Eric Henry, sustainable T-shirt maker extraordinaire, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am the president of T.S. Designs.
How does it relate to the environment?
We provide the highest-quality, most-sustainable printed T-shirts on the market. We define that as being made of organic cotton or other sustainable fibers, manufactured in the U.S., and printed and dyed with our environmentally friendly REHANCE process. We also want to be an example of a successful triple-bottom-line business.
What are you working on at the moment?
Probably too many things while being involved in the day-to-day sales and marketing activities. We want to demonstrate sustainable practices, not just talk about them. This year we are planning an Energy Independence Day by opening an off-the-grid, green-built, card-swipe B100 biodiesel pump at TSD in conjunction with our friends at Piedmont Biofuels, and installing a wind turbine that will be tied into our solar array.
How do you get to work?
I live about five miles from the office and have to drive solo every day. When we originally designed our building we put in a shower and I rode my bike to work a couple of times a week. Now, due to urban sprawl and shoulder-less roads, the trip is too dangerous. There are no mass-transit options or even a sidewalk; the car is your only option to get to TSD. Now I am totally dependent on my 2000 VW TDI that I have been running on B100 for over three years. We make that B100 at TSD through the Burlington Biodiesel Co-op. The car also has the Elsbett one tank WVO [Waste Veggie Oil] conversion, so unless we have very cold weather, which we get less and less these days, I have no reason to run petrol diesel.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I started a T-shirt business while in college to support my non-academic activities. While I was still in school, my business joined up with T.S. Designs, which was started by Tom Sineath. Tom and I have been partners for almost 30 years now. It was an Earth Day event in the early 1980s that planted the seed to understanding the importance of running a “green” business.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Radford, Va., and moved to Burlington, N.C., at age 3, where I still live with my wife of more than 20 years. We hope in the next few years to sell our house and move to the country so my wife can be closer to her horses, and hopefully we can build a green house that is “off the grid.”
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I will never forget the meeting my partner and I attended about a year or so before the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. The event was sponsored by a couple of large textile companies, and their executives were big supporters of NAFTA, promoting all the new markets that it was going to open to the U.S. We could not envision how someone in Mexico that was making 50 cents an hour was going to buy a $20 Nike T-shirt. Within two years after NAFTA we lost over 90 percent of our business and had to lay off the majority of our employees.
What’s been the best?
NAFTA, because it forced us to creatively destroy and rebuild our business with the insight of a good friend, Sam Moore, who introduced a sustainable business model to us: the triple bottom line. We are rebuilding our company still. It is now over 95 percent U.S.-made, organic cotton using our patented REHANCE process to make the most sustainable printed T-shirt on the market today. So today, instead of our customers being Nike, Tommy, or Gap, they are Whole Foods, Greenpeace, and The Discovery Channel.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Business leaders sometimes think that by complying with regulations they are meeting their environmental responsibilities. Over 16 years ago, while drinking coffee with our employees, I noticed all the Styrofoam cups on the table. I suggested that we stop buying the cups and have employees bring in their own ceramic mugs. Although you can still buy Styrofoam cups, we have kept thousands out of the landfill. It is usually the small things a business can do that over the long term will have a big impact.
Who is your environmental hero?
I guess I have two. When I first started studying the triple-bottom-line business model I read Ray Anderson’s Mid-Course Correction and Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism. I have had an opportunity to meet both of them and they were very important in forming our business plan.
What’s your environmental vice?
Boy, I have many of them, but probably my poor planning and running out for fast food during lunch. We don’t have many good food options in our area, plus you have to jump in your car to go get it.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
My free time usually gets consumed in a new project. The newest is Company Shops Marketplace Co-op, a plan to bring a co-op grocery to our community and reconnect local agriculture back to our community. I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
What’s your favorite meal?
Stir-frying local vegetables with my wife when they come in season. We joined a CSA a few years ago and we are always excited when our weekly green box shows up. Two years ago, we started trading some of our share of biodiesel from our biodiesel co-op for the green box.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m never satisfied. I want to keep pushing the window on what we can do, both in business and in personal life, to improve our impact and make our community better. A few years ago my wife and I gave up our gas cars for biodiesel, and this year we are working at a small farm; along with our CSA, we hope to get all of our seasonal vegetables locally.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I seem to like the mountains more than the coast. I like the Rockies in the winter for skiing the most, but our Blue Ridge Mountains are just a few hours away.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
In our area we have been hit hard by urban sprawl; we need our local government to do more in-depth, long-term transportation and economic-impact studies via public hearings.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
At 18 I was pretty much into the hard rock like Boston or Led Zeppelin. Today I still like the rock ‘n’ roll, but I mix that up with a lot of jazz. I haven’t caught the rap thing, and even though I’m from the South, I’m not a country-music fan.
What’s your favorite TV show?
I’m a big sci-fi fan, but for news and laughs I probably watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more than anything else on TV.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
You vote with your dollar, and when you are spending those dollars you have a responsibility of knowing where it goes. Unfortunately we live in a society that thinks that gas comes from the gas pump, clothes from the mall, and food from the grocery store. I have no problem with people being successful and making a lot of money; I do have a problem sometimes with how that money gets spent.