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[Illustration of merch tent, with indicators of recycled merch, screen-printing onto old t-shirts, ethical merch options, etc.]

 

One of the most important ways we’ve been financially supporting each other in the music industry recently is by purchasing artist merchandise. Unfortunately, there’s no way to be 100% sustainable when selling merchandise, but we recognise that it’s often a necessary source of income for musicians. Here’s our guide to making your merch as eco-friendly and ethical as possible!


There are a few things to consider when outsourcing ethical merchandise, and we think it’s time to dig out our old band tees, hang them out to dry and see the impact of cherishable vs. perishable.

What’s wrong with my normal merch?

  1. They’re usually full of plastic. 60% of new clothes are made from synthetic fibres which never biodegrade and instead just break down into smaller and smaller parts, filling our waterways and oceans with microplastics.
  2. Non-synthetic clothes need significant amounts of water to produce. It can take 2700 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt and cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide use.
  3. ‘Fast fashion’ means clothes often end up in landfill. In Australia, 6000kg of clothing and textiles are discarded every 10 minutes – that’s 23kg per person per year. It’s not sustainable and it can’t be continued forever.

As an artist, you can play a role in promoting sustainable fashion. 

This means looking for brands that use recycled content, organic cotton and fair trade working conditions. If you already have a partnership with a merch provider, ask them about a more sustainable option. And if it isn’t you making these decisions but your manager or record label, make sure you raise this with them and ask them to factor it in. With more and more artists pushing for sustainable merch, the options will get better and better!

CASE STUDY

Melbourne-based 60s psychedelic garage-pop band Sunfruits collaborated with Green Music Australia to create organic t-shirts with the slogan ‘No Music on a Dead Planet’.

Some ethical merch providers in Australia: a quick comparison

Etiko Merch

This brand has a traceable supply chain and organic, fair trade cotton, plus wins awards for their ethical production.

OCC Apparel

OCC Apparel manages eight different sustainable brands. All are ethical and most are made with organic cotton, but are made in different places and have varying materials such as bamboo. See a comparison of their brands below and read more about wholesale ethical merch on their website.

Shirtbox

Entirely solar-powered operations mean Shirtbox is a great place to head for merch options. Check out their eco range here.

First Nations businesses

Increased economic participation for First Nations people provides a critical pathway for economic independence. And First Nations businesses and staff can bring significant assets to your work, understanding western systems while also being grounded deeply and strongly in this country as the hosts to the oldest living culture. 

Use Supply Nation, the biggest national database of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses, designed to create relationships and a more inclusive economy. Note: The majority of companies are 50% Indigenous and non-indigenous partnerships. Without the resources for accreditation, some are brilliant, but others need to be sensitively culturally scrutinised. 

Search the Aboriginal Business Directory in your area. The Indigenous Businesses Council of Australia (IBCA) is the Peak body for Aboriginal Business and are deeply invested in the financial success and economic independence of First Nations peoples in Australia. You can call them for a list of businesses in the regions you are working or touring in. Alternately, reach out to a state/territory based Aboriginal business directory:


A final option when designing your merch is to use sites like @ausindigenousfashion on Instagram to find Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and designers. 

Other

Alternatively, ask your current merch provider what their more sustainable options are. It’s so great to get these conversations going. And since we’re living in the midst of a climate emergency, well into the 21st century, they really should have some options by now.

New merch isn’t the only merch. 

If you have old merch that didn’t sell, repurpose it! The 1975 reprinted new designs onto their old t-shirts, saving money and avoiding waste. Opera North used old costumes to make beeswax wraps. Or consider incorporating an environmental message into your merch, like WAAX or Alison Wonderland.

 

WAAX designed a t-shirt calling out dirty coal, with all profits going towards the 2020 Brisbane bushfire relief.

#image-panel

Alison Wonderland donated all proceeds from this t-shirt to the Victoria CFA, the NSW RFS and WIRES. 

