Bringing Organic Tees to the Masses

Bringing Organic Tees to the Masses

In the mid-2000s, when interest in eco-friendly apparel was increasing and most greener brands sold for a premium, Anvil Knitwear saw a chance to enter the market with a cheaper range of organic and recycled shirts that came in more than just earth tones.

Since launching its line of organic cotton T-shirts in 2007, Anvil has become the largest domestic buyer of U.S. organic cotton, and maintains a commitment to source organic cotton from the U.S. first.

The Anvil name may not be as familiar as Hanes when it comes to T-shirts, but the brand has a broad reach. It makes about 100 million units a year (mainly T-shirts, but also sports shirts, hats, towels and bags) and supplies major sportswear, skate and surf brands as well as screenprinters, festivals, concerts and private-label brands.

The New York-based company doesn't say exactly how much of its sales come from its organic and recycled-content lines. "It's still small relative to the rest of the business, but it's a growing percentage," said Caterina Conti, Anvil's head of sustainability. 

Sales are coming from a mix of new customers and current ones switching over, she said. In 2009, for example, 60 percent of new private label sales included products from its eco collection.

"It's really significantly increased business in the private-label space," Conti said. "We're actively trying to convert customers."

In the first year its 100 percent organic cotton line was available, Anvil sold 10 million AnvilOrganic shirts. The shirts were initially only available through a few channels in Anvil's supply chain, and not from all of its 50-plus distributors worldwide.

"The company knew the line needed to be designed in attractive colors and at an affordable price," Conti said. While the AnvilOrganic line costs more than its conventional line, it's available in a variety of colors and indistinguishable from the non-organic line.

Along with being the largest buyer of organic cotton from the U.S., where it gets about 90 percent of its organic cotton from farms certified by the USDA's National Organic Program, Anvil is the sixth biggest organic cotton purchaser in the world. 

In 2008, Anvil added two more lines to its eco collection. The AnvilRecycled line is made with textile scraps and the AnvilSustainable line is made with recycled plastic bottles and transitional cotton.

When it buys transitional cotton, which is what cotton is labeled in the three years after its grower switches from conventional to organic farming, Anvil pays farmers 90 percent of what it would pay for certified organic cotton, Conti said.

The AnvilRecycled shirts, on the other hand, are made completely from Anvil's and other companies' textile scraps. All cutting and sewing leftovers get collected, sorted by color, chopped up and respun into yarn, with no extra dying.

To get a grasp on the impacts of its three new collections, Anvil started conducting life cycle assessments (LCAs) with the help of Camco International, beginning with LCAs of its conventional, AnvilOrganic and AnvilRecycled T-shirts. The AnvilRecycled has the largest carbon footprint due to the emissions from the production of fabric scraps. 

Just this month Anvil released the results of the LCA for its AnvilSustainable T-shirt, finding that it contributes 15 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than its conventional T-shirt. The AnvilOrganic shirt maintains the lowest carbon footprint of all four, though, with 20 percent fewer emissions than its conventional shirt. 

Something the LCAs don't take into account is recycling of the shirts since, like the vast majority of the apparel industry outside of Patagonia, Anvil does not have a product recovery and recycling system in place. While cotton shirts could be turned back into cotton shirts, the AnvilRecycled line poses the problem of cutting up fibers that have already been cut up and potentially unusable.

The AnvilSustainable poses an additional challenge by containing two different materials mixed together. For now, Anvil provides a list of T-shirt reuse ideas on its Track My T page, which allows people to see the path their shirt took from farm to store and advice on how to lower each shirt's life cycle emissions.

For now, Anvil has found that selling shirts with lower impacts fits just fine.