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#217 - How (& Why) to Build a Local Dirt-to-Shirt Supply Chain

March 22, 2022

#217 - How (& Why) to Build a Local Dirt-to-Shirt Supply Chain
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In a post-pandemic world, what's the value of a dirt-to-shirt supply chain? Eric Henry, President of TS Designs, believes that now, more than ever, businesses need to take an increasingly holistic view of their responsibility to the planet and society as a whole.

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In a post-pandemic world, what's the value of a dirt-to-shirt supply chain? 

Today's guest is Eric Henry, President of TS Designs, and he believes that now, more than ever, businesses need to take an increasingly holistic view of their responsibility to the planet and society as a whole. 

TS Designs is a business-to-business screen printing company, a certified B-corporation, and has its origins all the way back in the '70s. They manage a domestic and transparent supply chain to produce the highest quality, most sustainable t-shirts on the market and have recently expanded to start Solid State Clothing which now provides these straight to the customer. 

Eric shares how the devastating effects of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) sparked the difficult genesis of his fight to build a completely transparent and sustainable company that simultaneously looks after the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profits

With more than 40 years in the apparel industry, he works hard to keep farmers in the conversation, and this episode spans the gambit around supply chains, with a focus on the massive value and resilience in hyper-local supply chains. 

We also do a deep dive into the challenges and difficulties in the opaque global supply chain of the fashion industry that's typically the norm, and talk through the wake-up call that COVID provided on the weakness of that chain. 

Finally, we discuss the importance and difficulty of buying locally, both from a business's perspective as well as a consumer's perspective. All of these things have a serious implication on the strength and bond of a community, as well as the resilience of a local economy.

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  • Eric’s impetus for starting a new business during the pandemic
  • The NAFTA fallout that showed him there’s more to business than a single bottom line
  • What gave him the vision and courage to swim upstream towards sustainability
  • His childhood love of the earth and how he became an “early, early treehugger”
  • How NAFTA unlocked the globalized economy and some stories of the devastation he saw
  • The Rana Plaza disaster in apparel and how it was a result of cheap, unsustainable labor
  • How the global marketplace could be on a level-playing field: through transparency
  • Trends Eric sees that are increasing and decreasing the move toward transparency
  • A walk-through of TS Designs' highly ethical and hyper-local supply chain
  • The wake-up call that COVID provided on the weakness of the global supply chain
  • Hear more about Solid State Clothing and how they connect with a larger audience
  • How they are setting the standard for sustainable and more resilient apparel
  • What's next for TS Designs: hear about their next three big initiatives
  • Discussing a circular economy, microplastics, hemp, plant-based dyes, and more
  • Examples of the strength and bond of community that's created in a localized economy
  • The importance of one-on-one connection with every customer of Solid State Clothing
  • Scaling their business so that everybody wins, from farmer to consumer to planet
  • Our rapid-fire question segment: Eric's top book, morning routine, and exceptional business recommendations!
  • Closing advice: sustainability is a journey, not a destination











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Eric Henry  0:00  
Profits are important. It's what keeps the lights on. And that's what keeps moving forward. But we learned early, there's more to it than that. And again, when you fast forward to today, and I think a lot of the issues that we're faced with both impacting society and patent planet are driven, why companies are just focused on maximizing that bottom line. And we've got to start taking a more responsible holistic view of a business's responsibility to society as a whole.

Cory Ames  0:32  
What's the value of a dirt to shirt supply chain? It's this that I chat about with Eric Henry, the president of TS Designs. The TS Designs manages a domestic and transparent supply chain to produce the highest quality, most sustainable T shirts on the market. Their mission is to build a sustainable company that simultaneously looks after people the planet, and profits. Eric has more than 40 years experience in the apparel industry. And as he says he's striving to get better and better at offering consumers transparency. And he works hard to keep farmers in the conversation as well. Outside of TS Designs, Eric helped launched Burlington beer works in 2018. It's the first Co Op brewery in North Carolina in the 10th in the US to open its doors, and it now has over 2000 member owners. TS Designs is a business to business screen printing business. A certified B Corp has its origins all the way back in the 70s. And then recently, Eric also launched solid state clothing, which is a business to consumer brand. That makes classic premium quality T shirts with US grown cotton. That's where you can buy one of Eric's shirts directly: solidstate.clothing.

My conversation with Eric spans the gambit around supply chains, the value and resilience in hyper local supply chains, challenges and difficulties in the opaque global supply chains of the fashion industry. That's typically the standard. We talk about the impact of buying locally, both from businesses perspective of where you look to source, your goods, your materials, what vendors you choose to work with. And as well we talk about the impacts of buying locally. From a consumer perspective. All of these things have a serious implication on the strength and bond of a community and as well the resilience of a local economy. I'm really excited for you to hear this conversation with Eric a was a wonderful pleasure to connect with him and in chat. I know you'll enjoy it if you've been following meticulously along with our series covering the fashion industry, but as well not there's many principles we can extract from this and take industry to industry. Think about economic development in a different way in how we should perhaps prioritize it for a more sustainable and equitable and resilient future, especially from the lens of post pandemic world. Before we dive in to this chat with Eric Henry, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World weekly newsletter. So weekly newsletter that I write, curate and publish myself send out every single Monday to our community of changemakers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox that's growensemble.com backslash newsletter. Alright, so without further ado, here is Eric Henry from TS Designs.

Eric Henry  4:01  
Thanks for the opportunity to jump on this podcast but I'm Eric Henry, President TS Designs. We're based in Burlington, North Carolina. And I like to describe myself I've been on this fortunately planet for 63 years and been part of TSA designs for about 43 years. So we're focused on domestic apparel manufacturing in a transparent and equitable supply chain, of course made in the US.

Cory Ames  4:28  
Thank you so much, Eric, for taking the time to chat with me. I as well love to get a full overview. Maybe this isn't even the complete extent of everything you're involved with. But I do know as well that you started a brand in 2020 called solid state clothing more to focus on a b2c approach as compared to TS Designs, which is a business to business. But I'm curious to know what what was the the motivation, the impetus for starting solid states, especially in 2020, which I think is very interesting. Time to start up a new business.

