The Future is Sustainable: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Inks
min read

The Future is Sustainable: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Inks

The only way to a sustainable future is a sustainability-minded present. You game?

Sustainability is almost all anyone talks about (us included!) If it’s a conversation about eco-friendliness (especially eco-friendly custom t-shirts) — we’re here for it.So, naturally, when one of our clients asked us, “Hey, Real Thread: What’s the eco-friendly ink choice for my business?” we lit up with joy. And since this client had to be lucky enough to hear our entire spiel, we thought you should too. 

Sustainability Defined

See, when people think about “sustainable” practices, their minds might immediately turn to cutting back on takeout food, opting for thrifted clothing over brand-new threads, or even the sustainability trifecta: reduce, reuse, and recycle. But sustainability goes far beyond making the switch to paper straws and repurposing old Coke bottles into wind chimes (side note: If someone isn’t already doing this, consider this a freebie.) Rather, sustainability is a means of balancing the environment, economy, and equity. It’s not an “abstinence” philosophy so much as it is a give-and-take agreement. Take from the environment when absolutely needed, but give enough to support future generations.  

Sustainable ink is a shining example of this agreement. Just because something is in service of the economy doesn’t mean it has to be harmful to the environment. And, while there are countless environmentally-harmful inks being used by businesses across the globe, Real Thread’s use of 100% water-based eco-ink is proof that the old way isn’t the only way — and some of the new ways might genuinely surprise you.

What Makes an Eco-Friendly Screen Printing Ink?

Like the plastic straws that plague our oceans (#SaveTheTurtles,) plastic inks also leave an unsustainable stain on the printing industry. Plastisol, long the industry standard for printing, is still used by many printing professionals — despite the fact that the environmental impact of this ink can potentially linger long after colors fade. It’s worth noting that, while Plastisol won’t be sitting at the eco-friendly kids’ table any time soon, practices around the ink have become far cleaner in recent years.

So, we know what makes a potentially eco-unfriendly ink; what are some environmentally friendly inks?

Water-Based Ink

Water-based inks — Real Thread’s calling card — are widely accepted as one of the most eco-friendly printer inks around, lacking PVCs found in Plastisol and other inks and leaving a much smaller footprint than plastic inks. These inks also far outlast plastic-based inks, making custom t-shirts printed with water-based inks far less likely to end up in a landfill after a handful of washes. While water-based inks might be our go-to, we’re always exploring other ways to help businesses make their mark without making too much of an environmental impact. Below are some other eco-friendly inks that you might see in the Real Thread print shop before long.

Algae Ink

We know what you’re thinking — and yes, we’re talking about that algae. If it sounds ultra-progressive, or too good to be true, it’s not; massive companies like Patagonia, Nike, and American Eagle are already leveraging this plant-based ink. As it turns out, inks made from algae can replicate the deep black hues of carbon-based inks (without any of the negative impact,) proving that an eco-ink can be just as effective as a petroleum-based ink. Oh, and algae ink’s uses aren’t limited to t-shirts! Mailers, hangtags, rubber stamps, and boxes can all utilize this revolutionary ink. In other words: the future might be here sooner than we think.    

Vegetable Ink

If algae ink seemed a bit far-fetched, then vegetable-based ink is going to seem far out. As anyone who has baked a cake (or watched The Great British Bake-Off) knows, vegetables have oils. These oils, in addition to being far more sustainable than plastic inks, possess unrivaled clarity and even improved drying times. This means that vegetable ink colors can appear more vivid (one of the only benefits of plastic-based inks,) and the printing process can be expedited. Here’s where it gets really far out: Portland-based brand Older Brother has been experimenting with alternative dyes and plant-based printing methods — giving color to their garments using root, mushroom, and tannin dyes. While Real Thread isn’t quite there yet, we’re excited to see cool brands finding innovative ways to reduce their impact.

The Other Pieces of the Sustainable Apparel Puzzle

At the end of the day, inks are only as eco-friendly as the products they’re printed on — and while Real Thread prints primarily on natural, biodegradable fabrics, there’s much more to the story. The apparel business (and by association the custom apparel business) can be a very wasteful one, and Real Thread is constantly taking strides to shrink our footprint. Whether we’re exploring ways to upcycle misprinted or damaged garments or reevaluating the way we ship our products, improving our sustainability as a business while delivering the best possible products to our customers is our guiding light.

Though we still might be putting the pieces together, we’re excited to be a part of an industry which is leading the sustainability charge — and we look forward to integrating these eco-friendly inks into our production process. Who knows? Your next custom t-shirt from Real Thread might just be printed using some of the innovative methods listed above.  

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