T.S. Designs Focusing on People, Planet, and Profitability
Discover why the company decided to go green and what actions it's taken to make eco-friendly screen pritning sustainable.
Environmental consciousness is a serious matter at T.S. Designs. Taking care of the planet isn't just a pledge that the Burlington, NC-based garment-printing business adopted to tug at the heartstrings of current and potential customers. It's a life-long commitment that often requires the company to make sacrifices and take on extra expenses. On the following pages, you'll find out how this screen-printing operation made the transition from a small shop that struggled to keep up with the impact of globalization to a new, sustainable apparel business dedicated to preserving natural resources and implementing business practices to support this goal.
Tom Sineath founded T.S. Designs in 1977. He had just graduated from North Carolina State University with a master's degree in product design and wanted to put the interest he developed in screen printing to use. His older brother, Jim, was already operating a screen-printing shop in Eden, NC. The business focused primarily on printing sweatshirts for Wrangler, work for local charities, and some specialty applications. Inspired, Tom started his own screen-printing company in a 2000-sq-ft facility in Graham, NC. He opened the shop with three manual presses, a dryer, and an exposure unit, all of which he built himself. However, prepress required an hour-long drive to his brother's shop, where Tom used a vertical copy camera to create positives before returning to his own shop to make stencils and print the job.
Forty-five minutes away in Raleigh, NC, college student Eric Henry was busy developing Creative Screen Designs, his T-shirt-sales company. Henry's clients consisted of fraternities and other campus clubs and organizations. He solicited the print jobs and then worked with a local screen printer to fill the orders. When the screen printer failed to print one job that Henry needed to deliver immediately, Henry rushed the work to Jim Sineath's shop. Sineath quickly turned the job around and informed Henry about his brother Tom's business in Graham. Henry later visited Tom's shop and formed what would become a strong partnership.
Not long after the pair met, Henry left college to support his growing business and turned the sales enterprise into a full-time career. While he and Sineath worked together, they maintained their companies as separate businesses. Eventually, however, they combined their businesses and formed T.S. Designs, which was incorporated with Henry as president and Sineath as CEO.
In its first few years of operation, the five-employee shop focused primarily on garments; however, Sineath continued to dabble in specialty projects, such as P-O-P displays and menu strips for local restaurants. The garment side of the business grew significantly, forcing T.S. Designs to move into a 5000-sq-ft facility in Burlington and add a few more manual presses, another dryer, and the company's first PC. Print jobs were a mixture of contract work, where the customers provided the garments and T.S. Designs printed the orders, and jobs for local businesses, where T.S. Designs provided the artwork, product, and printing. The company also took advantage of the growing regional popularity of the sock and hosiery industry at the time and added those products to the shop's list of printing capabilities.
Three years later, T.S. Designs moved into a 10,000-sq-ft facility in Burlington and added the first of its automatic garment presses, a four-color Precision Oval press. Sineath also built a one-color automatic press for hosiery decoration. With continued growth, T.S. Designs relocated again in 1988 to its current home—a 20,000-sq-ft facility located in Burlington. The company added several TAS automatic presses, converted its electric dryers to gas, and equipped its prepress department with Macintosh computers and an OYO imagesetter. Today, the 20-employee shop owns seven TAS presses ranging in models from eight colors/10 stations to 12 colors/14 stations. Jobs range from those involving a few hundred to several thousand pieces and run the gamut from T-shirts for local organizations to garments for Whole Foods Market in California (Figure 1).
The three Ps
T.S. Designs began like many small screen-printing outfits—a few employees with a few pieces of equipment and a lot of determination to succeed in a highly competitive market. In its early days, the shop focused on securing big clients, such as Nike, The Gap, and Tommy Hilfiger. This strategy brought the company frequent, high-volume orders and much success. But when the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, and the apparel-industry giants began to send their work outside the US, T.S. Designs realized it was time to change its goals and practices.
"We saw the writing on the wall when we learned about NAFTA and realized we're not going to be a low-cost producer," Henry says. "Unfortunately, a lot of consumers only look at price, especially when dealing with brands. They want to sell the image, not the product behind the image."
