Making a Green Impression with Sustainable T-Shirts: ECO360 Trust Interview

T-shirts sometimes speak louder than words; green T-shirts carry a louder, greener message! We asked Mark Elis, green entrepreneur and director of development at ECO360 Trust about his work building more sustainable promotional products.

Why was it important for you to design a greener T-shirt?

ECO360 Trust is a campaign of the Institute for Sustainable Communication, which gives workshops and seminars on sustainable business practices.  We also have student interns who study communications and sustainable supply chains. The ECO360 Trust campaign raises money for their college tuition, and we created the e360t shirt as a fund raiser for their scholarships.

The e360t shirts began as a teaching tool for our students to learn sustainable design. We chose the T-shirt as the medium to redesign, since everyone can relate to a T-shirt. They are ideal communication tools, since most people have T-shirts and many T-shirts have messages on them. T-shirts promote everything: products, music, brands, places, etc.

To put our values into practice, we found supply chain partners that would reduce landfill waste, conserve water, create jobs and enable people that believed in sustainability to wear a fully sustainable shirt that also paid for college tuition. We turned the lesson into a full time practice to raise funds and create a win-win situation for companies, students and the environment.

Designing a “greener T-shirt” was also an important way to put our beliefs into practice and it offered a better way to raise money than simply soliciting donations for the ISC. We created a useful product for corporations and non-profits.

A big part of our teaching is to show that “green” is different from “sustainable.”  A green product or company policy may still use supplies that are purchased based on price alone, and not the larger environmental cost. A “greener” product may be manufactured in a country with questionable labor or environmental practices. In many cases, “green” is relative, but “sustainability” refers to the entire process of manufacturing, marketing and distribution. It’s more complicated but much more holistic and important.

How are your eco-friendly T-shirts greener than other eco options available today?

In theory, the greenest product is one that does not have to be made, so there is no damage to the environment. The next best thing to reducing overall consumption is recycling existing materials in a product that adds value.

Therefore, we created the e360t shirts to be high end, customized promotional garments for corporate branding. ECO360 Trust developed our e360t shirts to provide 5 distinct benefits:

First, the shirts are made out of 100% recycled PET, which is the same plastic from soda and water bottles. Each e360t shirt prevents at least 3 plastic bottles from being dumped in a landfill. Americans generate over 10 million tons of plastic waste annually, but recycle less than 2% of it. A lot of that waste ends up in landfills or in the ocean.

We use American suppliers for the PET materials. Our suppliers are established companies that have agreed to work with us because they share our mission.

Second, the e360t shirts save fresh water. The shirts are printed with digital technology, so no fresh water at all is used to dye the fabric. Each e360t shirt we produce saves 8 gallons of fresh water from being polluted with the dyes and chemicals used to grow and dye cotton. The e360ts are “zero impact” shirts. The printing process keeps the shirts colorfast and durable, and the colors do not bleed. There is much less waste since fewer materials are used.

Third, the e360t shirts create American jobs. The sewing is done in small American factories that pay a living wage and give workers opportunities for social mobility. Global sustainability includes the health and well being of workers, and respect for human rights and safe working conditions are central to our mission. Unfortunately the true costs of most cotton T-shirts are higher than their actual price because of sweatshop labor and starvation wages.

Fourth, the e360t shirts fund college scholarships for low income students. Each shirt is a tax deductible contribution, and all our net proceeds pay for micro scholarships for high achieving but economically disadvantaged college students. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, and they are eager to participate in the American dream.

Lastly, the e360t shirts help companies improve their credibility by putting their sustainability commitment into practice. The shirts are an inexpensive way for companies to keep their brand messages consistent with their sustainability policies. Companies can help green their operations with e360t shirts and stay under the radar screen of budgetary politics. The benefit they receive in PR and green marketing significantly outweighs the initial expense.

Can you explain to our readers why you choose PET rather than something like organic cotton for your T-shirts?

Recycled PET is ideal for a sustainable T-shirt, since there is so much plastic available. Discarded plastic bottles are an enormous problem for the environment. They are dumped in landfills and pollute the ocean, and over 90% of all plastic ever made is still around today. It is much better to reuse and recycle than to create a partially green new product.

Organic cotton is certainly preferable to regular cotton for T shirts, since there is less pollution from pesticides and herbicides. However, dyeing textiles creates a considerable amount of water pollution. The textile industry is the second only to agriculture as the biggest polluter of clean water globally. Dyeing, rinsing and treatment of textiles all use large amounts of fresh water. Textile manufacturing dyes release ammonia, chlorine and other toxins.

Cotton production is water intensive, so even organic cotton still requires a lot of water. Many cotton producing regions are located in countries that are already struggling with shortages of fresh water, especially in Asia. In addition, these countries are not producing new jobs for Americans from their cotton production

What kinds of messages do you hope people will print on your green T-shirts?

The e360t shirts are customized and made to order. Companies or non-profits can put any message they want on the shirts, because they upload their own design files to our template. We encourage them to be as creative as they want, since there are no color separations, silk screenings or set up charges. A company’s print or design person uploads a design like any other digital print job. We print what they give us, and they can upload as many designs as they want at no additional charge.

The real message is that they are printing in an environmentally friendly manner to promote their environmental agenda. The medium is the message. Companies spend millions of dollars to promote or implement their sustainable business practices. By using a sustainable product to display their sustainable values, they are being consistent and “walking the talk.”

Companies have printed messages on their e360t shirts relating to diverse activities such as special events, trade shows, community relations projects, employee engagement programs, internship programs and company stores.

Tell us about the scholarship program and your successes in that area so far.

Our scholarship program is a direct outgrowth of our goals. ECO360 Trust is a campaign by the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC). The Institute’s mission is to raise awareness, build capacity and foster widespread adoption of economically viable, environmentally restorative and socially constructive uses of print and digital media.

