Photo by Nicole De Khors
|100% Cotton shirts||
Some cotton, mostly polyester blend
|Biodegradable water-based, toxic-free ink||Plastisol inks (thermoplastic)|
|Made on demand||Ordered in bulk - save money, more waste|
|Misprints or damaged items are donated to charity||Misprints or damaged items are burned or destroyed|
|Shirts are cut, sewn, dyed and printed in North and Central America, lower emissions||Shirts are sourced from all over the globe and shipped back and forth - more emissions|
|DTG printing uses small amounts of water that is filtered and reused||Water used is full of chemicals and is discarded|
|Labor is protected throughout the supply chain, work is freely chosen and workers are paid and supported||Usually little to no data on factory conditions or worker rights|
Sustainability was non-negotiable when creating ungendered.me. When selecting vendors or partners to work with we consider environmental standards as well as social issues that concern the workers of the industry, such as low wages and poor working conditions.
We've separated this page into sections so you can learn more about what materials and ideas we considered when deciding which shirts to offer and how we wanted them printed.
While trying to find graphic tees to wear I could only find shirts that contained polyester or some other plastic-based synthetic fiber. The primary ink used on those shirts is also sourced from plastic (thermoplastic). I couldn't bring myself to use those for ungendered.me and exacerbate the plastic problem. Most of the blame falls on large corporations that value cost over quality. The industry has to change. The synthetic polymer polyester is the most common fabric used in clothing. Globally, “65% of the clothing that we wear is polymer-based”, says Lynn Wilson, social science researcher with extensive national and international experience in circular economy and ethics for sustainable business practices.
What exactly is polyester? And why is it bad?
Polyester is made from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. It's a material that sheds microplastics when washed. Items made from polyester are resistant to wind, water and other environmental conditions when compared to most plant-derived sources. Natural polyesters exist and can be biodegradable, but clothing is primarily made with synthetic polyesters, which are not.
Shirts made from polyester have twice the carbon footprint compared to a cotton one. One polyester shirt produces about 5.5kg of carbon dioxide compared to 2.1kg from a cotton one. About 70 million barrels of oil per year are used to make polyester threads that are then made into apparel.
In addition to the raw material, the dye used to color polyester fabric also presents issues. Since it's great at repelling water, it needs special dye that will penetrate the fibers. This dye is toxic and potentially carcinogenic. Since the water typically isn't treated before it is dumped into rivers or used for agriculture it pollutes bodies of water, devastating local aquatic life and drinking water.
The new "solution" to this problem is fabric made from recycled plastic, usually plastic bottles. While this does help reduce carbon emissions, it still does not solve the problem of microplastics being released into the water supply. The material is still plastic and will still take way too long to decompose and fails to discourage the production of new plastic (since it can be "recycled" into something else) so it shouldn't be considered a long-term solution.
Okay, so no polyester. Cotton is the way to go then!
Well, yes, cotton is MUCH better for a lot of reasons, but it's not the perfect material either and isn't necessarily sustainable. According to WRAP, cotton production accounts for 69% of the water footprint of fiber production for textiles. Water is used not only for the obvious reason, but also to dilute pesticides and chemicals used on the plants and also to dye the fabric.
Since cotton is not resistant to pests farmers use pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. These mix with the water and drain into soil, affecting the biodiversity of the land and limiting fresh drinking water. Organic cotton is considerably better and eliminates the use of harmful chemicals, but the impact on water stays, when compared to plants that require less water (like hemp or bamboo).
It’s well documented that fashion has a waste problem. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) estimates that globally up to 85% of textiles end up in a landfill, every year. In 2018 the United States EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimated that over 11 million tonnes went to a landfill and almost 3 million tonnes were incinerated.
A good chunk of discarded clothes (estimated 1 in 5 articles made) are never sold or worn. This is in part because companies save money by overproducing; it's cheaper to produce more items and get a bulk discount and destroy the excess rather than producing less and miss a customer sale. Buying 1000 tshirts is cheaper per shirt than buying 100.
The popular stretchy material elastane used in many clothes is made using synthetic materials derived from plastic, this makes it difficult to recycle and increases the environmental impact further.
While all of that is the industry standard we're looking to the future.
