s far back as I can remember, I have tried to be aware of my surroundings and to find ways to improve or minimize my impact on the earth. I am not sure why I started an organic garden in my parent's backyard while growing up in downtown Burlington, North Carolina. I am not sure why I started buying CFL light bulbs (Panasonic, Made in Japan) 25 years ago when the cost was $20 per bulb. Twenty years ago, I nudged our employees to stop using Styrofoam cups by requiring that they start using their own coffee mugs. I am not sure why I started making biodiesel almost ten years ago when diesel fuel cost $1 per gallon.
I can't tell you why our company started making t-shirts in North Carolina when most apparel manufacturing companies were still moving offshore to pursue cheaper labor. And I have no idea how I convinced my business partner to invest $70,000 in a solar array when our company still owed us thousands in personal loans.
I'm not sure why I helped open a co-op grocery store in downtown Burlington when all other retail had moved to the outlying shopping centers.
My Environmental Stance Started Early: I Was Ten Years Old
One of my first memories of taking an environmental stance was in the late 60s. I was about ten years old, and I refused to ride in my dad's Opal that was burning some serious motor oil. I lost that battle, and I do not remember why I was so concerned about the gray-blue smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe, but no one else at the time seemed to care about it or my protest.
Remember, these were the days when it was ok to throw your trash out the car window or dump the used motor oil from your car behind the house. There was a creek in front and down the block from our house that I played in quite a bit — I remember multicolored water and soap suds, and I remember that the water would periodically start killing the crayfish and frogs routinely each summer. For some reason, people accepted this dying of creatures without questioning the pollution.
The Triple-P Model of Business: People, Planet, Profits
For over 30 years, I have been the president of TS Designs. I helped grow our business to over 100 employees only to see it destroyed in the mid-90s by NAFTA. I traded in my BMW and country club membership for a biodiesel burning VW and a major investment in a co-op grocery store.
I quickly learned the power of money when the customers and relationships that took me years to build were completely put aside because someone in some place outside the United States would do the work cheaper. I saw the American consumer get swept up with cheaper prices while not observing or caring where the clothes they wore were made. I was forced to lay off a lot of people, saw friends shutting down their businesses and communities completely destroyed — all for the sake of cheaper prices.
It took a few years for us to find a new direction for TS Designs. Over the years as we've incorporated the triple-P model (people, planet, profits), TS Designs has become the melting pot in our community for sustainable ideas and a gathering place for like-minded folks that are interested in a more sustainable future. Recently, we have started hosting monthly tours and helped our local community college to launch a green curriculum.
I have found it takes a community to move these many projects and ideas ahead. From our garden, to beehives, to renewable energy — we have so many friends that want to assist and participate.
Products Grown and Manufactured Close to Home
Taking a page from the local food movement, we focused on the fact that our state is usually the third or fourth largest grower of conventional cotton in the USA. With this knowledge, we began looking for ways to connect our finished product directly to farmers in our state, and launched our new brand, "Cotton of the Carolinas."
Typically, a t-shirt in your local big box store can travel 13,000 miles from production to the store shelves. Our "dirt to shirt" concept means a shirt travels just 700 miles — all in North Carolina — with a completely transparent supply chain.
Encouraged by the success of that brand, we began to work directly with farmers to launch the growing and harvesting of the first certified organic cotton in North Carolina in the summer of 2011 — something we were told could never be done. We are now on the verge of making the world's most sustainable t-shirt — local, transparent, organic and produced using the greenest processes. We hope that this will connect jobs and the environment, proving that this is a crucial relationship, and that we really have no other sustainable choice.
With A Little Help From Our Friends... and Our Community
There are so many things that are broken in our society — overuse of fossil fuels, industrial agriculture and blind consumerism, to name just a few. It's difficult to stay on top of these topics as well as other areas that impact my day to day living, and that's when I turn to my friends and community of different experts to guide me along. I think this is what has made the journey the most enjoyable: all the great people I have met along the way who have a passion for life rather than just a quest for a fat checkbook.
Slowly, I am starting to see a few things starting to turn, but I still sometimes wonder, can we turn the car around quickly enough before it goes flying off the cliff? It's so frustrating that we still have to validate the very real concepts of peak oil and climate change to some groups. But, the power of community is so much greater than the voice of a few, and for the most part, I am very hopeful we can turn this around...but, I see that glass as being half full.
Sustainability is a journey, not a destination.
*subtitles by InnerSelf
©2013 by Lyle Estill. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. http://newsociety.com
Small Stories, Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability
by Lyle Estill.
About the Author of this excerpt
Eric Henry, president of TS Designs, is one-half of the dynamic duo that owns TSD. Alongside his business partner and TSD CEO Tom Sineath, Eric has been in the screenprinting business for over 30 years. Outside of TS Designs, Eric devotes much of his time to furthering the sustainable agenda in various community organizations. He founded the Burlington Biodiesel Co-op and has run his car on biodiesel (or straight vegetable oil) since 2004. He serves on the boards for Company Shops Market, a local co-op grocery that reconnects local agriculture to Alamance County, and NC GreenPower, an organization that purchases and resells renewable energy. He also serves on boards for Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, Elon University Environmental Science and the Burlington Downtown Corporation.
This article was adapted with permission from a chapter entitled "The Journey" in the book "Small Stories, Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability"
About the Book's Author
Lyle Estill is the president and co-founder of Piedmont Biofuels, a community scale biodiesel project in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has been on the vanguard of social change for the past decade, which has placed him at the heart of the sustainability movement. Lyle is a prolific speaker and writer, and the author of Industrial Evolution, Small is Possible and Biodiesel Power. He has won numerous awards for his commitment to sustainability, outreach, community development, and leadership.