A Pivotal Moment: When Customer Demand Clashes with Core Values – 25 Magazine: Issue 7

A Pivotal Moment: When Customer Demand Clashes with Core Values – 25 Magazine: Issue 7

WWhen major brands moved their apparel construction and printing business overseas shortly following the signing of the North America Federal Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in January 1994, it spurred a new business philosophy at T-shirt screen-printing company TS Designs: people, planet, and profits.

JEN BUSFIELD and ERIC HENRY reflect on how these three core tenets guide their business, despite their seemingly conflicted natures.

There is more to business than the “bottom line.” Our flagship brand, “Cotton of the Carolinas,” a T-shirt made using a local transparent supply chain, is a clear example of the three tenets that guide all of our decisions at TS Designs. By using cotton grown locally to us in the Carolinas (two south eastern US states, North and South Carolina), we’re not only reducing our transportation footprint from thousands and thousands of miles, we’re also supporting over 500 domestic jobs.

Each “Cotton of the Carolinas” T-shirt offers its owner the ability to track its unique transportation footprint.

While many of our customers love the Cotton of the Carolinas brand T-shirt for its soft feel, transparent supply chain, and support of local jobs, there were still several customers looking for something a little different. They wanted a T-shirt made of “performance-wear” fabric, something lighter-weight that would wick the sweat away from your skin.

To do this, we’d need to find a polyester fiber – preferably a traceable locally produced 100 percent recycled polyester fiber – that would be able to sit alongside the cotton in a 50/50 blend. It would need to work in tandem with the cotton to create the popular “heather” effect. It would also need to just feel nice to wear.

We dove into brand development with our team with the goal of providing the best quality, most sustainable solution, and the “Carolina Blend” was born. Made with 50 percent Carolina cotton and 50 percent polyester derived from recycled water bottles, it offered customers a lightweight, heather T-shirt.

A supply chain was developed. Strategy was outlined and a timeline was nailed down. A logo and design elements were created. We had inventory and yarn, ready to be knit and sewn. We even teased bits of information to our customer base in order to build awareness and anticipation.

Cotton is spun into yarn at a local factory in North Carolina.

We were bringing something new to the market, a testament to our goal to provide the company’s customers with the absolute best products.

And then we pulled the plug.

About 18 months into development – after spending time and money building a domestic transparent supply chain, after building brand elements to present to the market – we stopped working on “Carolina Blend.” We realized that, no matter how sustainable we tried to make this blend, it violated one of our core tenets. It was killing the environment.

Microplastics: A Growing Danger to the Environment

In the midst of creating this new brand, information came to light regarding how polyester clothing creates microplastic buildup in the environment.

Plastic is a man-made product and, unlike natural fibers which will biodegrade over time, plastic just gets smaller. It doesn’t go away. At a certain point, it’s able to get past our waste management facilities and enter our streams, rivers, and oceans. It gets into fish, and then into us.

There’s no system in place to capture the microplastics that have already been released into the environment, and our industry just continues to introduce new polyester products to the market, hoping consumers will deal with the environmental responsibility.

All the current solutions to this problem address microplastic capture at a consumer level, but if you’re expecting consumers to address an environmental issue at a large scale, it isn’t going to happen.

What Now? How Do We Move Forward?

When a company hears this kind of news – after investing time, effort, energy, money, and countless person hours in developing a brand to make its customers happy – what does it do?

We want to be part of the change; we want to be doing the right thing – but it’s tough as a business when you’ve invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to meet the needs of the customer and then decide to pull the plug. In the end, we had to return to our three core tenets – people, planet, profits – and remember that a business is more than a bottom line. We have to take responsibility for our impact on society and the planet.

Eric (right) leans on a cotton bale while chatting with a local farmer about the year’s harvest.

So we pivoted, immediately. Our customers wanted a blend, but we wanted to eliminate any issues with polyester fabric that would add microplastics into the environment. Was there a natural fiber that would fit the bill?

Refocusing: Hemp, a Natural Fiber

In the US, hemp – a durable natural fiber with similar wicking properties to polyester – is still tied to marijuana: they both come from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa, although only one (marijuana) can cause psychoactive effects. A hemp/cotton blend has been a long-time goal of ours, but one that rested on the back-burner while legislation to legalize industrial hemp struggled through the voting process.

Hemp is a phenomenal plant that can be grown right in our backyard and that will partner with cotton to make better, long-lasting apparel. It’s a resource that we can grow – and process – in our communities; it will create more jobs.

The industrial hemp movement has been historically slow to move forward, but that’s changing. As an early adopter, we’ll have to begin with fiber from the world’s largest producer and exporter of hemp, China. This will allow us to work through the necessary steps to build out the product while industrial hemp production still requires approval and oversight from the Drug Enforcement Agency, but we’re committed to domestic manufacturing long term. We’re fortunate enough to live and work in a state that has the climate and ability to grow, process, and manufacture hemp – it will sit alongside what we’re already doing with cotton as transparently grown and produced natural fiber that will biodegrade and return to the earth.

“Sustainability,” as Eric is known to say, “is a journey, not a destination.”

These are words we live by at TS Designs. You constantly have to evaluate your inputs and, at the end of the day, you still have to stay in business, but it’s important to stay true to the core values that make your business count.

We’ve returned to those customers who were once so excited about the Carolina Blend and its unique qualities and we’re talking to them about the importance of not bringing it to market. We’re also talking to them about how the new hemp/cotton blend will be similar – and superior – to the product they were anticipating. Other companies might be embarrassed to have this conversation, but we’re not. We’re excited to be so committed to our guiding principles.

A Holistic Approach

Today, we see a number of initiatives aimed at tackling plastic use – the recent straw bans, for instance – but we rarely see it applied to the context of polyester-blended apparel. We live in a time where the negative external costs don’t automatically show up in a simple purchase, like a cup of coffee. The marketplace doesn’t have a conscience or a soul – just an insatiable thirst for satisfaction.

We don’t yet have analytics that can measure the real cost of decisions from businesses that cut corners in order to maximize profits, but there’s always someone who sees the cost, the unseen price we pay, who is very aware of how much damage we cause with thoughtless actions.

It’s important to have an open mind to learn new things, and how those things impact where we are going. It’s about understanding how we connect as a system – none of our decisions is isolated and without a chain of consequences. What gives us the right to trash someone else’s back garden just because we don’t see the consequences or have to live life walking through the waste?

It’s not just about having a good product. It’s about taking a holistic approach. And, if nothing else, it’s about being aware of the impact you have with the choices you make.

Business can be the voice for positive change. As a smart business person, you have to be aware of the issues. They may be small now, but they can quickly loom and overtake your business if you don’t shift to stay ahead of the challenges. It can mean making hard decisions, but in the long term it makes your business resilient and sustainable: in business versus being out of business.

Choose to be a part of the solution, because when the issue is known and customers are aware, they’ll be quick to label you as a part of the problem.

Our customers care about our products in a serious way. They are more aware of the connection; they’re ready-made for education on why businesses are making smarter – and sometimes harder – choices to provide a more positive impact. They’re ready to understand it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a series of small decisions to make the most positive impact over time.

A journey, not a destination. ◊

TS DESIGNS is a certified B corporation located in Burlington, North Carolina. JEN BUSFIELD is its Director of Marketing; ERIC HENRY, its Founder, CEO, and President.

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