UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


TS Designs “Walks the Talk” When it Comes to Sustainability


Guest Blog Post By Bryan King (JD ’13)

What exactly does it mean to “walk the talk” when it comes to sustainable companies? A group of UNC students recently found the answer when they visited TS Designs in Burlington, North Carolina as part of a UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability in Action TREK.

As a student enrolled in Professor Carol Seagle’s Corporate Environmental Strategy course, this Sustainability in Action TREK provided a great opportunity to balance my readings and class discussions with a visit to a highly sustainable small business. I had read about the chemical industry’s attempt at self regulation through Responsible Care and evaluated a life cycle analysis of an Italian beer, but this was an opportunity to talk with an entrepreneur and CEO of a small business about his day to day efforts to make his company more sustainable.

While some companies are formed with a green mission in mind (e.g. Method), TS Designs was formed purely for commercial reasons. Founded in 1977 as a small screen printing shop, the company quickly grew into a large scale operation printing shirts for brands such as Nike, Polo, and Gap. While the business thrived in the early years, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s when changes in the labor market, mainly due to the implementation of NAFTA in 1993, forced TS Designs to reevaluate their business model. In the process, the company started to focus on a triple-bottom-line: People, Planet, Profits.

This new triple-bottom-line brought a strong focus on sustainability and it prompted TS Designs to develop new products. On theSustainability in Action TREK we learned of the company’s new Cotton of the Carolina’s Organic T-Shirts. TS Designs worked with North Carolina cotton farmers to help them harvest the first 100% certified organic cotton crop. After the harvest, this cotton is spun and used to produce shirts made entirely – “dirt to shirt” – in North Carolina. TS Designs has a map of the supply chain in their lobby, but if you don’t want to drive to Burlington, you can log on to Cotton of the Carolina’s, enter the code on your Cotton of the Carolina’s Organic T-shirt, and view every step in the process of producing the shirt. You can also show your pride by having the information printed on a mock “nutrition label” that provides the make-up of your sustainable shirt.

I found the Cotton of the Carolina’s Organic T-Shirt to be a great example of both sustainable innovation and managing the upstream suppliers. Think about it. Here was TS Designs, wanting to produce organically grown North Carolina cotton t-shirts but they had one problem; there was no such thing as organically grown North Carolina cotton! TS Designs had to find farmers and convince them to undertake the more complicated and more risk prone process of growing organic cotton. TS Designs didn’t just take what they had available and try to make it more sustainable going forward; they made the process more sustainable from the moment the cotton seed is planted. I know I’m not the only student that is constantly thinking about entrepreneurship and innovation, and this was a great reminder to look beyond the available resources and ask the slightly paradoxical question “what do we need that doesn’t exist.”

I was impressed by TS Designs “walking the talk” in developing new products, but that was just the beginning. The highly energetic and self-described “crazy” CEO Tom Sineath and “pioneer of the big picture” President Eric Henry have created a culture where the goal is to use every resource to its maximum utility. The countless examples Tom showed us on the Sustainability in Action TREKillustrated that going green is not just about changing your products or adjusting your core competencies, it is about changing your company’s lifestyle.

Before we even entered the building we were introduced to dozens of ways the company is committed to sustainability. Right in the parking lot is a biodiesel fueling station used by TS Design’s delivery trucks, employees, and available to the general public if they wish to use biodiesel. There are also a few strategically placed solar panels and wind turbines which help the company reduce emissions and their power bill. Additionally, the south facing wall of the building has Virginia Creeper vines growing up the side to provide shade to keep the building cool in the summer. In winter, the leaves shed from the vine allowing the sun to help heat the building. It seemed like every square foot of the company was dedicated to sustainability.

Tom also joked with us about his realization that their company employees need to eat. To help minimize trips to the grocery store and the effects of having food shipped in from all over the country, TS Designs started to produce their own food. The “Garden of Eat’n” on the company’s property grows all types of fruits and vegetables that are available for the employees to take home to their families or eat for lunch. The employees have access to a fully equipped kitchen where they can prepare the vegetables to their taste. To help keep the soil fertile without using pesticides, TS Designs has numerous chickens that pick at the soil and cleanse it of bugs. Of course, everything has a dual purpose so the eggs from these chickens are given to employees too.

Inside the building is more of the same. The lighting is dim as almost every other lighting fixture in the ceiling is without a light bulb. The tank of the toilet is filled with gray-water which is collected from condensation on the ice-machine and air-conditioner (but don’t worry, it is still connected to other water sources in case there is a shortage of condensation). Rain water is also collected off the roof and stored in large barrels for reuse at later dates.

The trip to TS Designs single-handedly changed the lens through which I view a sustainable company. Though a bit embarrassing, I never really thought much about sustainability beyond the environmental impact of the product or service a company provides. TS Designs goes way beyond that working to make every aspect of their operation more sustainable and capitalizing on the full capacity of their resources. Through this lens, a tree doesn’t just beautify the landscape; it shades the building, saves energy costs, and produces food.

There is no doubt about it, TS Designs “walks the talk.” The other students who attended theSustainability in Action TREK expressed the same fascination over this company’s ability to make every aspect of their company more sustainable. I highly encourage everyone to (1) check out TS Design online and take the virtual tour, (2) stop in to TS designs if you’re ever heading west of Chapel Hill on 40, and (3) do your part and buy their products!