Michelle Shen The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Several North Carolina factories joined forces during the pandemic to adapt their businesses. As Michelle Shen reports, in doing so, they not only survived, they began innovating for the future.
Eric Henry, a Burlington entrepreneur, was facing a dilemma. As the founder of a T-shirt company named TS Designs, he was seeing reduced demand for his shirts due to the pandemic, and he had years' worth of inventory clogging up his space. He spoke with his close manufacturing partner Lori Trotter of Trotters Sewing Company, and she came up with an idea that ended up making them about $250,000 in revenue.
Trotters Sewing Company in Asheboro is a master of market diversification. The umbrella of products they sew covers the furniture, bedding, pet, military, and medical industry.
Henry first approached them to brainstorm ideas for what to do with his overflowing inventory of T-shirts. His original idea was to turn them into grab bags, but Trotter had noticed the demand for PPE and asked: What if we made them into masks instead?
Henry liked the idea, and they quickly set things into motion. Henry looked for online specs for masks, and Trotter was able to take those and figure out how to deconstruct the T-shirts into masks. Like many agile businesses, they quickly adapted the spec to become better and better with each prototype.
In a quick amount of time, Henry and Trotter were able to supply people in America with masks in the early months of the pandemic when people were clambering to find them. They ended up selling thousands of masks and making hundreds of thousands in sales.
"Not only was it beneficial in the way that we're helping the environment, we're helping with COVID, we're helping people be able to have masks, but we were also helping his business," Trotter points out.
Henry elaborates, "We wanted to make a mask built upon our values. We run a company based on a triple bottom line of people, planet, profit. So instead of rushing out and shipping masks in from some overseas sources, we asked, 'How can we use the resources we've got, and then how can we make it here?'"
This triple bottom line is reflected in every facet of the way Henry's business operates from its local supply chain to its focus on renewable, eco-friendly processes and materials.
Started over 40 years ago in North Carolina, Eric Henry's company faced its fair share of challenges. Its biggest came when NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) was signed in 1994, removing tariffs between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Many competitors in the T-shirt industry went overseas for manufacturing and sourcing, but Henry decided to stay.
"We focus on what I call a domestic, transparent, and equitable supply chain. So we make T shirts in the US," Henry explains, "We can make a T-shirt within 500 miles."
To provide context, clothes typically travel thousands of miles before they reach your local shopping mall or your doorstep. Most of your clothes have probably traveled more of the world than you have.
By contrast, let's walk through the life cycle of a TS Designs T-shirt. The cotton is sourced from Burleson & Sons Farm in Piedmont, N.C., then goes to Rolling Hills Gin in New London, N.C., to separate the seeds from the cotton fiber. Next, it goes to SpunLab in Graniteville, S.C., to spin the cotton fiber at rapid speeds to create spools of "spun yarn." It then goes to the manufacturer Contempora of Lumberton, N.C., to be knit and Gaffney, S.C., to be finished. The shirts then travel a bit more around North Carolina to be cut and dyed until they reach TS Designs and Trotters Sewing.
From start to finish, the T-shirts (turned masks) were made in the Carolinas. By doing so, the company is able to create relationships with local farmers and manufacturers. Recently, Eric Henry launched the 10K Cotton Project in conjunction with Andrew Burleson of Burleson & Sons Farm. The project is a commitment from Henry to purchase $10,000 of cotton from Burleson at a fixed price prior to planting the cottonseed.
Henry explains its value: "Commodity agriculture — I don't care if it's cotton, wheat, soy beef, chicken — is a broken system because the farmer has no say so the price in which they get paid for the product in the marketplace determines the price."
With the 10K Cotton Project, TS Designs, and Burleson and Sons minimize risk for both sides of the table. It essentially protects both the farmer and manufacturer from fluctuations in price for cotton in the market.
Ultimately, the recycling of these shirts into masks is an illustration of the triple bottom line ethos of the company. People benefit from an invaluable American-produced resource in a time when borders are tightening and supply chains are breaking apart. The planet benefits from the reuse of cotton, a crop that takes a lot of water and energy to grow and process in the first place. Lastly, it turned a company that was hurting into one that made a significant profit.
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