Eric Henry  5:02  
Well core, I think we actually need to go back to January 1, 1994. Because that's really driven me to where we are today, both personally in business. And prior to that I had built with my business partner who's since retired but accurate in the business, what they call a large volume contract screen printer. So our clients are Tommy, Nike, Gap, Polo, over 100 people work here, TS Designs ran two to three shifts. But prior to NAFTA, and 94, it was pretty much everything was made us I always like to say, to give you an idea and way before your time, is in the early 90s, Nike apparel headquarters was in Charlotte, North Carolina. And the reason that was this is where apparel was made in this country, we grow the cotton here, we process the cotton to fabric, we made apparel. So very successful company got us into this location, 20,000 square feet, we were growing, the banks love this, we were profit, it was good. Again, NAFTA rose in January 1, 1994. Within two years, all those brands left and our workforce dropped to about 12. I realized then there's something more than a business and a bottom line, I realized too, there's something wrong when you go outside of your market for a product or service your market deliver. We can make apparel here but we decided to as a country, and really the time we are is we we got opened up and expose that global economy and realize things were a lot cheaper. But at that time, we thought that it would benefit everybody.

Well, we see where that's gotten us is actually I think, especially in the apparel industry is now we have flipped from pre NAFTA to 90 some percent made in the US to now we're about 97 to 98% motor overseas. And that's all driven by one thing, chasing cheap, usually unsustainable cheap labor. But so we decided not to participate, we decided to stay here. And we had to change directions. Because, you know, obviously, we're not going to be low cost producer. So first of all, we changed the mission of our company to be successful while simultaneously looking after people planet and profit, Triple Bottom Line sustainable business model. And we talked about that, in the mid 90s. Putin had a glazed over look, you know, what, what, what's tripping a business about making money. And again, profits are important. It's what keeps the lights on. And that's what he's moving forward. But we learned early, there's more to it than that. And again, when you fast forward to today, and I think a lot of the issues that we're faced with both impacting society and patent planning are driven wide companies that are just focused on maximizing that bottom line. And we've got to start taking a more responsible holistic view of a business's responsibility to society as a whole. So we focused on creating the highest quality, most sustainable printed apparel. And that's the journey we've been on ever since. And that's the journey we're still on today, I can go a little bit deeper in what that journey is look like up to COVID. Because I think COVID was another wake up call, just like NAFTA was. And the weakness of a global supply chain is built around just price. And not to say we didn't have our challenges with supply chain. But least I don't have to worry about that ship that stuck out on the coast of LA coming in with stuff that was ordered six months ago. Literally, I can get my car and see everybody within a couple hours of the product we make.

Cory Ames  8:39  
we'll get into the supply chain topic here in a bit. But I'm curious what had you have the courage and vision at that point to where the entire apparel industry was headed? The other direction going global seeking, as you mentioned, unsustainable, cheap, cheap, cheap labor and ultimately products. What had you feel so confident that you could essentially as I understand it, too, you had to kind of reinvent TS designs as a business as it was what what made you so confident and steadfast in that vision when everything else was headed the other direction?

Eric Henry  9:19  
Or what I like to say, Cory, you know, a lot of things in life is Right place, right time or being lucky. And those values have a triple bottom line. We're just already there, TS designs. We didn't think about it as a triple bottom line, because again, prior to NAFTA, we could do those things like care for the employees. We've never paid minimum wage. We've always had some kind of benefits around retirement or health care. But that was just my business partner. And I felt that way about employees. The thing about the environment again, just by chance when I was growing up in Burlington, and the house my mom still lives in. I got interested in growing vegetables and this is it inside an urban area, and there was no farming, and I just got interested in it. So now we're going back into the 70s. And back then it was organic gardening by default, we didn't have the chemicals that we have today. So I got introduced to vegetable gardening got introduced to the, I guess, love the environment, I guess I was an early early tree odor. So when we moved in this location, a couple years before NAFTA, we bought four acres. And we if you come here one day, you'll see literally planet forest out here. And so we brought those values of people planet and profit to this industry, which is have I'm contract screen printing. But since we were were competing in a domestic market, we were able to have those values and do those things and compete. And the brands I said like the Nikes and Tommy's or they thought it was cool. But then the day, they just would say long as you compete with so and so or so and so on us your fonts, it, they were aware of it, but they care about that. So we had those values, prior to our business get destroyed by NAFTA. And when that happened, and we were looking, what are we going to do? We just said, Let's just bring those vase together on a business that way. And again, it wasn't there was a few other people. Golly, Paul Hawkins came here, this Ray Anderson, there was a group of people that were starting to talk about this idea of a triple bottom line in the business responsibility people in plants. So really took a deep dive and understanding that better and takes us about, you know, a couple years to calf to get what we're going to do. And it was very hard years because the business left us and it was really, you know, everybody was focused on how do we make it cheaper, and with no regard to the impact people planet. So again, gorgeous, lucky that I came to the table with that the vase of care for the environment. And then we also the care for employees. So we just kind of, I guess when NAFTA did it, it allow us to connect the dots and all I tell people to I'm not sure we would be down the path. We're down today as far as we are if it wasn't for NAFTA. Again, I think. And we'll talk more I'm sure about COVID, how that's been another wake up call with a weakness of global supply chains. But that really got us on our way. And we've just, you know, we've been on that path ever since.