T.S. Designs responded by seeking ways to distinguish itself from competing textile printers. Five years ago, Sineath and Henry met with Sam Moore, long-time friend and vice president of research and development at Burlington Chemical Co., Burlington, NC. Moore, also an adjunct professor at Elon University, where he teaches courses on sustainability, suggested that T.S. Designs adopt a sustainable, or triple-bottom-line, philosophy of running business. The focus shifted from how much money the business would make to determining its responsibilities to employees, society, and the environment.
"The way we have interpreted the triple-bottom-line philosophy into our mission statement is that we want to be a successful business by simultaneously looking after our people, profits, and the planet," Henry says. "We have to measure everything we do as a business to that."
This philosophy forced T.S. De-signs to carefully consider all aspects of its processes and technologies and their potential negative impact on society. The "Three Ps" approach serves as a checks-and-balances system for Sineath and Henry when they make decisions. The approach compels Henry, who represents the planet element of the philosophy, Sineath, who represents the profits, and another principal, who represents the people, to answer to each other and consider how decisions will affect all three aspects of the company's mission.
"It makes people pull together rather than lobby for their position," Sineath says. "It serves as a guiding mechanism. And sometimes the three-legged stool leans on one leg more than the others."
The company began its journey of sustainability by first changing its inventory to only natural, unbleached, organic-cotton shirts that could be printed with water-based inks (Figure 2). The company also formed relationships with apparel suppliers a little closer to home. Henry stresses the importance of resisting the temptation to go outside of your market for products or services that can be delivered locally or domestically.
"We could make organic T-shirts in China and put an extra $2 in our pocket, but if I'm going to sell those organic T-shirts in North Carolina—a state that has lost more than 250,000 apparel jobs due to globalization—that is not sustainable. I'm cheating the market," Henry says.
Next, T.S. Designs, along with Moore, developed and patented a water-based printing and fabric-dyeing process called REHANCE. They designed the system as an environmentally friendly alternative to printing with plastisol inks and to give the company a unique competitive edge.
Alternative ink technology
The REHANCE process consists of two base components, RESIST and ENHANCE, that are formulated to tell cotton fibers how to react when coming in contact with dye. The REHANCE workflow involves printing and garment dyeing. RESIST causes cotton to repel the dye, and ENHANCE forces cotton to absorb the dye.
"The interesting thing we found with REHANCE technology is that it has required us to pay a lot more attention to detail in controlling our production process," Henry says. "With REHANCE, once the dye is on the garment, and once it is cured and run through the dryer, it is bonded to the fabric, and it's not going anywhere. It's in the fabric, not on the fabric."
The REHANCE technology required the folks at T.S. Designs to learn a lot about fabric dyeing, including which dyes and procedures to use. Initially, T.S. Designs sent its jobs to an outside garment-dyeing facility. But in order to have more control of the process, the company decided to sublease equipment at a few nearby garment-dyeing plants and send its own employees to dye the products. One employee was designated to order chemicals, set up the procedure, and supervise the process.
A matter of sustainability
For T.S. Designs, achieving sustainability doesn't stop with the textiles and inks it uses and from whom the company purchases its products. T.S. Designs carefully considers every aspect of its business and what changes can be made to uphold its Three Ps approach.
Here's one example. Several years ago, T.S. Designs stopped buying Styrofoam cups and disposable straws and asked its employees to bring their own ceramic mugs. Meanwhile, the company researched the coffee industry and learned that an overabundance of coffee in the world market was hurting coffee farmers. In response, T.S. Designs stopped buying coffee from the large chain stories and began purchasing Fair Trade Certified organic coffee to ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their products and earn a living wage. This small change costs the company $150 extra per year, but the higher quality of the coffee and the benefits of the Fair Trade system make the cost worthwhile.
Another example of sustainability is the company's co-op thrift store where employees can donate good, useable products for other employees to take. T.S. Designs also decided to transform the grassy areas at the facility's entrance into a native, natural landscape (Figure 3). The change greatly reduces the need to mow grass, which in turn reduces noise and air pollution. The company uses damaged cardboard to press the grass and weeds down. The cardboards covered with mulch, including leaves that the city of Burlington removes from its streets, to hold wildflower seeds and water. The cardboard eventually decomposes.
