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North Carolina T-Shirt Maker Combines Organic Dyes and Fabrics

By Mark Tosczak Staff Writer
News & Record (Burlington, NC)

BURLINGTON -- Usually, the toilet isn't a featured stop on the company tour.

But a toilet that recycles water is just one example of how T.S. Designs, a Burlington T-shirt screen-printing company, is balancing a "triple bottom
line": people, planet and profits. The company also generates electricity from a solar panel and uses water-soluble inks printed on T-shirts made with organically grown cotton.

"We happen to believe that we're depleting the Earth's resources faster than we can replace them," says Tom Sineath, CEO and co-owner of the small company. "We have to change how we operate as businesses."

Sineath knows that it takes more than idealism to keep his company in business. And if T.S. Designs goes belly up, it won't be able to change how it -- or any other business -- operates. T.S. Designs may be different from other local textile companies, but it faces the same competition from low-cost foreign producers.

Sineath and his partner, Eric Henry, know that if they have to compete purely on price, they'll lose the battle with offshore competitors. But they figure that some green business practices will save them money, and others will allow them to offer products that no one else can. T.S. Designs owns patents on a process developed by Burlington Chemical Co. to print T-shirts without using polyvinyl chloride, the traditional "rubbery" printing that's used on most screen-printed clothes.

The new process doesn't flake and crack the way the traditional method does. Plus, the design can be printed on undyed T-shirts, and then the T-shirts dyed different colors once the seller figures out which colors are going to the be the most popular. That could mean fewer T-shirts being thrown out because they couldn't be sold.

"In most cases, if it's done correctly, the green designs are always the most efficient designs," said Sam Moore, vice president for research and development at Burlington Chemical. Burlington Chemical has been working on greener production since the mid-1980s. More efficient processes can boost profits as well as help the environment.

T.S. Designs' so-called "sustainable" business practices also are a selling point. Some people, and businesses, will pay a little extra for products that are better for the environment or don't involve cheap foreign labor. That's a marketing tactic that's difficult for a company trying to print T-shirts at the lowest possible price to match.

Though some of their customers, such as Timberland and ice-cream makers Ben & Jerry's, are known for their pro-environment activities, other customers aren't willing to shell out more money to buy organically grown cotton T-shirts printed with organic ink.

About 20 percent of T.S. Designs' business -- it prints about 3.5 million shirts per year -- is from green products. T.S. Designs' approach to business this year won it recognition from Save our State, a Raleigh nonprofit dedicated to natural resources and business sustainability. T.S. Designs was one of three businesses that won N.C. Sustainability Awards. The awards honor companies that find ways to take care of their financial bottom lines as well as do better by the Earth.

"Businesses are coming to recognize that there is real value in trying to do the right thing and finding ways they can do the right things environmentally," said Mary Strautin, director of communications for Save our State. "You just wish other companies would emulate them."

Henry is the company's resident "tree hugger" and it was he, in 1990, on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, who encouraged Sineath and the rest of the company to work harder at taking care of the environment. Sineath said he was sold on the idea when he realized the concept of the "triple bottom line" could balance his financial interest and environmental hopes.

"When you combine it together and say you've got to take care of all three, instead of competing interests you have common goals," Sineath says.

Besides going green in their plant and offices, T.S. Designs encourages its 47 or so employees to do things differently at home.

The company sells its employees small fluorescent light bulbs, which fit in traditional light sockets but are more energy efficient and last longer, below cost. The company stocks its coffee makers with organic "fair trade" coffee and has a supply of coffee mugs, instead of Styrofoam cups.

There's more to come. The company is gathering data on wind speed at their plant in hopes of setting up a wind turbine to generate more power.

"We're going to be more aggressive because it's the right thing to do," Sineath says.

For T.S. Designs, that's the real bottom line.

Contact Mark Tosczak at 227-6380 or