Cory Ames  12:16  
And so what was it about NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement for folks who may not be super familiar, what was it about it that unlocks the globalized economy, like what sort of factors and policy changes were enacted that just opened this bottle that is now produced what we see today 

Eric Henry  12:38  
right, and there's there's been a lot of trading, there were some trade groups prior to that. But this was the first major trade agreement was between Canada, United States and Mexico. And essentially, what it did is, prior to that, there are all kinds of tariffs and duties to do things in these other countries. And they just eliminated that thinking at the time was the marketplace would dictate winners and losers, which I have no problem with the marketplace. But if the marketplace is only letting price dictate that, and literally, trouble is we're competing, Canada is more of a developed economy. And Mexico is considered a – one is developed, one is developing – but it was two different economies. So when you look at Mexico, they had much, much cheaper labor rates, we knew that but what the done line is a pretty much did away with all environmental regulations between the two. So essentially, the regulation, the rules that they had to play in Mexico are different the rules that played in this country here. So we know isn't going to be a level playing field when it comes to labor. But what they did is pretty much says we'll let the marketplace dictate the winners and losers essentially what happened almost overnight, literally within months, I was down in Mexico City and seeing a plant that was you know, the first thing that went was the cut so the T shirts and then what's in the T shirts in the US. So I'll go down there and I can see I can see the writing on the wall as if they're making the shirts in Mexico which much much cheaper labor rate us you knew all the other attributes of the printing and the packaging stuff would follow it. And we were I guess it at ground zero of the textile industry was North Carolina. We saw the devastation quickly of both businesses and jobs as things – I mean just much over it, Ross Perot said that giant sucking sound literally happened and I think even the experts thought you know, it was gonna take time to level this thing out. I mean, it was devastating specially to our community.

The thing about it if you weren't directly associated with the apparel industry or knew somebody in it, you just saw that they Hey, I get cheaper clothes, this is great. I can buy more stuff. But on the other hand, if you're the company that's trying to supply that you pretty much lost that business overnight. And that switch would happen to us in a lot businesses around here. And then there's been many, many other trade agreements since NAFTA. But my biggest and again, I have no problem with global competition. But I think we have to look at a global proposition to on also, not only a price standpoint impacted people and impact planet. And again, we're it's no different what's happening today with the the trade agreements that we have, with pretty much countries around the world. Very rarely do we hold into any type of people planet regulation, that's why we got the weaker situation in China. That's why we got a question about organic cotton out of India. They're their own country, they got their own rows and stuff. But it's, you know, and I don't have the answer to how to fix that. But that is something that a lot of times, we don't realize the other side or the downside of globalization, which is things are typically not a made aware of us until it's too late. And again, I get a best example that guy, this has probably been, I don't know, six, eight years ago, is when they had the issue or issue, the largest apparel disaster in history where over 1000 people died. In this building in Bangladesh, anybody – Oh, my God, how'd that happen? And I says, look at what we're paying. And again, this is yours. I think we're the average labor it was 26 cents an hour. And what happened out of that Cory is no company was ever held personally responsible because they would work with their agents and stuff like that. So there wasn't a brand come over there. But it says the blood still in the hands because you know, you're in Bangladesh. For one thing, one thing to take advantage of that cheap on sustainable labor, which gets you into an into developing country like that a building that was eight stories it should never been built was built in a collapse in 1000 people died. But need fast forward today, we got the weaker situation, China, you know, that's the problem of globalization and opaque marketplace is you lose that visibility. And we we keep asking what has happened happen because we this is the world we live in.

Cory Ames  17:07  
I think what you're referring to is the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2014, which Yeah, it was absolutely devastating. And I'm wondering in which you made mention of, you know, there's not necessarily an issue for you with competing in a global marketplace. Are there scenarios in which the the playing field is, in fact, level? You know, I think I've heard you mentioned in different conversations. And I guess now as well applies, if we're talking about labor, those examples are on a plaza, and then as well, in China right now, the US has different regulations, obviously, environmental regulations, labor practices and regulations. Is there a scenario in which the global marketplace is able to be on this same level playing field subject to the same regulations and practices? Or is that the difficulty of is that it's just perhaps too complex to regulate in that way?

Eric Henry  18:00  
Well, Cory, what I advocate and what I think, because we do have this great thing called the internet, which works most of the time, one of the first things we should require is full transparency, the challenge we have with the apparel industry, even if you say made in USA, what does that mean? We need to have transparency of the whole supply chain, of where the materials come from, and the manufacturing, because to me about transparency, you have kind of self regulation. You know, I don't you know, I've got a Patagonia, we can get an old microplastics many things wrong with this is, you know, microplastics, four or five years old, and I get it here, it's gonna probably say made in Vietnam. Well, that's good. But what I want to know where in Vietnam, this was made, I want to location I want to contact, I want a phone number, the chance of me going to Vietnam are probably about zero. But if the chance I do that, I want to have that. And we've done that, because with our supply chain, and which is that whereyourclothing.com, and we've been doing this for over 10 years. And we have now we have a QR code that does this.

But when we say our supply chain is transparent, I will introduce you to everybody in the supply chain, the farmer, the ginner, the spinner, the knitter, the finish of the cut. So I give you a picture, phone number, physical address and email, the most transparent supply chain that I know of, unfortunately do that in the Carolinas. But there's no reason that the Nike's autonomy is a gap suppose or whatever data is, give you that information to that should be the first requirement. If you're going to sell product in this country here, you have to disclose the supply chain who made that product because by disclosure, you're basically asking people to not only trust you, but you're letting it kind of it's a check in balance because if I'm willing to make a supply chain, I'm, obviously, you know not to say there's not gonna be mistakes and things like that. But most likely I'm not gonna do anything that's completely, you know, fraudulent or illegal or ethical or whatever, if I'm gonna just make it here it is, this is who we are. And then in the back, you know, we're burning rubber tires, I won't do that I'm not gonna give you that it'll make it that easy for you. But I think that's the first thing that we do to start leveling the playing field is this full disclosure, full transparency and, and I will call bullshit on bullshit when they say what guy that's our competitive edge. There is a lot that happens from the back of this room here, you can see is a painting of the cotton field that we work with a farmer 60 miles away. And so there's a lot happens from that cotton field to this t shirt that we wear that's on this table here. Just having access to that supply chain is not going to put you in business without throwing a lot of money at it.