T.S. Designs also started compost piles, where coffee grounds, filters, leaves, grass clippings, and fruit are dumped. The decomposition produces nutrient-rich soil for the wildflower landscape areas. The company's co-op organic garden (Figure 4) not only serves as an area to produce fresh vegetables, but it also gives employees the opportunity to spend time together outside of work.
A much more visible example of T.S. Designs' commitment to sustainability is one that the people of Burlington and any visitors to the company can't miss—a gigantic solar-tracking array installed on the southeastern side of the property (Figure 5). The system is equipped with three dozen 51-watt Kyocera solar panels mounted on a Wattsun tracking system. It supplies approximately 2% of the building's power and is used for critical systems, such as phones and computer file servers. The solar array costs the company 45¢/kWh, as opposed to 7¢/kWh charged by Duke Power. So why does T.S. Designs pay more than six times as much for the solar power?
"What we agree, as a business, is when we're using cheaper electricity, we're causing damage to the environment that we're not having to pay for," Henry says. "Someone—the next generation—will be responsible for the environmental degradation that we are causing."
T.S. Designs also applies its philosophy to other utilities. The company designed and built a gray-water system for one of its toilets. Gray water, or water not up to drinking standards, is contained in a drum that is mounted in the bathroom and gravity fed into the toilet. The company also installed a Falcon water-free urinal that requires much less maintenance than conventional urinals, eliminates bacteria made airborne by flushing, and reduces sewer charges.
Instead of using plastic bags and hang tags to package printed garments, employees roll garments in recycled paper featuring printed information about T.S. Designs. Henry and Sineath even make biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil and use it to power their Volkswagen Golf and Jetta. Their dedication to alternate fuel sources has evolved into a ten-person group called Burlington Biodiesel Co-Op.
"It's important that, in the market we are in, if you're going to sell a green product, you have to walk the walk too," Henry says. "It's not just selling an organic product such as a T-shirt.... That's just one of our many commitments in our path to be more sustainable."
Sineath adds, "Our customer is someone who understands and is part of social and environmental issues. Our product makes sense to them, and our product supports their vision."
T.S. Designs' environmental-awareness efforts have been noted by several organizations. In 1992, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce recognized T.S. Designs with an Environmental Stewardship Award. In 1993, T.S. Designs was the subject of an EPA case study that described various environmentally friendly practices that can be used in the screen-printing industry.
The company received the Governor's Award for Excellence in Waste Reduction in 1994 and was honored in 2003 with the North Carolina Prevention Performance Award for Excellence in Business, the Save our State North Carolina Sustainability Award, and the Governor's Conservation Achievement Award. In 2004, T.S. Designs received what the company considers one of its most notable achievements—the Green Business Leadership Award presented by Co-op America.
T.S. Designs' philosophy of giving back to the community also is evident in its role as a corporate sponsor of North Carolina Green Power, a program that takes contributions from electrical users to assist people who generate wind, solar, hydroelectric, or biomass energy. A total of 10% of T.S. Designs' energy is renewable.
In the future
T.S. Designs has yet to implement any digital-imaging technology. However, Sineath and Henry plan to add direct-to-garment digital-printing equipment in the near future.
"It will be a very, very important part of our future," Henry says. "We see digital as an opportunity for us to address the fast-turning market and service those people that only need a couple dozen T-shirts. I think as digital develops and becomes better, faster, I see a time in the future where digital could replace screen printing."
Sineath explains that building a sustainable company continues to be the main goal for T.S. Designs. He urges other screen-printing businesses to become aware of their impact on everything around them and to seriously consider alternatives.
"It's about being a different kind of business," Sineath says. "If you think that we are causing environmental degradation and depleting the earth's resources faster than the earth can recover them, ask yourself how this happened. Business is quite often the culprit that caused the damage. But business usually is the most likely to fix it."