Low-impact screenprinting and sustainable, sweat-free T-shirts
Life can sometimes force change through do-or-die situations. For TS Designs, a cotton screen-printing company based in Burlington, NC, that moment came in the early 1990s with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA created a free-trade zone between Canada, the United States, and Mexico—eliminating trade barriers like tariffs and creating a cheap overseas labor zone, which caused many US companies to move their plants and production factories to Mexico.
Founded in 1977, TS Designs had grown from a small, manual screenprinting company into a much larger, fully automated one, screenprinting cotton textiles with pictures, words, or patterns for clients like Nike, GAP, and more. But with the implementation of NAFTA, those clients began outsourcing their printing needs across the border, leaving TS Designs and other US companies to flounder.
As a result, many companies in Burlington and across the US were forced to close. Eric Henry says TS Designs didn’t have that choice. Closing would’ve meant bankruptcy, as both Henry and his partner Tom Sineath had taken out personal loan guarantees on the business.
“It would have just been a financial disaster that would’ve taken us a lifetime to recover from,” says Henry.
But keeping TS Designs afloat meant making major changes. To compete with cheap, overseas labor, Henry and Sineath needed to figure out a way to deliver something that made their higher-than-sweatshop prices worth it.
While very few green companies existed directly after NAFTA, Henry and Sineath decided they needed to shift their focus to a triple-bottom-line business model, one that would result in healthy planet, people, and profits.
Henry says that the first few years were very tough. Neither man drew a salary for over a year as they regrouped. But, says Henry, “I just felt in my soul this was the direction to go and the way businesses should be run.”
Today, TS Designs still continues its triple-bottom-line commitment. For one thing, it uses the safest inks possible. The inks that are typically used to print shirts are plastisol inks, which contain polyvinyl chloride, a type of plastic that releases carcinogenic dioxin during manufacture and incineration, and also often releases hormone-disrupting phthalates through its lifecycle.
Working with the Burlington Chemical Company, TS Designs developed its own printing process, called REHANCE, which uses a water-based, low-impact reactive dyes. The REHANCE process also produces a higher-quality result; REHANCE embeds the print in the fabric itself, rather than painting it on, so the print doesn’t crack or peel like plastisol prints often do. REHANCE prints can even survive ironing.
While TS Designs still screenprints textiles for other companies, it has also developed its own sustainable apparel brands, aiming to serve as an example to an industry plagued by toxins and sweatshop labor.
“Cotton of the Carolinas has been the flagship,” says Henry of TS Designs’ T-shirt brand. “It utilizes North Carolina cotton, and all the manufacturing is done in the Carolinas” within a 600-mile radius, rather than being outsourced to Mexican or Chinese sweatshops like many major brands.
That means the cotton for Cotton of the Carolinas T-shirts is grown, ginned, spun, knit, and finished in the Carolinas, and then the shirt itself is sewn together in the region.
Cotton of the Carolinas also boasts a 100 percent transparent supply chain. Customers can track their clothing “from dirt to shirt”, finding out exactly where and by whom their shirt was made at whereyourclothing.com.
“The reason we are so committed to transparency is that the labor is so much cheaper in Third World countries. Manufacturers end up in places like Bangladesh, where the [Rana Plaza clothing] factory collapsed and over 1,000 people died—all for 22 cents an hour,” says Henry. “That’s what you get when you [bury your supply chain in secrecy] and just focus on maximizing your bottom line. The bottom line is not the single thing that drives us.”
To help further expand the market for organic cotton, the company also introduced its American Soil Organic T-shirt line, made from US-grown organic cotton, and its Cloud Organic line, which boasts “supremely comfortable” T-shirts made from certified organic cotton grown elsewhere.
Today, TS Designs’ revenue comes more from managing its clothing lines and supply chains and less from screenprinting. In 2014, the company shipped nearly 139,000 shirts to customers.
“Some people say your stuff’s a lot more expensive, and I say, ‘You’re right. They are,’” says Henry. “There’s a higher value on what [our customers are] looking for: it is the community we live in and the planet we live on that’s so critical not only to our happiness but also to future generations.”
According to Henry, TS Designs would not be the company that it is today without its long-time Green America Green Business Network membership: “It’s connected me to a like-minded, fuller-focused community that there’s just no way I could have, that we could’ve done this on our own.”