What Does It Take for a Band to Make Sustainable Merch?

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Organic vs. recycled cotton, water-based vs. plastic ink, $5 vs. $25—for most touring musicians, eco-conscious T-shirts are an unsustainable investment.

sustainable merch

Graphic by Callum Abbott

A band shirt wont make or break an artist’s bottom line, but it sure can help in the dismal economic landscape that is the indie music industry. At the same time, there is too much clothing on our planet: The fashion industry reportedly causes anywhere between 2 to 10 percent of global carbon emissions, and some experts say that the only solution is to reduce consumption and lower manufacturing. So what’s an eco-conscious musician looking to gas up the van by selling a few T-shirts to do? Like the efforts to make vinyl more sustainable, environmentally friendly merch isn’t going to do a great deal in reversing the ravages of global warming, but it couldn’t hurt either. Producing Earth-friendly merch, however, is more expensive. For many acts barely getting by, choosing between manufacturers can mean the difference between a profitable tour and a not-so-profitable one.

Will your favorite band T-shirt outlive you? The answer, like every aspect of sustainable fashion, is complicated. (In conversations about ethical consumption, “sustainable” often becomes a vague buzzword; here, we mean clothing that has a minimal impact on the environment and is manufactured using ethical labor practices.) A majority of band shirts are made from 100 percent cotton, a naturally occurring and therefore technically biodegradable material, if left untreated. But the production of cotton requires massive amounts of water and land, rendering it environmentally unsustainable. Slightly better is organic cotton, which has a smaller environmental footprint since it is produced without synthetic chemicals. Ultimately, recycled cotton, which is derived from post-consumer or post-industrial waste, is considered to be the most sustainable, but it comes at a higher price point. Then there’s the ink that turns a boring tee into a statement of fan loyalty: water-based or plastic. Both have different environmental footprints, and while water-based might seem like the cleaner option, it can still cause environmental damage if handled and disposed of improperly.

Wading through all of these factors takes time and energy, and the truth is often more complicated than statistics would suggest. Many organizations are guilty of greenwashing, a deceptive marketing practice that prioritizes a sustainable image over concrete commitments. The problem goes beyond advertising: A recent New York Times investigation, for example, found that India’s organic cotton certification process is rife with corruption. None of this is terribly transparent for consumers or musicians.

“We have spent years trying to find a reasonable blank shirt that we feel is actually ethical and never have,” says punk iconoclast Jeff Rosenstock. “They have this WRAP [Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production] certification but the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more you see that certification is kind of bullshit.” As the leader of the collective Bomb the Music Industry! in the mid-2000s, Rosenstock consciously rejected the concept of monetizing music and merch. Fans would bring plain T-shirts to shows, and band members would stencil and spray paint their logo for free. “It wasn’t always a shirt,” Rosenstock notes. “To our surprise, several people asked us to tag their cars.” By 2010, Bomb the Music Industry! began selling traditional printed shirts, albeit ones that acknowledged their “cashing in.”

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