The fashion industry is a linear economy that needs to go circular but so far, resources are utilised to manufacture products, which get discarded at the end of their lives, ending up in landfills more often than not. Needless to say, this global practice that is producing mountains of waste, is detrimental to the environment. Yet, the global demand for clothing continues to grow, with current projections estimating that the consumption of clothes will triple by 2050. According to BBC Earth findings, three out of every five t-shirts that are bought, “end up in the bin within a year”.
Software platform Teemill wants to change that. As the name suggests, the UK-based company is tackling the massive demand for t-shirts. After working for many years to design a circular supply chain, the company that began as a fashion brand called Rapanui in 2008, re-launched as the Teemill platform in 2018. Using only recovered, natural materials (not plastic) even for packaging, Teemill creates value from waste and takes responsibility even after the life cycle of a product is over - seemingly: “Every product we make is designed to be sent back to us when it is worn out, ” promises Teemill.
“Every year, 100 billion new items of clothing are produced while a truck full of clothing is burned, or buried in a landfill every second. Slowing fast fashion down a bit won't fix it. But when we take the waste material at the end, and make new products from it at the start, it changes everything. That's what we've done,” explains the company.
Their designs eliminate waste at each step of the material supply chain, applying disruptive technology to minimise overstocking, and maximise material recycling, with the hopes that open source and circularity will lead to much needed rapid change in the fashion industry; a first such undertaking. Yes, that’s right: Teemill’s platform and technology is free to use. “Anyone with an internet connection can use our systems, for free, and start their own brand,” confirms Teemill.
“Our technology automates the complex decision making required to run a real time supply chain for the tens of thousands of startups, brands and charities connected to our factory via the cloud. In our modern process, products are only made in real time - in the seconds after they are ordered - so there is no waste inventory,” explains Teemill. Or as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation says in their case study: “Teemill is fundamentally different because circular design is applied at every stage”.
“We only make products people actually need, when they need them. And everything we make is designed to come back and be remade when it's worn out. Sharing this work with other brands via the cloud means that everyone can participate and co-create the future of fashion. We are building a circular economy on the cloud, today,” adds Martin Drake-Knight, co-founder of Teemill.
But that is not all: Teemill incorporates six key areas in its circular model: organic cotton, water, renewable energy, no surplus production, material flow and packaging. Organic cotton is the key ingredient in the product, which is cultivated naturally without spraying toxic chemical concoctions for pesticides and fertilised with a mix of cow dung. After harvesting, organic cotton is de-seeded, the seeds pressed into seedcakes to be sold as cow feed and vegetable oil is extracted for the food industry. In the ginning plants, fibers are separated and sent to be spun, ensuring that no part of the plant goes to waste. In the end product, the purity of the cotton is maintained without adding plastic or synthetic materials, which favours the material to be recycled repeatedly.
Teemill recovers the processed water, cleans and recirculates it. At the dyeing units, after settling and skimming, the water is filtered using reverse osmosis and distillation, rendering the water discharged from the factory safe enough to drink. In a closed-loop system, it is then used for the next batch. Teemill is also big on clean energy, powering manufacturing operations and supply chains with renewable energy to ensure zero carbon emissions. For the UK plant, solar energy is used, while the factory in India operates on two wind farms and a 150kw PV array. A fact that the company proudly displays on their labels, which read “100 percent organic cotton. Made in India in an ethically accredited, wind-powered factory”.
Teemill is using real-time manufacturing technology and its circular model is accessible to anyone with an internet connection looking to market branded garments. Products are only made after they have been ordered, hence there is no overproduction and therefore no waste. According to Teemill, this technology is freely shared with countless startups, charities and even former competitors “to replicate the benefits and earn profits”.
In addition, Teemill designs every product so that it can be sent back when it is worn out or the customer no longer wants to wear it. New products are then made from the recovered material, thus closing the loop as these products can be returned and remade again and again. To send a garment back to Teemill, a QR code in the care label can be scanned, generating a free post label and even earning credit towards the next purchase.
“By rewarding people for keeping the material flowing, we’re changing the way people think about their wardrobe. Rather than waste, they see assets and then some really interesting stuff starts to happen. Because our customer is also our supplier, everybody is rewarded for keeping the material flowing,” says Drake-Night.
Last but not least, packaging: To avoid plastic waste, Teemill does not use plastic or synthetic materials for packaging their products. The company uses a rip- and splash-proof mailer bag made out of paper. Big orders are packed in cardboard boxes, with paper-based tape for sealing. Keeping the innovations coming, Teemill has also been working on new stickers and packaging that is made from recycled organic cotton offcuts from t-shirt manufacturing.