The shirts are 100% combed and ring-spun cotton - this means the cotton is combed to remove impurities and spun before being made into a sheet of fabric, resulting in a softer and more durable shirt.
Our bags are made of GOTS certified organic cotton, farmed using organic compost that uses biological (natural predators, etc.) instead of synthetic chemical pest control. No synthetic substances or genetic modifications were used during the production of our bags. This also means worker protections such as freely chosen employment, no child labor, OHS, collective bargaining and more. We recommend you read more about GOTS and all the work they're doing.
We only use water based non-toxic ink - the biodegradable NeoPigment inks we use are made by Kornit, they’re water-based, toxin-free, non-hazardous and vegan. Any left-over ink is disposed of according to our supplier guidelines, no harming the environment! Our inks are Oeko-Tex Eco passport certified, which means they are safe to print on children’s clothing and reduce environmental waste. Kornit has a thorough explanation of their inks and the steps they take to ensure they are eco-friendly.
Everything you order is made on demand - which avoids the production of surplus stock. On top of that our manufacturer and printer donate returns to local charities and offers damaged clothes to animal shelters. The facilities that cut and sew our shirts produce almost no landfill because they recycle everything that can't be made into a shirt, this includes smaller items like baby bibs or fill for dog beds.
Shirts are dyed in California which has some of the strictest regulations in the world. The method they use is amazing, only using 3 gallons of water for each pound of fabric (most companies use between 9-20 gallons per pound of fabric). This is 7x less water than average which saves about 24 million gallons a week! Any water that is used is run through a filtration system and used again.
The impact of goods on workers is just as important as the impact on the planet. From our supplier: "All of the factories in our supply chain are WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) certified. WRAP is a globally recognized, independent 3rd party certifying body whose mission is to promote ethical, humane and lawful working conditions."
Our shirts are made in a WRAP Certified factory which has also committed to upholding the Fair Labor Association (FLA) Workplace Code of Conduct and Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing throughout its entire supply chain.
Our bags follow an even stricter certification, GOTS. This is the standard for organic textiles and worker rights.
We serve customers from multiple locations - this means we can ship products faster and drastically cut the shipping distances, resulting in less air and water pollution. An added benefit is faster shipping times and lower shipping costs, and it also helps with reducing the CO₂ emissions produced when transporting orders.
All our products are printed with the direct-to-garment (DTG) technique. With DTG, ink is sprayed onto the garment, which helps it soak better into the fabric and makes the print less prone to fading. This also reduces the amount of water needed to print and ensures we have soft, good quality products. The better the quality, the longer the product lasts.
Our shirt manufacturer uses solar energy, limits water use, and recycles waste by-products to make their impact as small as possible.
Printed in the US, shirt production facilities are mill-direct and WRAP-certified. The high-quality, water-based inks we use are certified with an OEKO-TEX Eco Passport. Our printing method also produces almost zero wastewater and uses less energy, lowering the carbon footprint.
Improvements to make
Few things are perfect as they stand. While we are proud of the steps we've taken, we recognize that there's more work to be done. We're always on the lookout for more sustainable and earth-friendly practices. A couple things we recognize as less than ideal and are taking steps to change in upcoming releases:
- Packaging is currently made of post-consumer recycled plastics. This is better than virgin plastic, but it's still not a great long-term solution. It can be hard to recycle for consumers and there is a limited amount of times it can be recycled. This is very important to us and requires coordination with our manufacturer and other parties, which takes time. We are pushing for biodegradable materials and want to get rid of the poly-bag for good!
- Shirts, and bags, are made with cotton (and organic cotton). This is much better than polymer based items that leak microplastics into the ocean and pollute everything, but has a higher ecological impact compared to other materials. We are sourcing and testing out more eco-friendly fabric like hemp and responsibly sourced bamboo.
Sustainable and earth friendly fashion should be the norm, and it will be. Every year there are more and more options available to make sustainable decisions. Each purchase, big and small, has a footprint. It's up to you to choose your impact. Purchase earth-friendly materials when you can, alter existing clothes and consider thrift stores instead of buying from large, polluting fast fashion companies. We've only got one Earth and it's beautiful, let's do our best to treat it well.