The ISC teaches sustainability strategies for communications professionals to improve their media supply chain practices. The ISC helps companies keep their sustainability practices consistent with their green messages, so companies can practice what they preach. The ISC offers seminars and consulting on environmental and supply chain topics, so the millions of dollars companies spend annually on sustainability practices can be more effective.

Teaching today’s business leaders how to improve their supply chains creates a more livable world for the next generation. Each year we attract new students and interns that want to learn communications and sustainability. The ECO360 Trust campaign helps educate these students through mentoring, internships and scholarships. We help them learn and adopt sustainable communication and business practices.

ECO360 Trust raises money for ISC’s education program by producing high end, sustainable T shirts that are made from 100% recycled PET plastic water bottles. The money pays for college tuition for low income students.

The money we raise by producing the e360t shirts are tax deductible donations. Our net proceeds from the shirts pay for college tuition for low income students. We set up micro scholarships of between $500 and $1,200, to help pay tuition for talented but disadvantaged students to attend community colleges. The scholarships are determined on a needs basis after each student is interviewed by the ISC’s all volunteer board, and the funds go directly to the bursars office of their school.

Our goal is to enable ambitious low income students that show promise to get their degrees. The students get coursework and mentoring in areas like communications, technology, supply chains and graphic arts. We are based in New York but we are national in scope. In 2011 we hope to fund 500 scholarships for worthy students. As the e360t shirts gain recognition and popularity with companies and non-profits, we hope to fund more scholarships.

Is it more difficult to run a company with people-planet-profit as your guiding principle?

Running any enterprise in this economy is not easy. Keeping costs down while trying to bring money in the door is a universal challenge for companies and non-profits alike. Both hard costs and soft costs matter, so we evaluate every dollar, every call, every email and every marketing idea for effectiveness. Actions that are not taken can be costly too.

If anything, being a non-profit with an environmental and education agenda helps ECO360 Trust stand out when we speak to companies. Once they understand that we are not an apparel company or a vendor of promotional items, the conversation changes. When we speak about a T shirt with five distinct benefits, companies can see the difference. They don’t perceive us as a vendor but more as a marketing partner to make their sustainability programs more meaningful.

Can your enterprise remain sustainable as it grows?

ECO360 Trust is set up to become more sustainable as it grows. As more companies choose ethical clothing over cheap T-shirts, they will eventually upload their own designs and order shirts in larger quantities. We will become closer to a non-profit version of a Software as a Service enterprise. As more e360t shirt orders come in, we can concentrate on educational programs and strategic partnerships. Also with more corporate volume and commitments we can branch out beyond sustainable T-shirts.

What were the challenges in getting started?

We continue to face two main challenges. The first is from corporate purchasing departments that are not aware or interested in the difference between “green” and “sustainable.”  They purchase promotional items from approved vendors based on price, rather than attempting to align their purchasing practices with their CSR or sustainability policies. Corporate sustainability policies are often poorly communicated or given “lip service” by many companies.

Sponsoring a green cause is commendable, but many companies do not take a comprehensive approach regarding their often-stated green or sustainable values. We continually try to raise awareness in corporate marketing or purchasing departments of the total value of the true cost of products made by US labor within ethical labor and environmentally responsible manufacturing methods, versus less responsibly produced but cheaper alternatives.

Our second biggest challenge is closely related to the contradiction between a company’s stated green policies and their practices. The price of an e360t shirt is higher than a cheap cotton shirt, largely due to American labor and the quality of the finished product. Several companies with otherwise green reputations have put a glass ceiling on “green promo items” due to budgetary politics. However, we continue to find companies who support sustainability and understand the price/value trade off. As one marketing executive recently remarked: “we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these premiums, so we might as well make them sustainable.”

What mistakes have you made that you would advise other green entrepreneurs to avoid?

We’ve been fortunate to have competent and knowledgeable advisers. However, every organization has growing pains and we are no different. Sometimes the path of least resistance is not the optimum route.

College students are passionate supporters of ECO360 Trust. They care about the environment and they wear T-shirts, so they were a natural place to start. We hoped that college students would take the lead in promoting our message, but most students have little time or inclination to market on behalf of a non-profit, other than posting their recommendations on social media websites.

After a few weeks we began pursuing corporate marketing departments and sustainability directors. Outreach to large corporations can be time consuming and frustrating, but it is the best route to accomplishing our education and environmental objectives.

How do you reach your target audience of green consumers?

Our primary focus is corporations and non-profits. Corporations buy large quantities of T-shirts on a regular basis for events, trade shows, community relations activities and employee recognition. Often companies have a small number of designs to print, so it makes on-demand apparel simple to execute. Consumers tend to buy individual shirts with potentially large numbers of designs.

In addition, companies have incentives of the tax deductible donation and the need to align their sustainable practices with their stated policies. We look forward to greater consumer recognition, but the cost effectiveness of corporate relations enables ECO360 Trust to fund more scholarships.

You can connect with Mark via Twitter and Facebook.

This post was written by:

Maryruth Belsey Priebe

Maryruth has been seeking the keys to environmental justice - both at home and at work - for over a decade. Growing up adjacent to wild spaces, Maryruth developed a healthy respect (and whimsical appreciation) for things non-human, but her practical mind constantly draws her down to earth to ponder tangible solutions to complex eco-problems.

With interests that range from green living to green business, sustainable building designs to organic gardening practices, ecosystem restoration to environmental health, Maryruth has been exploring and writing about earth-matters for most of her life. Of special interest is the subject of ecopsychology and the role the natural world plays in the long-term health and well-being of humanity. You can learn more about Maryruth's work at

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