Discover TS Designs
I met Eric Henry on our mission to find a more sustainable, USA grown and made t-shirt for our branded apparel and custom designs. Eric is the co-founder and president of TS Designs, a North Carolina company committed to sustainability, offering unique t-shirts that focus on local, transparent supply chains. As we toured the facility, we learned about their water-based inks and use of their more sustainable dyeing process called REHANCE for a no-feel print. Eric’s belief that small things over a long period of time make a big impact is apparent not just in their products but in their whole facility. TS Designs has a community garden, solar energy, and a biodiesel pump. It utilizes skylights to limit lighting needs and task lighting to light only necessary areas. Employees are happy because they’re paid fair wages and treated well. Join Eric and I on a journey from the early days at TS Designs to today and into the future, learning about how we can all live more sustainably and support our local communities.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What inspires you? What drives you? What brings you joy?
I’ve been on this planet now for 62 years, in North Carolina for 59 years, and a part of TS Designs for 39 years. What got me to where I am in life and in business, and what drives me and makes me happy, stems from a single day: January 1, 1994. On that day, The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified.
Years earlier in 1976, I was a student at NC State and was very interested in agriculture. I grew up in Burlington, North Carolina, and had a garden in my parents’ backyard. I’d always been close to the earth and loved getting my hands in the soil. At NC State while I furthered my formal education, I started a t-shirt company to support myself. Shortly after that, I met my future business partner, Tom Sineath, and together we incorporated TS Designs.
We built our business around high-volume contract screen printing for big companies like Nike, Adidas, and Gap. We were very successful because all our competition was within the US. In the years prior to NAFTA, TS Designs was growing. Shortly after NAFTA though, brands found out they could make products cheaper overseas and quickly started moving production. Within two years of NAFTA, we went from 100 plus employees to 14. The business we had put together disappeared. There was no need anymore. Everyone told us textiles were dead in our country.
What I learned in the wake of NAFTA is that there’s more to business than that bottom line. Our people had always been the most important thing to us and still are. We believe in retirement plans, health care, paying more than minimum wage, etc. And after NAFTA, these values only became more important with the losses of so many jobs in our community and across America.
A friend in a similar textile business introduced me to the triple bottom line model in the late 90s and we adopted that philosophy. All the components of this sustainable business model—people, planet, profit—were already in place at TS Designs prior to NAFTA, but the triple bottom line gave us a framework to structure our business around.
What inspired you to start TS Designs?
There was no great vision other than I needed some extra school money for extracurricular and weekend activities. At NC State, I saw an opportunity to connect t-shirt needs with events and organizations on campus. I was essentially a reseller at first. It was through my first company, Creative Screen Designs, that I found my business partner who was on the manufacturing side. We operated as two separate companies for a few years and then I folded Creative Screen Designs into TS Designs and we incorporated in 1980. The idea of people, profit, planet was there, but it wasn’t until NAFTA that it would be galvanized.
What is TS Designs’ mission? What is your personal life mission? How do they influence one another?
At TS Designs, our mission is to produce sustainable product made in the US with a local, transparent supply chain. We continue to be dedicated to building a community of businesses invested in people, planet and profits.
My personal mission is connecting and building a better community of suppliers and customers, and of all local businesses. At the end of the day, a community cannot be successful unless everyone has the opportunity to participate in that community. You’ve got to be a part of something other people feel they are a part of. Connection is everything.
A few weeks ago, I helped start the first cooperatively owned brewery in North Carolina and 10th in the country. Burlington Beer Works now has 2200 owners. I invested in this project because it will make Burlington—where TS Designs is based and where I grew up—a better place to live. I’m very interested in community-owned businesses that are transparent in how they make their product and how they operate their businesses.
How do you incorporate play into your life to create a healthy work/life integration?
My wife loves horses, so she wanted horses in the back yard, and I wanted to get my hands in the soil more often; so after 26 years of living in Burlington, we moved to a farm in Snow Camp a few years ago. I farm as much as I can. I love constantly learning more sustainable ways to make better soil that creates less of an impact. I am very connected with the sustainable agriculture movement which ties to my work but also gives me a fun outlet.
What are some of the obstacles you have overcome to pursue TS Designs?
Constantly, our biggest challenge is getting people to understand that our product doesn’t cost more, but what they are buying doesn’t cost enough. I believe if you go outside of your market to produce product your market can make and deliver, you are cheating the system. When I was snooping around your shop prior to the interview looking at the t-shirt table full of great brands that talk about sustainability, not one damn shirt is made in the US. I am a big fan of a lot of the brands, but they are all producing overseas. If you don’t choose where you make your clothes in a way that lets you support the people who buy your clothes, you are cheating the system.
