Eric Henry is the owner of TSDesigns, a Burlington, North Carolina based t-shirt company thats been ‘printing t-shirts for good’ since 1977. Eric started his business out of his dorm room in college and met his business partner, Tom Sineath when he transferred schools. They printed for big names like Nike, Gap, and Polo; had over 100 employees and were cruising along.
Then NAFTA happened in 1994 and the tee shirt business began to move overseas; their business model crashed and they had to lay off most of their employees and were down to a team of 14 people. They changed their mission to focus on people, planet and profits, instead of profits alone. Today, TS Designs is an amazing example of a sustainable business.
Your average tee shirt today is made by spraying plastisol (a plastic resin ink) onto fabric by someone who makes 26 cents per hour. This is clearly bad for the environment and for the person making the tee shirt. TS uses a patented process to print the inks (primarily water-based) onto the tee-shirt so that it’s part of it, rather than sitting on top of it, resulting in a print you can’t feel and won’t crack or peel over time. Oh! and water-based inks are also much more environmentally-friendly than plastisol.
This is a journey and not a destination and we can continue to improve our sustainable impact. So if you came to TS Designs you would see chickens, you would see bees, you would see a large scale garden, PV panels…
Probably 95% of the apparel that goes through is made in the USA… What we do with Cotton of the Carolinas is we go to a farm about 90 miles away and buy raw cotton from the farm and we convert that cotton “dirt to shirt”…the entire process is traceable….it’s the only t-shirt I’m aware of that is completely transparent.
What is your favorite childhood memory?
Spending time with my grandfather, my mother’s dad.
I would spend time with my grandfather—weeks to a month—and he really introduced me to everything from fishing to golf. He was one of those people that had so many businesses from repairing equipment that makes socks to running a gas station, so I was always fond of going different places and doing different things, and I have all these great memories of times spent with him.
It sounds like your grandfather was quite an entrepreneur—would you say he influenced who you are today?
Yes, I would say I got the gene from him.
What is the best investment your parents made in you or for you?
My parents gave me the freedom to make my own choices and they didn’t give me anything. Once I got old enough it was up to me to raise the money to do what I wanted to do and start my businesses… I give them a lot of credit for where I am today.
What is one piece of advice you would give a young person today?
It’s more about your community than yourself. Success isn’t about a country club, a car, or anything you do to show personal status. At the end of the day, happiness is what drives a successful community. If you’re the only one doing well that really doesn’t make it a good place to live.
What is one experience you would like to gift a child?
Putting their hands into the soil, seeing things grow, understanding where things grow. There is so much enlightenment to gain from doing that because we forget where food came from and we forget how powerful it is planting a seed and watching it grow. We recently had a farm to table dinner here, and everything from potatoes to blueberries came out of the yard. You just see what it does to people when you participate in the food that you’re eating. Getting young people involved is so powerful.