Cory Ames  20:56  
And so what sort of trend do you see as it relates to the level of transparency in fashion and apparel right now? Do you see that, that it is increasing that brands are starting to open up a bit more with where products are made in what conditions? Or is there still a big blockage?

Eric Henry  21:17  
I think there's two things going on Cory, there's the first of all people that use the environment as a marketing tool. Always like say it's the check boxes, it's organic, check it off, and put it out on the website and promote the heck out of Earth Fair Trade check boxes, put it on the website. So unfortunately, there's a lot of people that use that is marketing to try to capture market share. Now, but then there's other companies that are, you know, committed to this triple bottom line committed to do it better really care. And fortunately, unfortunately, I think a lot of the apparel companies of the future will not be the apparel companies of the day. And the biggest reason for that is, let's go back to NAFTA. That wage differential between made in Mexico, Made in USA, you know, there was a wage differential. But that is only grown back to the Bangladesh situation, I think Mexico maybe a couple bucks. And at that time, we I say minimum wage in this country was six bucks. So now you You still got that Bangladesh wage of under $1, people are still making a pill for under $1. And then when you know the focus, we didn't call it time, we call it now living wage a living wage of $15. So that gap is just wide. So what has happened to see a lot of the major apparel brands, they've kind of built, bake that into their model, you know, we're gonna make it for this the margins, however you want to say it. And that's why we typically avoid the big brands, because they will do a program mainly for a marketing story. But there's no big commitment to make that transition to a more sustainable, domestic transparent supply chain is marketing, we have more success and traction with companies that start at that value. And beyond instead of trying to regress back or change back to what it used to be, you know, for now, because it before and after all the major brands. I mean, if they were US companies, US may but they have become very, is baked into their business model about utilizing offshore labor.

Cory Ames  23:25  
And that's what I really appreciate about the call for transparency is, as you mentioned, a few pieces in the marketing messaging and communications is that with a more transparent supply chain transparency, just behind the where and the how products are made it at a minimum brings the conversation into more objective terms. Sustainability has become more more popular social responsibilities become more popular in the business ads, but they haven't exactly been defined, it seems. And so I do really appreciate transparency at a minimum starting to say like, objectively, you know, yes or no, is this sustainable? Yes or no? Is this this business model, in fact, ethical? Eric, I'd appreciate if you could walk us through what is the supply chain so we can get a sense for it in our heads that TS Designs operates on your other business, Solid State Clothing, because I think that there is some sort of belief that made in America or a hyper local supply chain in this type of global economy is impossible. I think that people have a lot of disbelief around its possibility but I'd be curious to hear what is the supply chain if you wouldn't mind walking us through it at an overview for TS designs and Solid State,

Eric Henry  24:40  
what we do and what our focus is, say make the highest quality, most sustainable, pretty T shirts, and we're very fortunate we're very lucky. That supply chain of growing the cotton, ginning the cotton, spinning the cotton, knitting it to fabric, finishing the fabric Cut and Sew, all those things happen outside of TS Designs. Now, we facilitate that process because we go all the way about the farmer and buy the cotton. And again, that's what we start about 15 years ago, we did that, Cory. So we could participate in that supply chain instead of sitting at the end, which you can buy T shirts all day long, from distributors. But you don't have that transparency or control. So we, you know, go to the cotton farmer. Now we do as we like to say before the seed goes in the ground and committed how many pounds of cotton we're going to buy. And then we have someone on our team that facilitates that process from the field to the gin, the gin to the spin, the spin to the knit. And one thing going back to the globalization, when the industry left this country, the growing of the cotton didn't leave where the cotton ended up left. What I mean by that is, prior to NAFTA majority, the number was 80 plus percent stake in this country. Now 80% Plus, because we grow gray cotton here leaves this country. Now it could leave in yarn or fabric or whatever, but it's basically kidnapped here. So we had all those assets here. Unfortunately, the labor side things that would have buttons and zippers acquire more labor. So that quick and left our country quicker, not only skill F, the equipment left. So our industry is struggling to do those more, I think we're doing pretty good in the making of the jeans at markets coming back and it will come back. But it just takes a higher level investment in equipment and people to to bring it back to make those other apparel products fine. So we're just fortunate, you know, we focused on T shirts, we have all the resources and infrastructure here to make those. And our focus is continue to make it better from the standpoint of our transparency, our transportation footprint. And we can talk about this cool purple dye that's sitting on my desk, which is new, one of the newest things we're involved with plant based dyes. I like one of my taglines I've used for a long time is sustainability is a jury not destination. So we will continue to make a better product that has a better environmental impact, better quality, and a smaller transportation footprints possible. But again, a lot as I said earlier, we just fortunate that those assets are here, it'd be a little bit tougher story. If you know I was born and live in North Dakota, because those resources just don't exist in North Dakota, from the cotton field to the gut. And so they do exist here in the Carolinas.

Cory Ames  27:33  
I'd love to get to the plant based dyes here in a minute, but from the the consumer side. But what do you see as like in Today in 2020, the implications of purchasing a product made in America or a product made locally?

Eric Henry  27:48  
Well, I'm hopeful I had a conversation earlier today with a school out of shot, which is about 60 miles away from here that we're gonna do a tour in March, I believe, coming up, I'm having a lot of hope. When I talk to younger folks, elementary, high school college that have been here long enough, they realize that some of the path that we've gone on doesn't work and how do we build a better future. To me, it starts with an educated consumer, because that's what's best come from an educated start, give them those tools. So I am hopeful that some of the things that we have, are past that we have gone down in my generation are going to be and again, we're not going to put that genie back in the bottle when it comes to globalization. But we have an opportunity. And again, the COVID thing is it was another wake up call to that we can do some things in a more local connected and ultimately a more resilient and so I like resilient over sustainability because we're going to maybe my lifetime, your lifetime, whatever that we'll have some other global disruption down the road. And again, as I say, we're not gonna put that genie back in the bottle globalization, but there are certain things that we can do a better job with. And one thing we do when we are in the Carolinas is the ability the tagline that we use is dirt to shirt. You know we have it all right here. The only things keeping us from doing that is the marketplace is saying you get it cheaper somewhere else. But when that somewhere else, you can't get it or that somewhere else is a planet problem. I either just dumping the chemicals out the back and killing people, or is it people side? They're basically indentured servants making apparel. This is a more resilient model, and I think COVID Definitely bear that out.

