What does it take for a band to do sustainable merchandising?

A band shirt won’t make or break an artist’s bottom line, but it can certainly help in the dismal economic landscape that is the indie music industry. At the same time, there are too many clothes on our planet: the fashion industry is thought to be the source of 2 to 10% of global carbon emissions, and some experts say that the only solution is to reduce consumption and the making. So what’s an eco-conscious musician looking to fill up his van by selling a few t-shirts? Like efforts to make vinyl more durable, eco-friendly products won’t do much to reverse the ravages of global warming, but it couldn’t hurt either. Producing ecological products, however, costs more. For many artists who are barely making it, the choice between manufacturers can mean the difference between a profitable tour and a less profitable tour.

Will your favorite band t-shirt survive you? The answer, like all aspects of sustainable fashion, is complicated. (In conversations about ethical consumption, “sustainable” often becomes a vague buzzword; here, we mean clothing that has minimal impact on the environment and is made using ethical labor practices.) The majority band shirts are made from 100% cotton, which is of natural origin and therefore technically biodegradable material, if untreated. But cotton production requires huge amounts of water and land, making it environmentally unsustainable. A little better is biological cotton, whose environmental footprint is less because it is produced without synthetic chemicals. Ultimately, recycled cotton, derived from post-consumer or post-industrial waste, is considered the most sustainable, but its price is higher. Then there’s the ink that turns a boring t-shirt into a statement of fan loyalty: water-based or plastic. The two have different environmental footprints, and although water can appear like the clean-up option, it can still cause environmental harm if handled and disposed of improperly.

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

“We’ve spent years trying to find a reasonable blank shirt that we believe is actually ethical and that we’ve never had,” says punk iconoclast Jeff Rosenstock. “They have this WRAP [Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production] certification, but the deeper you go down the rabbit hole, 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 merchandising. Fans would bring plain T-shirts to shows, and band members would stencil and spray 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 recognized their “cashing in”.

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About Eileen W. Sudduth

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