At TS Designs we are committed to making our shirts on our own soil, and our biggest challenge will continue to be price. There’s no question you could have gotten a cheaper t-shirt for your TB&C shirts, but the impact of buying sustainable and local product adds value. We hope that by having more customers like you, we can educate the consumer on that impact.
Tell us about what sets the process at TS Designs apart.
When NAFTA destroyed our business and we realized we were not going to be a low-cost producer, we had to find a way to bring value back to the market. We decided to make the highest quality, most sustainable apparel. We looked at our printing process and asked how we could do it differently to make a better product and have less environmental impact. We worked with a textile chemist and spent 2 years developing our own printing process called REHANCE. To my knowledge, no one else in the world does t-shirts this way.
We start off with a white t-shirt and print on it using our REHANCE technology, which is water based. The shirt then goes through a conveyor dryer to dry the water off and cure the technology. Then the t-shirt goes to another facility to make it a color t-shirt. In the dyeing process, that area that was printed repels the dye so instead of dye soaking into the fabric, the color is pushed out. You end up with a print that is in the fabric not on the fabric. The print becomes a permanent part of the shirt that won’t ever crack or peel. We started there, but what we have become known for is making a better, more sustainable t-shirt.
The first brand we created was Cotton of the Carolinas 11 years ago. We grow a lot of cotton in North Carolina, so part of our mission was to connect farmers growing cotton and bring them more business. Understanding the whole process from cotton ball to t-shirt allows us to be transparent in our supply chain and make a higher quality, more sustainable t-shirt. We are dedicated to not just making a better t-shirt but having a transparent and trackable supply chain.
Tell us about the sustainability initiatives you are leading at TS Designs, specifically with hemp?
Industrial hemp became legal in the farm bill last year. We have long been big fans of hemp because of its positive environmental attributes over cotton from a standpoint of yield per acre, less water, and less chemicals. We’ve known that for years, but we haven’t gotten behind hemp until now because we weren’t going to support something we couldn’t make in this country.
Now that it’s legal, we’ve started the journey into hemp, and it will be a multiyear journey. We’re committed to grow, process, and manufacture it in the US with a transparent and trackable supply chain, and keep the farmer at the table engaged in the conversation.
In addition to understanding this ourselves, we need to educate other companies and customers. I really enjoy the opportunity to engage with young people to share my knowledge with them while they still have their whole lives in front of them. I’ve been going to local universities and will be presenting at Outdoor Retailer in June.
Every day we make decisions because we spend money. We have to start asking the question: what’s the social and environmental impact we make with every purchase? We live in a time when we have more options and less information than ever. Getting people to understand the responsibility in consumption is key.
What are you excited about right now?
The journey at home and the journey at work to be more sustainable. We bought the farm we live on now seven years ago. My wife and I are working on making our house a net zero energy home. We’ve put in solar, geothermal, and LED lighting, and we’ve developed a whole permaculture plan for the farm.
I’m also excited by the electric vehicle movement. I used to make biodiesel at TS Designs. Now I have the Chevy Volt and have already put 52 thousand miles on it in a year and a half. It’s fun learning how the electric car market is working.
What would you have done differently when you started your company if you knew then what you know now?I would have started our own brand, which we are going to do next year. We’ve found we have a better product and better story than a lot of companies out there. While we have great customers, our brand gets lost when other brands are stamped on our shirts. In 2020, we’ll launch Solid State Clothing, taking our story direct to our customers. The hemp platform gives us the opportunity to launch this new company and a new way of thinking where we keep the farmer at the table.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Spending time with our customers and building new products.
What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
I want my legacy to be bringing textile and apparel manufacturing back to the US. I look at sustainability as a journey, not a destination. In the short period of time I’m on this planet, I want to try to leave it better than I found it, learn from the mistakes that I make and my generation makes, and do whatever I can to help people like you and the next generation live more sustainably. What gets me up every day is my involvement with my community. I come back again and again to the question: how do we give people the opportunity to make an impact?
If you plan on attending Outdoor Retailer, join Eric Henry on June 18th for an informative education session: Developing a Sustainable Hemp Supply Chain in the United States at 3:30pm at Hyatt Regency in Denver, CO.
Come by the store to check out our new TB&C shirts thanks to TS Designs!