Cory Ames  29:35  
Could you say more about the experience COVID had and maybe what, you know, overlap that add to the wake up call of NAFTA?

Eric Henry  29:43  
Sure. I'll never forget I was on a plane February 2020. That was my last trade show to about three weeks ago. And I had a good friend was also coming back who was a grass fed beef, who's a retired surgeon and he was reading some medical journals. He texted his wife and his wife text my wife your next door neighbor, and he was reading about this one case in Seattle. He was reading something into that article said, this could be serious. Well, you know what happened in March, we started locking now, it was tough, you know, we had a lot of our customers basically stopped doing business. But we, again, we went back to the values that people planted. You know, when we got into the facemask, we went to our values of how do we do it for the people on planet. So we utilize our irregular T shirts, we use cutting, so about 30 miles away, and we got to the mask business, the thing that code ROI allowed us to do, because we never made masks before. And the first couple maps we made sucked, we know we're doing. But we were able to do real time product development, because everything was right here. So even the height of COVID, the lot and a shutdown and all that I was able to get my car, drive 30 minutes, sit in a mask room with some people and continued. So I think our masks went through like 12 design changes. And this is a very old beat up when unfortunately, only to see on a podcast is a great mask, clips over the ears, it drops around the neck, it's got a nose piece, it's got a filter pocket, I mean, so we're able to do real time changes, the other thing we're able to do, as the COVID ebbed and flowed, we were able to manage our inventory, I don't have to worry about 10,000 Masks on a container ship. But all of a sudden the government's giving them away now. I think our mask inventory might be less than 100. But we get your back up and you're down. So we were able to take all these advantages of a local connected supply chain and do that.

So I use the facemask is a model that we show other people in T shirt. And because prior to COVID. And I guess that period of time between NAFTA and COVID, people would always get tripped up on the price. You know, they always fall back oh my gosh, great storage, cheaper price. But what COVID allowed us to do is said okay, well, yeah, we're more expensive, but we deliver. And we might have been slower. And we're still having right now we're experiencing a COVID issue is we do some manufacture on the West Coast. And typically, that's four to five days, and we've got a shipment, that's taking us three weeks, due to just people being out the weather college. So don't be wrong, we have had our COVID issues. But it's much better than those people that were making stuff in Asia, they couldn't get there at all, and had no idea where it was how ship, costed container, and all that. So it's been tough on us. But people at least we've got the pieces are a lot more manageable. They're a lot closer. And so I think the people that were or customers or potential customers that saw that price issue, prices become, again, still something we have to talk about. But the ability to deliver, as allowed us to have a conversation with a lot more people. So it's opened up a lot more doors than we had pre COVID. And so that's we're excited about the opportunity to say instead of you know, think about jumping back in what you just did, and making that product overseas somewhere, let's see the value of making it here and having a more flexible, connected, transparent supply chain. So it's definitely don't get me wrong last couple years have been very tough for us. But I think it has opened a lot of opportunities that would not have been there without COVID.

Cory Ames  33:23  
Do you think with that wake up call just to industry, overall things will trend more local over time? Like is that? Do you see more people recognizing that that level of resilience that a localized supply chain can provide is worth investing in with price less? So a consideration? Are we going to see more products of all industry made in the US?

Eric Henry  33:47  
If I have anything to do with it will? And again, that's one reason, you know, you said earlier, you know, TS Designs for 40. Some years is his business, the business. And one thing that came out of COVID was solid state clothing. So we could create that dreaded consumer brand. So we could go right to the consumer, with our story with our innovation. Yes, it's small. But we want to, you know, not get lost in the filter of working through a larger brand. That does or doesn't want to tell that story. And so that's what super excites me about the combination of technology, ie we can reach I love to tell people at one time, our form of advertising was the Yellow Pages. Well, you probably know Yellow Pages are I mean, literally, we had one meeting a year with the yellow page rep, he would come to our office. And we would side on the yellow page, we would put in certain, you know, again, we could only do North Carolina because you'd have to pay for every city you went to. And it was a once a year, day long meeting determine what our ads are going to look like in these different Yellow Pages. And then again, fast forward to the day and where we are with access to so I get emails Thomas mine, Norway, Tasmania, Belgium TOS me so we developed solid state. So we could have that platform to connect with a larger audience. Because that TS Designs, a lot of people love our store, but they can't. Why do they need 200 T shirts or 300 T shirts, but they can buy one t shirt that has got the quality, the story, the transparency, the innovation. And so that is a big, big focus of 2022 is getting that platform out there. As we talk about it, educate the customer get them thinking, why do we do the things that we do is now going to make a better quality product, but basically have a better people planet impact. And we were not able to do that as much as we wanted to with TS Designs that we can do with solid state because we control that narrative.

Cory Ames  35:48  
Hmm. What is the response been thus far to Solid State?

Eric Henry  35:52  
It's been good. I mean, I mean, we did a very soft rollout during COVID. A, we've never been in that dreaded consumer market. But the customers that we've connected with love it, don't question the price, because they understand the story. And now we are talking to people that have the knowledge and the ability to really expand this thing. Because I think at the end of the day, I did, we did winter for El Centro, with our first trade shows since February 2020, the end of January. And the thing that thing said, the best t shirt and I said the only thing I wish we could change and people come to us it is the best damn t shirt. And I say I can say, Dan, this t shirt because transparency, carbon footprint, quality, the dyes the manufacturer, I mean, bring it I don't know any other brand, that brings the vase the table, they bring the table if they do, let's learn, let's figure out, you know, because again, there's always room for us to make a better shirt. But I don't know anybody that does it in 600 miles in the transparency that we do, and makes a quality that we do anywhere. So I'm ready for that 101 competition that fear is going to bring I tell people, if you're wondering price the table, if that's all you're interested in, then sure you're going to win. I mean, I'm not. But if you are very price, people planet to the table, I'm ready to talk and I think we will win that battle. And hopefully we'll win the war. Because what we want to do core is we want to get people thinking about why do I look at closing investment, and not just a price of something not pay and then six months down the road I'm gonna throw away.

