Building Local Sustainable Supply Chains: TS Designs Leads by Example

By Vale Jokisch at BALLE conference 2010

The t-shirt you are wearing may have traveled up to 17,000 miles before you put it on.  From cotton grown in the US, it likely traveled to India where the cotton was spun into thread, to Pakistan where the thread was turned into cloth, and then to Sri Lanka where the cloth was sewn into a shirt and shipped back to your local store.  TS Designs president Eric Henry doesn’t think your t-shirt should have that many stamps on its passport.

Speaking at 2010 Annual BALLE Business Conference, Henry described how he was running TS Designs, a custom t-shirt printing company in North Carolina, when NAFTA was implemented in 1994.  The trade agreement drastically altered the landscape for what had been a very successful company and Henry had to lay off 80 employees.  Realizing he couldn’t survive under the status quo, he knew he needed to change his business model.  But rather than thinking about outsourcing to capitalize on NAFTA, he decided to localize and focus instead on responsibility to people and to the planet.

Cotton of the Carolinas Tracking Page (Click image for more)

The first step involved looking at raw materials.  TS developed an environmentally-friendly printing technology called REHANCE that uses PVC and phthalate-free dyes and non-chlorine, biodegradable detergents.  Then Henry looked to his backyard for cotton.  North Carolina is the 4th largest cotton grower in the US, but the majority of the state’s cotton is exported.  Traditional definitions might dictate that the truly “sustainable” t-shirt is made from organic cotton, however most organic cotton produced today comes from Pakistan, Turkey and India.  Henry knew that convincing local farmers to switch to organic cotton farming, both expensive and time-consuming, was a losing proposition.  TS Designs did not have the money or the clout to change farming practices.

With that in mind, Henry decided to go against the notion that sustainable must be organic and to focus instead on the local side of sustainability.  He found a supplier partner in Ronnie Burleson, who grows 2000 acres of cotton on a family farm in central NC.  Henry then looked to find local partners for the rest of the process of spinning, knitting, cutting and sewing.  One such partner was private label manufacturer Mortex Apparel.  Mortex President Brian Morell had always been told that when it comes to apparel you couldn’t “pick it, gin it and spin it” in just one area.  Traditional cloth production and apparel assembly involves blending materials from a variety of areas to get a high quality product.  As Morell explains it, though, he took the project on due to his own “reckless optimism” that it just might work.

And work it did.  TS Designs has now built a completely local supply chain for its tsdcarolinas t-shirt line with its Cotton of the Carolinas partnership.  In fact, you can track your t-shirt all the way from the farm to your local store.  Henry touts the fact that his shirts travel less than 750 miles “from dirt to shirt,” a far cry from the 17,000 mile average.  TS also has a tsdorganic line (made from organic cotton sourced from Pakistan) and a tsdrecycled line made out of 100% recycled materials, and generates it own renewable energy from two on-site solar arrays as well as a wind turbine.  While Henry is still waiting for the day when he can source his organic cotton locally, his Cotton of the Carolinas partnership has become a model for building successful local, sustainable supply chains.

Vale Jokisch is a first year MBA student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is interested in how for-profit businesses are finding innovative ways to create social and environmental value.  Her specific interests are around community economic development, local economies, and impact investing.  Prior to enrolling at Fuqua she was the Deputy Director at Empowerment Group, a non-profit  microenterprise development organization based in Philadelphia.  Jokisch has a BA in Economics and  Political Science from Swarthmore College.

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