Eric Henry is that friend or colleague that you want to call you. That you know will always have something exciting to share so you pick up immediately.
As the President of TS Designs in Burlington, North Carolina, Eric has rode the apparel industry roller coaster through two decades, watching business go overseas in the 90s and his business, a once thriving t-shirt hub making thousands of t-shirts for Nike, Polo and Tommy Hilfiger, suffer after the NAFTA trade agreement allowed for easy exports.
You might consider Eric in a place where he’s “been there, done that” in terms of seeing apparel move away from the U.S. and now he’s here to see it come back, albeit slowly. Ironically enough, it’s with yet another t-shirt but this one? Well, this t-shirt has a great story.
Farm Aid 2014
“Can you come down here for Farm Aid? We’re launching a special t-shirt,” Eric calls me a few weeks ago and asks in his syrupy southern drawl.
“I’ll make that happen,” I said, and sure enough, a few weeks later I’m on a plane with talking points on my lap to teach me more about a pretty incredible little t-shirt made from farmers and dyers and manufacturing folks all in the Carolinas. A “Seed to Shirt” product that even Farm Aid documented on a first-ever concert t-shirt site for their recent show.
If you know anything about Farm Aid, you know the focus is mostly food and never about clothing so this was a pretty big deal bringing clothing into the mainstream consciousness. When you consider the weight of “point of origin” in the food industry, with this t-shirt, the same people can begin to consider the correlation between where your clothing comes from as well. In a world steeped in fast food and fast fashion, the two are truly inextricably linked.
Back to the t-shirt, which the Farm Aid site now offers a fully transparent supply chain story on, meaning that customers can track their product, dirt to shirt. Wearers of the shirt can see each step of the process via an interactive map available at nc.farmaid.org. The supply chain itself took place within 750 miles across the Carolinas and supported more than 500 jobs before it hit the merch tents via a TS Designs truck I followed at 5:30 one Raleigh morning.
I thought I was in Raleigh to write an article, this article but much different than what you are reading, but life is funny, it throws you curve balls that are sometimes really great gifts. This trip was one of those gifts. First off, I love a good story. I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years and never tire of people telling me what gets them going and what fires them up.
Driving down a long dirt road to Eric’s four time-published friend Lyle Estill’s bio-diesel plant/distillery/shade gardening/solar array/banana grove, I wondered how people can end up in these thriving places, spaces that want to be made into something good through reuse and smart entrepreneurship. It also takes a strong community to keep these people afloat.
I wondered how easy it would be to use “slow money”consultant and author Carol Hewitt’s advice on helping lean food start-ups to help independent designers and cotton farmers supplying the fashion industry.
I wondered, after getting to go to Operation Spring Plant, owned by Dorothy and Phillip Barker, two African American farmers who helped me learn about black land loss on one of the few African-American-run dairies in the state, how much you can accomplish when you believe in what you do. When you persevere in the face of all challenges in that which you believe in most.
Certainly there’s room for some personal inspiration there.
Dorothy and Phillip Barker
I recently finished a book about textiles in the south The Voice of Southern Labor: Radio, Music and Textile Strikes, 1929-1934, some of the textile towns I read about I would pass through as we drove around the outskirts of Raleigh. When in 1935, the height of textile worker unrest in the south, over 400,000 mill workers decided to try a new angle in their protesting: picket dancing.
Young men and women would dance to country music and fiddlers while the National Guard, bayonets in hand, waited for them to do just one thing wrong. The mill bosses, not unlike the USDA authorities I was told about over two days, had them blackballed for life the minute they aligned with these picketers. They would lose everything and still, fighting for fair wages, basic human rights and the ability to carve out a living, they sang and danced until the wee hours of the night and day to prove a point.
I was seeing the similarities from 1935 in 2014 at Farm Aid.
Farm Aid founders and board member Dave Mathews, Neil Young, John Cougar Mellencamp and Willie Nelson
I’m not sure people understand how closely aligned food is to clothing.
How much both industries struggle to be good but are run by so much bad.
It was funny how much that one Farm Aid t-shirt brought all of us together to talk about it.
When people would ask me why I was even there, I first started out by answering “I’m not quite sure,” but after two days of farm tours, talking to food advocacy groups, and seeing how much power a conversation about organic cotton, worker’s rights and ethics could transfer over easily into the fashion world, I saw some new light at the end of this oftentimes dark tunnel. I found new partners.
I found myself saying more and more “That’s how it is in the fashion world too!” to which they would raise their eyebrows and say “Really?”
And you know what else? Where there are craft brewers there is consciousness. Where there is an urban farm, there is consciousness, where there is music, there is a collective consciousness that transcends black or white, Republican or Democrat, religious or atheist, farmer or fashionista.
I think when people know your story, they are invested in you, maybe even in the planet because they don’t want to mess it up for you or for them.
I think music does something to our brains we can use for good and as a common denominator to level playing fields and try to make good happen.
I think about Orpha Gene Watson who I had the pleasure to share dinner with the second night I was in Raleigh. Orpha Gene is the only organic cotton farmer in North Carolina and when I asked him how it felt to be a celebrity from growing that organic cotton those Farm Aid t-shirts were made of, he shyly looked down and said in that beautiful southern drawl, “I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
Lewie Parrish of Parrish Farm in Nashville and Orpha Gene Watson of Hickory Meadows Organics near Whitakers are pioneering the state’s organic cotton farming.
And guess what? Those 2500 t-shirts Eric Henry made for the concert? They sold out almost immediately and I had the pleasure of walking up to the people who bought them and thanking them for supporting Carolina cotton farmers and businesses and giving them a little pin that proved they supported something good.
People loved the story and loved that Farm Aid, a 29 year running event founded by Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp, would want to support such a great initiative. Regular, everyday people who could care less about sustainable fashion hoped there would be more t-shirts next year.
It was Farm Aid after all, that’s exactly what they should be doing. It doesn’t just stop with food in the tents or farm tours.
It’s part of that greater collective consciousness I wrote about before.
It’s like, if you want to know where your food comes from, you just might like to know where your jeans came from or your t-shirt. What your dollars support. Most of the time, that apparel story isn’t one with a happy ending.
But with every industry entry point is an opportunity to walk openly and responsibly into another until before you know it, all this consciousness stuff is old hat.
It’s just how you live.
And that’s what one little t-shirt taught me.
All non-fuzzy images from Becky Parker photography