Cory Ames  37:29  
Do you see this as setting the standard of like sustainable or more, you know, as you saw it resilient apparel, you have the lower footprint, you're focusing so much on quality, which is obviously a huge topic of conversation, and the localized very close in proximity supply chain. Do you feel like that's, that's where the standard is, as of late? Obviously,

Eric Henry  37:52  
I'm not gonna live forever. Obviously, I'm much older you are. But you know, that would be one thing you know, is I leave this planet is at least raised the bar because I've said I saw the bar get devastated. The Globalization, I saw the bar disk race to the bottom, how do we make it cheaper. So we benefit a few and hurt a lot. So I just want to change that landscape and raise the bar from the standpoint of full transparency, full disclosure, on how perils May, I'm definitely one of those people, Cory is I'm not interested in, per se changing regulation. So it can only be made USA, whatever I won't, you know, at the end of the day, and in the country, in the economy we live in it is your choice. All I want to do is when you have that choice, you got full information, full disclosure, I'm not stopping you from buying those cheap T shirts to the you know, the dollar store. That's totally up to you. And there's people reasons why I do that, I'm not going to do that. But I just want to have the consumer to have full information of what they're buying. And then ultimately, it's their decision. You know, it's the fast food store, I would like to say, about a mile down there. I have a Wendy's. And my lunch today is considered these nuts right here. So there's times I will end up down there. Because it's fast, it's cheap, but also not good. For me. It's not good for the planet, it's not good for a workbench, at least I'm thinking about the impact I'm getting ready to have. But all we want to do is just make that information much, much more available to the consumer. So they can make a better judgment on when they make that purchase.

Cory Ames  39:25  
Speaking to the standard or the bar of where that is. We mentioned that the plant based dyes earlier, what's next for T s designs like on this journey of sustainability as as you mentioned, where does TS Designs and solid state still have to go? Maybe the dyes are part of that. What else do we have to achieve?

Eric Henry  39:44  
We got three big initiatives this year. But part of those three niches go back to what happened probably five years ago. We're always learning. About five years ago I learned about microplastics and the challenge with when you take synthetics and you wash them those bits of plastic don't biodegrade, they just get small and they're in. They're in us now. So we're only natural fiber focused. But again, I'm telling you, I'm 100% polyester, but I no doubt so we don't participate in synthetics. So that would be right now is cotton. We're doing a lot of stuff with wool. We've been on a five year journey to do domestic hemp production, hope in 2022 will be the year we get hemp over the finish line, first with socks, and then with T shirts. Aside, no with him, too big benefits benefit for the environment, more yo breaker, less inputs per acre, and a faster growing season. Hemp plays well with cotton from the standpoint it adds durability. So adding 30% Hemp into a cotton t shirt is going to make for a more durable, longer lasting t shirt. So that's one thing that we're focused on getting him finally that we've been struggling. Again, we can buy a rate hint product out of China could have done it five years ago do it today, we realize what I say earlier, if the market or product could be done here, then we're cheating the system. So we're focused here and hopefully that will happen. The next thing I talked about is we're starting to look at at plant based dyes. We right now, overwhelming majority of the work that we do and that probably the shirt that you have on and it uses synthetic dyes, childhood synthetic dyes are there, there are other synthetic dyes, usually fossil fuel base, and they're not made in this country. So but again, I like to say sustainability has to you've got to start somewhere, you can't wait to the perfect world and get into it. You got to this where we are. So it was interesting. In 2019, we had made a commitment to make the dive in the plant by stars and we're gonna work with a company out of Seattle. In the spring of 2020, this thing called COVID came in squash that we brought it back last year, we brought somebody on our team that has that knowledge. We reconnected with the group in Seattle manufacture come in town this weekend for three day project. So we launched the plant based dyes challenge with plant based dyes got to start somewhere, but majority of the plant based dyes are extracted or extract from outside this country. So the first one we did was using a game where local focus we took black walnuts out of my backyard about forum, took them to for the beer works, which is a cooperative brewery, I helped start 3000 owners tent corporate brewing in the state. We took the walnuts down there. We brewed them down, we took the black dye to our garment facilities, which that's also one of the last ones in the South because they both focused on volume and Garnet dye allows this small batches and we produce the solid state a nor Kiana cotton, North Carolina may die with black walnut t shirt. So we're doing that and in this jar here, which I can't, you know, again, podcast again. So it's purple dye. I can't tell you the plant right now. But that'll be it three weeks from now. But it's a North Carolina plant that has also food benefits, potential bear benefits, a purple dye benefit. So we'll hopefully in three weeks we'll be dying with a dye that's grown died here on NorCal anacott. So we're at net. The third thing that we're working on this year. And it points back again, going back this idea of the conversation, circular economy, what happens the end of life, this is a fairly new area for us. But something's possible instead of throwing it away. What do we do with it? Well, there's worked with a couple of platforms there. One is material return, which is the mechanical process of breaking the fibers back down and then re spinning it. And then there's another company and downward Jena called cert CRC Earth, which has a closed loop green chemistry, they actually came up with the breaks it back down, creates the cellulose to reach through VR. So we're very involved with that. And then part of that is actually taking some of our cotton scraps or making our T shirts this year, and then grinding those down and blend those in with Virgin cotton. So, you know, hopefully by 2023, when we make that 100% Cotton t shirt here, white 10% of that will be cotton scraps from the prior year. So again, there's a lot of moving pieces and is built upon the vision of domestic manufacturing in a transparent equal supply chain. So you know when you start going down that path and you're able to find out about a potential plant that's grown in North Carolina, that we can make a purple dye. Again, the industry is not going to see this because this does not fit in a global market leader. This is probably the only quarter this exists anywhere. But you know if you had a global market In this would not why would you do this and then ship this over to Asia to die t shirt. It's just not going to even the realm of work. But what we'll be able to do now that we do this, literally, the farmer reached out to me two weeks ago, I think, because he saw our black walnut said, What about x. And again, I can't tell you X right now, but you'll find a few weeks with X is delayed by x. And I says, let's try it. So he brought a boxes of x. I did that test yesterday. And we're going to do a bigger test next week, because I found out brewing equipment is the perfect equipment to the steel dyes, because you're used to taking grains, you take the grains, they go away here, and then you take the fluid becomes beer, well, we will take the material, go away there. And then instead of beer, it becomes a.so Super excited about our plant based dyes and what we can do with them and bring more people, you know this thing, I was talking to the farmer yesterday, and we've already got this model to wear your clothing calm. And we have this QR code that tracks it will expand it. So if this works out, this will be part of the QR code tracking where this doc came from. That's what we want to do. And, again, it's my work, it might not work. But you know, we're focused on what other partners or suppliers that we can find in our state to make our our T shirts.

