FROM DIRT TO SHIRT
TS Designs’ 10,000 Pounds of Cotton Project aims to bolster farmers, domestic apparel supply chain
Posted November 12, 2020
By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)
Since founding TS Designs as a student at N.C. State University in 1977, Eric Henry has become one of the U.S. textile and apparel industry’s top “evangelists” for a domestic, transparent, equitable regional supply chain.
When the business was decimated after the implementation of NAFTA in 1993, Henry was introduced to the triple-bottom-line business model of people, planet and profits, and adapting that mindset enabled the company to readjust its focus and thrive for decades, he said. Through the years, Henry and his team have tweaked this purpose and undertaken such projects as Cotton of the Carolinas, a traceable brand journey from “dirt to shirt,” as Henry often says, that is within a 600-mile radius of the company’s headquarters in Burlington, N.C.
Now, Henry and TS Designs, a T-shirt printer and dyer, have launched a bold project with many of the foundational principles of the three Ps in mind. Henry, his team and partners announced during a virtual press conference this week the creation of the 10,000 Pounds of Cotton Project on their site, Solid State Clothing. The goal is to pay North Carolina farmers at above-market rate prices for cotton as “an experiment to see how flipping the power in the cotton supply chain can change the way farmers operate,” he said.
During the news conference, Henry said he has committed to buying 10,000 pounds of cotton – enough to make about 15,000 T-shirts – from Burleson Farms in nearby New London, N.C. As a Solid State Clothing farming partner, Burleson and his family will make nearly double on his crop, Henry noted. Individuals and brands can buy “shares” of the cotton through a crowdfunding model on Solid State Clothing’s website.
When someone buys a “share” of cotton, that person will get back their investment in the form of a T-shirt in spring 2021, he explained. The investment goes directly into buying cotton from the North Carolina farmer and making the T-shirts in the Carolinas, he said, adding that not only are they regionally made but they are ethically sourced. The company aims to sell 2,000 “shares” by the end of the year for the project to reach its full potential, he said.
From a transparency standpoint, a QR code is included with each shirt that the buyer can scan and get detailed information about each step of the production process at this link.
“What we want to do with 10,000 Pounds is reconnect the farmer because what I realized has happened is the farmer, who has the biggest investment and has given the most time, has zero say in the price they can charge for the cotton,” Henry said. “The purpose is a call to action for apparel brands to meet the farmer in the field before the seed goes in the ground.”
He added: “We have a broken agriculture system. Farmers are the backbone of this country, and one of the most important assets to our economy and society.”
From an awareness perspective on the project, TS Design will be holding similar virtual events each month, engaging local, trade and national media and using social media to reach potential investors, according to Amy Dufault, the company’s communications director.
“We’ll be tackling these conversations,” she said. “How do you get someone to see the cost of that T-shirt and the value of that supply chain and get them to rewire their brains? That’s the dream.”
With about 75 percent of U.S. cotton being put on ships and sent to China, India or somewhere else to be processed and sewn into clothes and then shipped back to the U.S. to be sold as cheaply as possible, Henry and his team decided to “put a stop to the madness,” he said.
A call to action for brands
Also participating in the conference was Andrew Burleson, a third-generation farmer at the family operation, which Henry has known for about 15 years through TS Designs’ partnership in Cotton of the Carolinas. Burleson is the father of three children and works alongside his father, uncle and cousin.
“We learned back then that we grow great cotton in North Carolina,” Henry said. “And what happened with NAFTA is a lot of that cotton started leaving this country. Now, 98 percent of the clothes we buy is made overseas. So what we want to do with the launch of 10,000 Pounds is to educate the consumer about where their clothes come from and to issue a call to action for the brands to connect with the farmer in the field.”
Henry was joined on the Zoom by other TS Designs/Solid State supply chain partners, including Burleson’s cousin Wes Morgan, manager of Rolling Hills Gin, which gins the cotton; Andy Long, vice president of sales and marketing at Parkdale, whose SpunLab operation in Graniteville, S.C., spins the yarn; Alex Whitley, vice president of sales, and Jennifer Jones, sales and marketing, at Contempora Fabrics, Lumberton, N.C., which knits the yarn into fabric; Brittany Beam, sales rep at Carolina Cotton Works, Gaffney, S.C., which dyes and finishes the fabric; and Walter Vicente of employee-owned Opportunity Threads, Morganton, N.C., which cuts-and-sews the garment.
The partnership comes at an especially good time for Burleson, he said.
“From a weather standpoint, we lost the majority of our cotton crop this year due to rain,” he said. “We planted 2,100 acres of cotton and we're going to harvest 322 acres. That's all that survived. So this year has been a challenge. It has been one for the record books.”
The big difference between the 10,000 Pounds of Cotton Project and Cotton of the Carolinas is that, in the latter program, TS Designs didn’t get involved in the process until the cotton was ginned, Henry said.
“And we weren't really that aware of what was happening in the marketplace,” he said. “But what we have realized is that it is becoming more volatile. It's a challenge. We're going up against an industry that's focused on one thing: the cheapest price. I like to say that change starts with being aware, and hopefully what we're doing with this 10,000 Pound Project is making people aware. Once you become aware, and you have the ability to change and you do not change, then you become a part of the problem.”
Prior to COVID-19 and still to a large extent, apparel brands focus on either chasing the lowest price or chasing an illusion of a lifestyle, Henry added.
“We want to create a brand that’s built upon the people that produce the product, and we can do that in the Carolinas,” he said.
If this endeavor is successful, Henry hinted at an even bigger ambition for next year, potentially a 100,000 Pounds of Cotton Project that would expand the cotton supply chain to other parts of the country, he said.
“There is no problem with supply,” he said. “We just want to make demand. We want to represent more farmers and bring in different fibers throughout the country. But we need everyone’s help to get the 10,000 pounds locked up first.”
Watch related video:
“The purpose is a call to action for apparel brands to meet the farmer in the field before the seed goes in the ground."
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