The Shirt Saga: How Sustainable Team Gear Became More than We Bargained For

Have you met the folks from Facilities? They’re great. They maintain the campus buildings, help you when you have a Kevin’s-Chili-Level spill, and quite literally keep the lights on. You know what else? They have great gear. So yes, we (the Zilkha Center team) just felt a tad jealous of how spiffy they looked in their official Facilities polos when we gathered with them to discuss campus sustainability last spring. So we decided to make our once-annual, one-piece each, gear purchase in honor of them.

I was tasked with the simple objective of purchasing 3 sustainably grown and manufactured  cotton polos and having them beautifully embroidered with the Zilkha Center’s logo. Simple enough, right? Oh, how little I knew.

It’s significantly harder than you might expect to find such a product. It can involve some pretty deep conversations about the meaning of sustainable fashion, ethical sourcing and manufacturing, and the stretchable definition of local. Add to that some very specific embroidery specifications, all for a small order of 3 (!) polo shirts in 3 different sizes, and you can spend hours online, on the phone, and browsing catalogs for … nothing (we hope someone is spotting the market opening here since we really like our jobs and don’t want to quit).

When the winding trail from “sustainable” to “organic” to “local” looked like it was going completely cold, we decided to order upcycled t-shirts from a company where Tanja “knew a guy” (but actually, knows and trusts the founder to do sustainability well), then send them to get embroidered with a local company we use for our t-shirt printing.

After months of research, calls, and internal discussions—late spring had turned to summer, summer to fall—we thought we were so close. Maybe a few more days, two weeks tops to finally get our new Zilkha Center branded upcycled cotton t-shirts, and perhaps inspire some defections from Facilities to our office. Finally, the t-shirts arrived! Embroidered beautifully in the Williams gold and …. royal blue? *facepalm emoji*

After all the hassle to find a (reasonably) sustainable t-shirt and get it embroidered, what arrived was a far cry from Williams’ colors. If only we worked at Syracuse University, or University of Illinois, we’d be all set. But Willams? Alas.

After a back-and-forth with the company revealed that re-embroidering the t-shirts wouldn’t be possible, we felt like this little fella. So close and yet so far.  As the campus sustainability people, the last thing we wanted to do was order a whole new reprint and toss the other shirts. Or wear them, but what would Jim Reische and the Communications Team think when they saw us sporting the colors of another school? Might we be exiled to Syracuse? Or Amherst?!

On an impromptu coffee trip, Tanja and I were discussing the predicament and joked that we’d just sharpie over the embroidered logo to cover the royal blue. But then we thought—what if that actually would work?

We ran back to the office and got to work, digging through my giant box of markers (an internship staple) to find just the right hue of purple. Sure enough, it worked. It turned the royal blue into a deep Williams purple. We hope they’ll hold up well enough in the wash, otherwise we still have that Sharpie to reapply…

So, the next time you think sustainability solutions must be complicated and expensive, it’s possible, but perhaps it’s as simple as taking your most ludicrous and scrappy idea and giving it a go. #SavedByASharpie*

Christine Seibert
Sustainability Coordinator

*This article does not intend to represent an endorsement of a brand. It’s simply a story about how we were in a pickle and the only thing in the entire world that got us out of that was a Sharpie. So…. #thanksSharpie!

P.S.: We will gladly write a note in support of your business plan for small-batch, sustainably made, correctly embroidered polo and t-shirts.


Christine Seibert, Sustainability Coordinator