Generation E: Tom Sineath and TS Designs
A business with a triple bottom line
by Jessica Wheeler
Inside Tom Sineath’s wallet is a green piece of paper the size of a dollar bill. Printed on it are the words “Every dollar I spend is a statement about the kind of world I want and the quality of life I value.” It’s an idea Sineath takes very seriously, in both his business and his personal life.
Sineath founded his T-shirt printing company, TS Designs, in 1977, and business was good. The Burlington, N.C., operation grew to accommodate large contracts with major brands, shipping all over the United States. But after more than a decade of printing T-shirts the conventional way, things began to change at TS Designs. Sineath, a former Boy Scout who enjoyed the challenge of no-impact camping, helped initiate small changes in the business, such as recycling and the use of fair-trade coffee, which led to much bigger changes. The business adopted an environmentally friendly printing system and began to look into the use of sustainable fibers.
Around this time, the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement contributed to many of TS Designs’ customers leaving the country to do business overseas. In the face of upheaval, Sineath and business partner Eric Henry decided to throw all their weight behind their new “triple bottom line” approach.
“Every business knows what the bottom line is—that’s whether you’re making money or not,” says Sineath. “Some people believe the only reason a business should ever exist is to create wealth. We think a better model would be a triple bottom line: We want to build a company by simultaneously looking after people, planet, and profit.”
These days, TS Designs uses cotton that is either organic or local, and they work closely with area farmers. Their buildings use green landscaping and solar panels, and Sineath’s employees have access to healthcare. The company is a B Corp, certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. For Sineath, these efforts have become intrinsically linked with his faith.
“A lot of people ask us what our epiphany was, or what changed, and I can try to track it back different ways. But as we started looking at being an environmentally responsible business, social justice wasn’t front and center. It was ‘Let’s look at our energy use,’ and those types of things. We started recycling, but then we thought, ‘Wait a minute, it’s the buildings our business is in. We built them based on cheap fossil fuels, and we need to rethink that.’ It was much later that we looked at the actual product we produce. We just hadn’t really thought about looking at our very product through a green lens.”
When the link between environmental stewardship and social justice became evident, the rest of the pieces fell into place for him. “For example, human trafficking happens more often in areas with scarce resources, drought, and no clean water. That’s caused by us, because we want cold houses in the summer and warm houses in the winter, and we want to drive wherever we go. We’ve really got to rethink these things that we think are God’s blessings that are in fact not blessing a lot of people.”
Equipped with new knowledge and personal experience, Sineath began to speak to local church groups about the need for environmental stewardship.
“All these things were going on at my business, I was starting to incorporate it into my faith, so I started talking to groups. They wanted to hear about it. I was trying to take what I saw as environmental issues and put them into a package that was easier to understand,” he explains.
After leading an extensive creation care series at his home church, Front Street United Methodist, Sineath is now leading a study about Sabbath-keeping.
“Sabbath is front and center in this creation care concept of letting your land rest, your animals rest, and your workers rest. This is a wonderful starting point that we as Christians have to offer the world. A lot of people have solar panels—we have the Sabbath.”
Sineath aims high but is honest about the struggle. “We are trying to run a profitable business that looks at social justice. We want to be good corporate citizens, but the reality is we fall short. My faith walk and my environmental walk are similar, because I keep trying but I’m falling short. It’s part of a process.”
Jessica Wheeler writes and works for Blessed Earth, a creation care nonprofit. In her spare time she enjoys trying all the local restaurants in Lexington, Ky., with her husband, David.