Stress balls, Chapstick, coffee mugs, tote bags, key chains, T-shirts, baseball caps, water bottles, smartphone projectors — the list of swag items seems endless and not very sustainable. We’ve all received items meant to welcome us to a new job/school/community, used them once — or not at all — then lost or tossed them. Or, on the other side, we’ve often been excited to have a new T-shirt or other item to represent our organization that we bulk order it without thinking too much about how or by whom it was made. As a school of the environment, we knew that if we were going to create merchandise with our name on it, we needed to be more thoughtful about the environmental impact and labor practices behind its design and production.
“As these would be the first new swag items produced since the name change to Yale School of the Environment (from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) and the establishment of The Forest School, we knew we had a real responsibility to be intentional about the sustainability of our school swag,” said Sara Smiley Smith, associate dean of academic affairs, research, and sustainability. “One of the first decisions we made was to produce fewer items — starting with the most-requested apparel items, such as T-shirts, hoodies, and baseball caps — with their sustainability serving as the top priority when designing and sourcing those items.”
Smiley Smith was able to recruit students Wan Ping Chua MEM ’21 and Leah Wise DIV ’22 to research the design and sourcing of new YSE and TFS swag apparel items to ensure they met high standards of sustainability.
Chua and Wise brought invaluable expertise and past professional experience in Life Cycle Assessment and sustainable apparel to the project, Smiley Smith says. Chua, for example, started her own sustainability online platform, and became the first Singaporean to join HEINEKEN’s global sustainability team, working in Amsterdam and Vietnam. While at YSE, she also worked as a consultant to a fashion industry client to determine sustainable packaging alternatives to polybags. Wise, a freelance journalist and sustainability blogger, created StyleWise — one of the longest-running ethical fashion blogs.
Product Life Cycle: Climate Change Impacts, Water Use, Waste & End-of-Life, Quality & Comfort
To help YSE source sustainable and ethically produced merchandise, Chua and Wise undertook research using a life cycle assessment approach, which evaluates potential environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a product (production, distribution, use, and end-of-life phases) or service. Their research approach, and the report they produced for the YSE sustainability and communications offices, considered agricultural practices, textile production, labor ethics and compliance, responsible dye and printing practices, biodegradability, shipping and transport, and consumer use.
Chua and Wise assessed several types of fabric against four criteria: climate change impact, water use, waste impacts and end-of-life considerations, and quality (including longevity) and comfort. Climate change impact considers the impact of fabrics on carbon emissions. In their report, they noted that “while some recycled synthetics arguably require fewer resources, the lasting effects of micro-particle pollution and undesired qualities of polyester immediately narrowed (their) research to natural and organic textiles.” Secondhand fiber only has climate and water impacts for the manufacturing process, and not for the raw material phase, so they tend to perform better as the manufacturing phase is a smaller percentage of overall environmental impact, particularly for cotton.
Water use is one of the most significant environmental impacts of cotton, with cotton crops being responsible for 2.6 percent of world water use. Cotton generally grows well in arid regions, as these regions are less prone to pests. However, most arid regions also lack rainfall and cotton farmers resort to extensive irrigation, especially in areas that are prone to drought, such as Turkey and Pakistan. Sourcing from countries with a lower share of irrigation, such as India, Australia, and the U.S., is one way to reduce the environmental impact of cotton. Another way to address water use is to choose organic cotton, Chua and Wise noted. This promotes the health of surrounding waterways around the cotton farms.
Cotton and secondhand fabrics made solely of cotton scored the highest in Waste & End of Life as it can be recycled once more, by being blended with other materials, and also scored highly in Quality & Comfort.
While much of the environmental impact comes from the textile itself, there are also impacts associated with custom printing swag items — with digital and screen printing both having pros and cons. But avoiding plastisol inks and looking for non-PVC, non-toxic and non-phthalate inks instead is critical, Chua and Wise reported.
“Another important thing you can do is to limit variables in designs and colors as this limits waste in general,” Wise said.
Ethically Sourced Labor: What is Fair Trade? GOTS? Untangling Certification
While assessing factors such as water use and impacts on carbon emissions is challenging, trying to get a clear picture of labor ethics and regulation on a worldwide level is almost impossible.
The international garment industry is not centrally regulated, and the nature of its segmentation means that multinational corporations are not necessarily held responsible for violations occurring at the factories with which they contract. Additionally, as Chua and Wise stated in their report, the prevalence of sub-contracting — in which the contracted factory makes an independent, short-term contract with secondary manufacturers in order to complete large orders — fractures the chain of accountability from corporation to producer and lets big corporations or clothing manufacturers deny culpability for poor working conditions at sub-contracted factories since, legally, they did not enter into a contract with those factories. ‘Yet, there is ample evidence that sub-contracting is par for the course in the garment industry,’ their report stated.
One way to source products made from ethical labor principles throughout the supply chain is through certifications. However, there are numerous certifications in today’s marketplace, so it’s important to understand their limitations. Fair Trade certifications, they note, ensure a basic wage (typically above minimum wage), safe working conditions, and community resources (such as healthcare, education, daycare, etc.), but potential pitfalls include a lack of data on what constitutes a living wage in countries where certification takes place, as well as inconsistent guidelines regarding employee welfare. They also include a basic disclaimer about environmental responsibility.
Other broader certifications provide environmental, labor, and lifecycle information, but they still tend to prioritize one category over others. For example, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certifications are the gold standard for sustainable and nontoxic manufacturing practices but recommend only minimum guidelines for worker welfare.
“Certifications are big step forward, but you have to do your due diligence to understand what they mean, and even the most comprehensive certifications have their limitation,” Wise said. “Country of origin is not a guarantee either. Yes, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and certain other countries have better labor accountability, but sweat shops definitely exist in the U.S. — particularly in the Los Angeles area.”
Finding Balance and the ‘Right’ Shade of Green
In the end, Chua and Wise prioritized U.S.-production with U.S.-grown cotton, when possible, because it would ensure a shorter supply chain and thus, better traceability. For some products, they were able to find union-made production, which provides better labor accountability. For others, they reviewed factory standards and discussed supply chain with vendors. When they couldn’t source U.S.-grown cotton, they focused on products made with U.S.-labor and tried to match it with GOTS-certified, organic cotton from less resource-intensive agricultural centers, such as Africa and India.
“We also thought it was important to include only companies that offered inclusive sizing and to think about how the fabric is going to launder and wear as the consumer-use phase of a product’s life cycle is also one of the most resource intensive,” Wise said, noting that washing items in cold water and limiting the use of the dryer can significantly reduce laundering waste (up to 90%) and lessen environmental impact.
For YSE associate direct of design Angela Chen-Wolf, using Chua and Wise’s report to design and help source the sustainable apparel items was all about finding the right balance. “We knew our community members wanted a green option, but if a lighter shade of green was more sustainable than the more traditional forest green, the balance tipped to sustainability. Similarly, we know that people have limited budgets, but sourcing sustainable items often costs more,” Chen-Wolf said. “So we had to find that balance. If an item costs a little (not a lot) more, then we thought that would be the right balance, and people would perhaps buy fewer items. After all, we don’t have to take a poll to know this is a community that cares about sustainability.”