material pays less than tightly compacted material as there’s less going on the truck for the same trip.

Turn Around: Save Some Money by Changing Something

When you stand in the middle of your shop and look at all of the materials needed to keep it running, do you ever ask why you are using anything?  I think a lot of people just start using one brand or item and don’t ever change because they don’t have time to ask if there’s something better on the market.

Part of any sustainability discussion has to include something about performance.  Sometimes the cheaper item actually costs you more in the long run as you have to use more of it to get the same result.  For example, I did a test on shrink-wrap that we use to secure skids of boxes for shipping.  Previously, the shrink-wrap that we sourced was probably the cheapest on the market.  It was so flimsy that we had to wrap the skid two or three times to mummify it so the load would not shift during transport.  With the help of our supplier, we found a thicker shrink-wrap that has some extra stretch in it.  When wrapping the skid we can pull it tight around the corners and only go once around the skid.  We’re using less shrink-wrap, saving time and labor doing the work, and actually saving money even with a more expensive item per unit.  Performance counts.

That’s just one example.  We have completed the same experiment with all kinds of supplies over the last few years to see what works best for us and how it compares to the current item.  Also, as I’m sure any warehouse club shoppers already know, buying in bulk saves you money.  Track what you buy on an annual basis for commonly used items.  Instead of buying a one gallon of something does it makes sense to buy it in a five gallon bucket or maybe a 30 gallon drum?  Look as the savings.  Of course you don’t want to tie up a bunch of money buying a year’s worth of stuff if you don’t really go through it that fast…so probably three months worth is a good place to start.  Keep track of your usage.

Step Four: Involve Others

Once you start on your journey be sure to heavily involve other people.  Your staff probably has great ideas if you just talk to them.  Ask them questions and get feedback.  It’s pretty simple really, but you would be surprised at how infrequently shop owners or key managers actually talk to their employees about their work and ask for opinions on how to make something better.  Best practices will always drive efficiency.  The more you produce during the day with the same equipment, the same energy, the same people…that’s more production that is sustainable.  Doing more with less is what you are shooting for right?

Don’t stop with talking to your employees either.  Be sure to ask your suppliers how they can help, and do some online research too.  Are there any new techniques, products or equipment on the market that could help you drive sustainable efficiency?  Go to trade shows.  Network with other decorators.   Upgrading your equipment or adding a new machine to your line-up could save you money in the long run.  Do the math.  What is your current production rate with a particular process or machine?  Is there something newer that performs better?  Will it use less consumables?  Less labor?  Less energy? Compare your current state to the numbers for something new.  You might be surprised.

Also, be sure to research in your area to see what local help you can get for sustainability.  As apparel decorators, we are part of the manufacturing sector.  There is plenty of low-interest loans or grant money available from your city, state or federal government to help with sustainability or manufacturing competitiveness challenges.  You can get money for lighting make-overs, air compressor leak surveys, solar panels, and even equipment upgrades.  In the past few years I’ve taken advantage of that and have obtained over $100,000 in grant money for projects for Visual Impressions.  Some of it was training and research, but $85,000 of that was a grant that helped us purchase a Kornit Avalanche direct to garment printer.  That’s a pretty nice coupon to clip.  Yep, more money stuffed into that duffel bag.

Cha-Cha-Cha – Sustainability Certification

If what you’ve read sounds like it could work in your shop and you are interested in getting a sustainability program going, why not take that interest one step further?  SGIA has a wonderful help group called the Peer to Peer Network.  This is a group of printers just like you that are starting out on their sustainability journey.  Every two weeks for an hour a different topic about sustainability is explored.  One week it could be lowering VOC’s, the next it could be how to measure your carbon footprint or reduce your energy consumption.  It’s like shop therapy with the goal to build better companies.  Usually there are six to ten companies participating at one time, and plenty of opportunities to share notes and experiences they have had with their shop struggles.  If there’s one thing that I would say that could help your shop get a program going this would be it.  To learn more about the Peer to Peer Network group click here. 

After you have had some success with sustainability and have reaped some benefits from your program, you might want to look into getting a sustainability certification for your shop.  Why would you want to do this?  It’s an easy decision.  It essentially takes the shop’s sustainability effort that’s a defensive money-saving measure, and turns it into a shop’s offensive marketing effort.  Having a third-party audited sustainability certification means you can leverage your effort and market it as a shop differentiator.  All of your hard work pays off as you are now at the top of the mountain, and it’s one more thing that proves you are better than other shops.  These days corporations, municipalities, government agencies, and retail brands are all searching for sustainable partners to help green up their supply chain.  Frankly there are not many choices out there for partners for them, so it’s an easy sell when you have that certification.

That’s what the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership is all about.  Getting your shop certified to help you succeed in a crowded marketplace.  That certification is going to open up opportunities that did not exist before.  It’s going to cement stronger relationships with your current customers.  For more information about SGP click here.  If you are interested in getting this certification and have questions, I’d love to help you with your program.  Ask me.

Quick Tips:

Get an energy audit from your local utility company.  They will send out an auditor to review your shop.  Poking around your building, looking at your HVAC, measuring your heat or AC loss from your windows, or how hot your air compressor gets, or how tight your loading dock seals are, everything and anything they can find…it all adds up to a great report that you can use as a grocery list to get started.  These guys are the experts, and usually this is offered for free.  Why not take advantage of this?

Start measuring and timing processes in your shop.  How long does something take to do?  Why are you doing it that way?  Is there a product on the market that can eliminate a step or save you money by using less of a product?  For example, we use static aluminum frames for our screen printing and used to apply masking tape to the inside of the screen where the mesh joins the frame to prevent ink from getting in the grooves for quicker clean up.  Someone had to tape up the screens and after printing someone has to take the tape off.  We found a source to supply us with a frame system that has a special caulk in that groove where the mesh meets the frame and we have eliminated using masking tape altogether.  For a busy shop like Visual Impressions, as we go through 200-250 screens a day, that’s about $7,000 a year in masking tape that we don’t have to spend.  Not to mention the labor savings of applying and removing all that tape.

Look to buy local if you can.  Not only does this save on shipping and carbon emissions for freight, but it’s often cheaper.  We found a source to blend the press wash we use locally and reduced the cost by almost 50% from the previous vendor that was out-of-state.

Keep your ear to the ground for new technologies.  We have starting using a new process called bioremediation to clean our squeegees and floodbars.  We have three of these closed loop wash stations in our shop that use tiny microbes to eat the leftover ink from our equipment when cleaned.  The microbes really do the trick, and the only by-product is water and some CO2.  Who knew science was so cool?

We’re still on the hunt for a better way to use embroidery stabilizer (or pellon if you prefer).  I’ve been researching and talking to people in all different industries about how we can recycle this leftover material.  We are currently trying out a new product that might help, so stay tuned to see the results!  For more information on this challenge check out this article I wrote a while back.  Click here.

Need some help with your sustainability program?  Let me help you!  Shoot me an e-mail at and let’s work together.

Check out these videos:

Return on Investment: Energy Efficiencies 

E3 Project Spotlight: Milwaukee Wisconsin – video highlighting Visual Impressions sustainability efforts 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: The Importance of Certification

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Recycling Waste in Your Facility

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Engaging Your Customers 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Commitment to Continuous Improvement 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Strengthening Your Processes 

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership: Understanding the Benefits of Certification

TedX – Social Entrepreneurship and Sustainability 


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