“I want to push the window of sustainability to change the direction of American society,” says Eric Henry, president of TS Designs.
With his business partner and TSD CEO, Tom Sineath, Henry (pictured here) has been in the screenprinting business for more than 30 years, and he is the winner of the Sustainability Champion award from Sustainable North Carolina in 2009.
Outside of his business, Henry devotes much of his time to furthering the sustainable agenda in various community organizations. He founded North Carolina’s Burlington Biodiesel Co-op and has run his car on biodiesel (or straight vegetable oil) since 2004.
He serves on the boards for Company Shops Market, a local co-op grocery that reconnects local agriculture to Alamance County, and NC GreenPower, an organization that purchases and resells renewable energy. He also serves on boards for Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, Elon University Environmental Science, and the Burlington Downtown Corporation.
Henry, and his wife, Lisa, live in a home on a small farm in southern Alamance County, which they moved to after 26 years of living in downtown Burlington.
“Lisa wanted to be closer to her horses and I wanted to get closer to the dirt,” says Henry, whose blog, Journey to Zero, shares the progress of their project to make their new house a net-zero energy home.
So we were thrilled to sit down with Henry for this Q&A.
Dave Feldman: Over the past 30 years, you and your partner have built a successful, ‘sustainable’ T-shirt business. You have incorporated triple-bottom-line principles in your operations, such as using organic cotton and maintaining a domestic labor force. Tell us about TS Designs and explain why it is unique (yes, brag a little).
Eric Henry: By the mid 90s, we had built a successful T-shirt printing company that employed more than 100 people and did work for brands like Nike, Tommy, and Polo. It was completely destroyed by NAFTA. As we were seeing NAFTA kill apparel and textiles in North Carolina, we decided to go another direction and get off the global economic treadmill.
In the last 30 years of business, I have seen a global economy become focused on lowest price and addicted to cheap labor, with quality thrown out the window. This was my wake-up call. There was more to business and life than just making money. Money and profits are important, but I believe they are not the best measurement of success and happiness. We changed our mission to a triple-bottom-line philosophy—people, planet, and profits—which drives our everyday day decisions and directions.
We believe sustainability is a journey, not a destination, and it is critical to demonstrate it, not just talk about it. You can get an idea of this journey just by looking at our green campus.
Dave Feldman: Can you share the vision for your business and describe how sustainability is part of your personal and professional mission?
Eric Henry: We want to create a better company—one that looks after people, planet, and profits. One of the first big steps we took in the mid 90s was to develop and patent a completely different way to print T-shirts. We developed the REHANCE technology using a water-based based print technology and a garment dye that eliminates the industry standard plastisol inks that contain PVC and phthalates.
Being an apparel business located in North Carolina, we are in the perfect spot not only to grow great cotton but manufacture apparel with it. We wanted to reconnect the links that globalization destroyed, which is why we started a supply chain called Cotton of the Carolinas, where we go “dirt to shirt” in 600 miles and impact more than 500 jobs in a completely transparent supply chain, all in North Carolina. It is a great example of a sustainable business model. Yes, the T-shirts cost more because of how and where they are made, but more and more people are starting to understand the real cost of cheap prices.
Dave Feldman: You have been active in the green, sustainability movement for many years. What are some of the groups you have been involved with, and how have they helped your business?
Eric Henry: The three main groups I am involved in are BALLE (Business for Local Living Communities), Green America (whose board I sit on), and B Corp. I have attended the BALLE conference since 2006, when we first had the idea to start Company Shops Co-Op in our downtown.
Green America, formerly Co-Op America, and founder of the Green Festivals, is an important connection for us on topics like climate change and other global environmental and social issues. B Corp—aka Benefit Corporation—is critical in giving us a measuring stick with which we can grade our sustainable performance among our peers and the marketplace.
Dave Feldman: What challenges have you faced building a green business, and how did you overcome them? Any words of inspiration for other socially responsible entrepreneurs?
Eric Henry: It has been a challenge. We compete in a commodity apparel market where the industry takes advantage of cheap labor and cheap energy, not measuring the external cost. One of our key jobs is education. Our best customer is an educated customer. I think people want to do the right thing; they just do not have access to the information.
Dave Feldman: You once stated, “I want to push the window of sustainability to change the direction of American society.” As a leader in the sustainability movement, how would you inspire change and what could American society become?
Eric Henry: Between climate change, growing world population, peak oil (when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction has been reached), and diminishing natural resources, the world is becoming a different place. It will not be fixed by growing the economy, but by reconnecting to our local roots, redefining what is enough, and creating an environment where everyone has a part.
Dave Feldman: Consumers are becoming more educated about products they purchase. What are some of the trends around apparel, and is there new innovation in sustainable clothing design?
Eric Henry: By far the biggest thing I have seen since the recession is a big switch to organic cotton and a shift to “Made in the United States.” I see our business as following the same path as the local food movement. People want to know where their food comes from, and I want to do that with apparel. I believe I can make the manufacturing transparent, from “dirt to shirt.”
Dave Feldman: What haven’t you accomplished, and what do you hope to achieve in the future?
Eric Henry: From our T-shirt business perspective, the profit part of our triple-bottom-line is still not very stable or consistent. Our goal is to educate and get more people to buy into the triple-bottom-line model. I think all three “Ps” have to be stable and strong.
I am working to bring industrial hemp to our state and overturn the federal laws against growing it in the United States. I want to continue to build more local-living models like our co-op grocery store, and I’m working on the idea of a co-op brewery.
Another thing I want to continue to work on is connecting more of our community to a local food system, both for jobs and health. My wife and I moved to a small farm about two years ago. We are developing a long-term plan for a 12-acre permaculture-plan farm and to make our 20-year-old home net-zero energy—so that it makes as much energy as we use.
About Dave Feldman
Feldman is the current and founding director of Bethesda Green, a dynamic 501c3 that serves as a catalyst and trusted resource for building a healthy economy and sustainable community. This model initiative has set up the first green business incubator and education center in the DC/Maryland region.
Feldman is also the CEO of the Livability Project LLC, an organization that provides structure and tools to help communities develop sustainability initiatives. Through Livability, Feldman leverages his entrepreneurial experience, international economic development expertise, and passion for sustainability to implement socially responsible, “green” community-development projects that can be replicated worldwide.