This February graduate students in the Applied Sustainability class visited TS Designs, a Certified Benefit Corporation making t-shirts in Burlington, North Carolina. The students spent the morning with company President, Eric Henry, who aims to create the “highest quality, most sustainable, printed apparel,” measuring success against the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. Henry discussed his take on sustainability, and the vision for the company that calls North Carolina home.
Henry’s vision, and triple bottom line approach, is a consequence of the 1990’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). TS Designs, which Henry had operated since 1977, nearly closed its doors when customers and competitors fled to Mexico for cheaper labor and cheaper inputs all across the supply chain. The company, whose bread and butter was 50-cent screen prints for some of the world’s largest apparel brands, could not maintain a commitment to keeping anything local — NAFTA had all but eliminated that possibility. Henry was forced to reinvent if he was to stay in business.
Now TS Designs’ product is more than an automated screen print — it’s a t-shirt, and what’s behind the t-shirt: the set of values a company operating on a human-scale holds. In its reinvention, Henry and his colleagues consciously created a model that is based on human-scale relationships across the supply chain. By keeping it local, they keep it accountable. Henry is accountable to his employees, and they to him; he’s accountable to his suppliers, and they to him. Scott McCullough, MA’15, one of the students on the trip noted that “TS Designs is a business that not only serves its customers, but serves its community in a number of innovative and meaningful ways. Eric understands that a business can’t be sustainable and resilient if it doesn’t seek to improve the community around it. It was really refreshing and inspiring to see what Eric and TS Designs are doing.”
The critical tool that TS Designs implements to achieve success, and accountability, is full transparency. When you buy a Cotton of the Carolinas t-shirt, one of TS Designs’ innovative brands, you support a “radically” transparent supply chain. Turn the shirt inside out, and the colors of the thread give you access to a map and the ability to track your tee, literally from dirt to shirt. According to Andrew Wilcox, MA’15, “…it creates a business ecosystem where money and resources stay in local communities and regions instead of hemorrhaging out to far off factories and headquarters. The multiplier effect of local business is compelling.”
Transparency for TS Designs isn’t just about supply chains; Henry was even transparent with the students about sustainability being a journey, not a destination. He’s not trying to hold up the company as a model of all things perfectly sustainable (whatever that might mean). It’s not perfect; it’s blemished in places, but it reflects an important journey on a values-driven path. His model clearly reflects what is important to him, and what is clearly important to his many customers.
In the context of a course on Applied Sustainability, this on-site lesson provided students the opportunity to interrogate theories supporting and opposing values-based business models with a business leader who’s got skin in the game.