Cory Ames  46:20  
What do you see that that does to a local economy, even from not just such a tactical, like economic standpoint, but as well as the experience the feeling of it to have a really strong, like localized economy like that I like what's the experience of the other business owners that you're involved with? It seems like the values the ethics and as well what it communicates in a sense of community, is this a different experience, then, you know, money purely being spent and then sent outside of what's local, outside of the state outside of the country, what's the experience been for you and some of your partners.

Eric Henry  46:59  
The relationship is beyond a PO in this is true with anything when you buy a product, and I do advise you buy some more for Amazon, you do it for service you do for price, but there's no relationship there. I don't know who you are, you just had the best price and do it. But when you have this global connected supply chain, literally I was taking the farmer that came up to drop this product X off to our brewery to meet our brewer to meet our chef because I think there's a food base here is the relationship is a made that goes so much deeper. Now, again, this might not work. But you've connected with somebody at a different level. I mean, if I want to connect to you, because you have a product and a price, then probably the next person that comes along with a cheaper price, I will forget who you are and move on. And so goes back to where we talk is resiliency, its connection, it's it just builds us and ultimately, this goes to the what they call the multiplier effect of keeping your dollars in your community because there's dollars turnover and strength in the community in which you live. I always like to say that the farmer that does a grass fed beef, you know, everybody, you know, it's grass fed beef mob grazing all this stuff here. And you'll go to the you know, preco the single or how are you going to scale this to feed the world and Charles, I'm not interested in feeding the world I mentioned feeding my community, you know, he's not interested in having 1000 head of cow and being an old boots. He wants to just basically he raises cows and Alamance County, which where I live, and he sells his beef in Alamance County, and that's the model he wanted us and I think it just going back to the COVID thing it just makes for a more resilient community. And, you know, his beef goes to this brewery. And this is where we sell $12 hamburger and so we're able to pay those people who work there. They're definitely not paid a - they're paid a living wage and automated way so just it just builds on each other. You know, this is not a McDonald's hamburger for nine ounces. This is a $12 Hamburger but we're able to pay people more Ray would have a nicer place downtown. So it up it raises everybody in the community. And not just Charlie the farmer. They graze in the beef. So it's just again I always like to say it's a relationship beyond the PO and we do POs and stuff but back on the cotton farm I've known him for 15 years I know I'm working now with the third generation the second star with Ronnie is probably in his early 70s Andrews in his 30s It's a relationship that it's goes so deep and that really helps when you have those tough conversations own quality or price or whatever. There's more there than just oh my gosh, you know, this will be agreed upon you need to pay that move on. And it just it's the human nature perspective of having a more resilient, stronger supply chain. We're fortunate to be a part of that.

Cory Ames  49:48  
Yeah, and in there is an obsession with scale for some reason. And I think in the context of you know what our buying and spending habits are I do really like to think about effort use the phrase before voting with your dollar. But, you know, casting a vote for what sort of world you want to live in what sort of community you want to live in and enjoy and support. When we're traveling, be it domestically or internationally. It's like, what sort of things do we enjoy? It's like to sample local fair, independent breweries, you know, small scale, like localized restaurants. And I think that those are the things that we do really like to enjoy independent bookstores, whatever it might be, in our day to day lives and our purchases. It's like, why, you know, why can't we remind ourselves of that? And support those things that, you know, we find more culturally interesting, it's a different value than purely just that cost and price. And it really seems to be what your what you're strongly advocating for is that that's just one component of the entire piece of the puzzle. It is one price and cost, but it is one component of the whole conversation.

Eric Henry  50:51  
Yeah, and I think you're exactly right. You know, when you travel, you're interested in the unique coffee shop, bookstore, whatever. I mean, we all have our Starbucks, we all have our targets. So anywhere USA, I always like to Starbucks gets enough my money when I go to the airport. But other than I don't go to Starbucks, because I mean, there's there's nothing unique, that's been connection. So that was another reason solid state, we want to have that one on one connection. Literally had somebody a couple of weeks ago that bought one of our black walnut T shirts sent me an email came up from Durham, but 30 miles away, you know, we sat down and had lunch, you know, this is the brewery which we brought the black walnuts, I took him down to dye house four blocks away, we got it. I mean, just having that he saw the value, and because that value he pay, I think those shirts, you know, somebody will say, Oh, my gosh, how can you get $70. And I can tell you that there's a lot of money it takes to get that shirt made. And he's fortunate in a place in his life that he can afford that. But hopefully by him buying that $70 t shirt, that'll allow us to scale this thing. There's a thing of economies of scale. Again, the same thing with pockets, purple dye, those first couple shirts will be sick as I mean, we got a lot of money that we're gonna spin for the r&d. But we want to be very transparent with that, because we want this to scale scale beyond us, we want we want to grow our business. But we want to share this, we want other people we would like to see a Nike be able to die with this purple dye, if it works out, we're not locking it up. Because ultimately, we know if a brand does this purple dye, then everybody wins. You know, it's better for the environment better for the farmer. So as we're back to that transparent, we will other people succeed with our model. And that's why we're beginning to transparency, we're happy to share this with people.