CASE STUDY

The 1975 repurposed old merch that didn’t sell from earlier tours by simply printing their new graphic over the old designs. Better yet, people could bring old The 1975 shirts (or ANY old shirt) to their concerts and get the same screen print done then and there!

Image credit: @trumanblack on Instagram

Other merch options: water bottles, planting seeds & cardboard album covers

There’s more than just clothes! You can have your own personalised reusable water bottles or reusable coffee cups, which artists like Ash Grunwald, Taylor Swift and Maggie Rogers all have as merch, or a tote bag for shopping. Tim Minchin had hugely popular plantable seed cards as part of his tour merch pack. 

When selling CDs, we recommend recycled cardboard CD covers, like the ones offered by Austep, a carbon neutral company. Look for cardboard/paper packaging that’s from sustainably managed forests (the best is FSC certified, followed by PEFC). If we all switched to cardboard instead of plastic packaging, the industry’s packaging emissions could be reduced by up to 95%. Alternatively, don’t release physical copies at all and just sell your music online as digital downloads (see Office & Studio for more on streaming vs hard copy music).

CASE STUDY: More than just a merch stand.

On her 2019 Complex tour, enviro legend Montaigne ran a Red Cross clothes drive at a Sydney show. Fans were invited to drop off old clothes, which were then donated to the Red Cross. If you’re thinking of doing the same, consider also collecting clothes that are no longer suitable for op shops (irreparable tears, old socks etc.), and giving them to brands that collect clothes for recycling - using this handy directory.

Shopping for yourself?

What we wear makes a statement, whether we’re conscious of it or not. If we wear and fetishise fast fashion and unethically produced luxury brands, we’re effectively encouraging others to do the same. That’s true whether you buy it yourself or if it’s gifted at a club or festival, from a partner or a sponsor. We all need clothes and, as artists, our fashion choices are an important part of our brand. They also shape the culture and the world we live in. So make a sustainable statement with your wardrobe. 

Below are our top sources for finding more ethical fashion brands. Note that brands are often ranked in comparison with their peers, so some larger commercial brands may look a little better than they are at first glance.

For best results

  • Avoid new purchases wherever possible
  • Reduce the amount of clothing you purchase
  • Buy second-hand and vintage
  • Then, and only then, buy from the most ethical and sustainable options using the links below.

Where to find the good stuff

  • Good On You is a leading source for fashion brand ratings, using expert analysis to give each brand a clear and practical ethics and sustainability score. And their database is searchable via smart phone app or the website. 
  • If you want to dig a little deeper to understand the issues beneath these kinds of ratings, check out: 

 

 

Left: Uncle Ken Dodds at Airlie Beach Festival; Right: Baker Boy still from Cool as Hell clip. Image: via YouTube

Set Design

When it comes to sustainable set design, we in the music industry can look to the broader arts world for some ideas and inspiration. Julie’s Bicycle is an awesome UK charity that’s dedicated to making the creative industries sustainable. They have a vast set of resources like guides, fact sheets and webinars.

And leading theatre organisations in the UK have just developed a ‘Green Book’ that aims to create a common standard for making theatre sustainably. There’s lots of info in there, but essentially the publication supports theatre makers to:

  • Do more with less.
  • Use more reused components and recycled materials.
  • Think where materials come from.
  • Reduce harmful chemicals.
  • Reduce travel. Reduce deliveries.
  • Make sure everything gets used again.

So if you’re about to go deep on design, you could do worse than setting aside a little time to dig into the Green Book for loads of great suggestions on topics like:

  • producing a show
  • sets and scenery
  • props
  • costumes, hair and make-up
  • lighting, sound and AV.

What else?

As we’ve said right through this guide, these kinds of individual actions are just the beginning. They’re important because they soften our impact. They’re also important because doing them changes who we are and how we relate to Country. But the issues we face are deep and systemic. So while we’re improving personal footprints, we also need to push for collective, political change. That’s why your voice is the most powerful tool you’ve got. See Speaking Up for our suggestions on how to use it well. Or get in touch if you want to get more involved in the Green Music movement.

Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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