Cory Ames  52:38  
I mean, it's not so much even just about the materials at scale. But I think investing in in low wage, labor or products produced with low wage labor, if we continue to invest in low wage labor, then spending power is not going to increase at all. And so maybe things start to balance out at all different levels of scale. Likewise, with the difference in wage, by Eric, I really want to be respectful your time. Thank you so much. Once again, just before we wrap up, you might have asked you a few rapid fire questions

Eric Henry  53:05  
sure, fire away and I'll try to hang on. 

Cory Ames  53:09  
All right. So first one for you. Is there a book film or some other resource that's really impacted you recently or something you always come back to that you might recommend to our listeners can be about what we've chatted about here, or something completely different.

Eric Henry  53:22  
Golly, I've read so many books on sustainability. But what always stuck in my head is Ray Anderson's big course correction. And this was about a guy in Atlanta had a carpet company and realize the damages his company was doing to the environment and just took up the turning. And Ray Now came very close personal friends unfortunately passed away a few years ago with cancer. But and he probably wrote the book 10, 15 years ago, but it's still being was It's Ray Anderson, mid course, corrections are just one of the many sustainable book but I highly recommend it from a business perspective why we need to change

Cory Ames  53:55  
a next one for you, Eric, are there any particular morning routines or daily habits that you feel like you have to stick to

Eric Henry  54:04  
always like my good coffee in the morning

Cory Ames  54:05  
So is that coffee from a local producer?

Eric Henry  54:09  
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It's gonna Well, I mean, unfortunately don't it's gonna be local producers up with give a few more years of climate change micro coffee, but right now it's important Yes, going to be fair trade organic, locally roasted, good coffee, and my NPR news from our local station, WMC, which is in Chapel Hill, which is 30 miles away.

Cory Ames  54:27  
And next one for you? Are there any particular businesses, individuals or organizations in your field that you feel like are doing some really exceptional work that you think are deserving of a plug?

Eric Henry  54:38  
Oh my gosh, I mean, I hate to start unless there's a lot of people in the in the apparel industry that I work with or support, you know, we got the folks from farm to feet that have a similar model in the manufacturer, their thoughts all domestic transparent supply chain, so excited about working with those folks. As I said, I live on a farm so I'm very connected to the local food movement there. Have a restaurant in our community called sacks of all general store, which is not only buys a lot of our product, but serves a lot of local food. So spend a lot of my local food dollars there. And then another big hangout is Burlington Beer works, which I'm very excited that we are I helped get started. And it's when we open our third year anniversaries in March, when we open it was the 10th cooperatively owned brewery in the country. The first one was Blackstar in Texas, we now have over 3000 owners. And we did that intentionally to start a brewery that will stay in this community because I am one of the first owners. But if somebody else came over today, they have the same rights and privileges I got. So we potentially made this so it will stay in downtown Burlington, it will be Burlington beer works, because now you've got to answer to now 3009 Or so very excited. What we've done in it's been a key to the redevelopment of downtown, which was devastated to shopping malls and strip shopping centers, local food focus, great beer, great place to hang out. So whenever you come in North Carolina, that's where I'll definitely take.

Cory Ames  56:10  
I'll take you up on that. A final one for you, Eric, what's maybe one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with these folks or social entrepreneurs changemakers from all sectors all over the world, wanting to leave things better than they found it.

Eric Henry  56:24  
And I said it earlier, it's my tagline for many years sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Just understand cost and be aware of change. How you can impact improvement is a journey. I'm encouraged that anybody's along that spectrum on that journey. I want support, I want to help there's people way ahead of me. There's people how many, but it is a journey. You're never going to get there, at least in my lifetime. I will never become what they call 100% sustainable. Just, I'm taking more away from the plan I'm giving back. But my goal was to do a better job every day that I'm on this planet to be more sustainable. So it is a journey, not a destination.

Cory Ames  57:02  
Wonderful advice for us to end on. And last last thing, Eric, where do you want to direct folks who keep up with you in the work that you're doing with TS Designs in solid state? Where should they go?

Eric Henry  57:14  
I would say emails the easiest thing to remember Eric@TSDesigns.com. I'm definitely very active on LinkedIn, TS Designs has a social media presence Solid State has a social media presence. But if you connect with me, that email address, I can get you to where you want to go.

Cory Ames  57:35  
Perfect. All right. We'll have all things linked up in our show notes at socialentrepreneurship.fm. Thanks a lot, Eric.

Eric Henry  57:43  
Cory, thank you so much for your time and opportunity. This has been great. Appreciate it.

Cory Ames  57:48  
Alright, y'all, that's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast as always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world is a newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcasts, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together, go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact there you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. These sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. Alright y'all until next time

Eric HenryProfile Photo

Eric Henry


TS Designs manages a domestic and transparent supply chain to produce the highest quality, most sustainable t-shirts on the market. Our mission is to build a sustainable company that simultaneously looks after People, the Planet, and Profits.

With more than 40 years’ experience in the apparel industry, I’m striving to get better and better at offering consumers transparency and working hard to keep farmers in the conversation.

Outside of TS Designs, I helped launch Burlington Beer Works in 2019. It’s the first co-op brewery in North Carolina and the tenth in the US to open its doors with 2000 members.

When I’m not at TS Designs or the brewery, you’ll likely find me chatting about sustainability in the community and living it on my family’s farm.