An open access circular supply chain for fashion

Teemill An open access circular supply chain for fashion


The Need - Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. As a result, one truckful of clothes is disposed of in landfill every second, representing an annual material loss of USD 100 billion, as well as significant negative environmental impacts associated with virgin material production.

The Solution - Teemill have developed a circular production process that turns old t-shirts into new ones and regenerates natural systems. Their approach starts by viewing the fashion supply chain as a connected system, then applies circular design principles and new technology across the product life cycle.

What makes it particularly smart - By opening up access to its circular supply chain platform, Teemill has allowed tens of thousands of brands to produce t-shirts in real time after they’re ordered, all designed to be sent back and remade when they’re worn out.

Benefits: The Teemill supply chain increases material utilisation, reduces chemical and water inputs and emissions, and shares the benefits with customers and other businesses. It removes barriers to entry in the fashion industry and means anyone with an internet connection can participate and co-create the future of fashion. New brands get the same systems as a mature brand for free, without surplus production.

Slow fashion is not enough

According to research by BBC Earth, three out of every five t-shirts that are bought today will end up in the bin within a year. That’s because the fashion industry is largely a system in which valuable resources are extracted and turned into products that are used for a short time, before being thrown away.

Fast fashion has sped this process up. The counter narrative espoused by the slow fashion movement suggests that if everyone buys less things they will be better. However, even if everyone halved the amount of clothes they throw away, that still means huge volumes of waste and negative impacts. On top of that, global demand is still growing: current projections estimate that clothes buying will triple by 2050.

Teemill is a tech-based fashion business that takes a more holistic view of the fashion industry, designing out waste at each step of the material supply chain, applying disruptive technology to minimise overstocking, and maximise material recycling.

This t-shirt is made from old t-shirts
This t-shirt is made from old t-shirts

Minimising impacts from field to factory

Cotton production is a significant part of global agriculture, providing income for more than 250 million people worldwide. However, the majority of methods for cultivating cotton create devastating environmental impacts that degrade soil, create water scarcity, and negatively impact human health. For this reason, sourcing that addresses potential negative environmental and health impacts from material production, is a crucial first step towards a circular fashion system.

The Teemill circular story begins in farms in Northern India, where cotton is grown using organic fertilisers, irrigated through rainwater harvesting, and protected using insect traps rather than chemicals. Co-planting with other crops also helps fix nutrients and assists with pest control. Harvested cotton is then transported to mills to separate raw materials, and spin the cotton fibres into useful material. The process generates by-products, including seeds that are turned into seed cakes, that are used to make vegetable oil and feed for cattle. This creates extra value, and returns nutrients to the natural system.

The transformation of textiles into garments often causes pollution, so much so that NGO China Water Risk estimates that 17 - 20% of industrial water pollution in China is caused through this process. To address this, Teemill’s factories recover, clean, and recirculate processed water, so that any discharged from the factory is good enough to drink. Furthermore, the plant where garments are cut and sewn is powered by renewable energy, displacing fossil use and eliminating any carbon emissions.

Image from Teemill
Image from Teemill

Real-time manufacturing eliminates overproduction

The impact of overproduction in the fashion industry was vividly illustrated in 2018 with a number of high street brands revealing the economic cost of unsold clothes. In global terms surplus stock is estimated as much as 30% of overall production.

At the Teemill factory in the UK, new technology allows printing of the precise t-shirt product that each customer requires, avoiding the need to carry pre-printed stock. This means that a customer places an online order, specifying a colour, size, and design. The t-shirt is then printed a few seconds after the order is placed and sent out to the customer. In this way, the final product is only produced when it is needed.

The company began as a fashion brand called Rapanui, but after working many years to design a circular supply chain, they re-launched Teemill as a platform in 2018. The new company, a software platform for all fashion brands, allows the positive impact of the circular supply chain to be scaled up. Teemill makes the proprietary real-time manufacturing technology and circular model accessible to anyone with an internet connection that wants to sell branded garments. Tens of thousands of startups, charities, and even former competitors now use this technology for their fulfilment, allowing them to replicate the benefits and make a profit.

Image from Teemill
Image from Teemill

Clothes that are designed to be turned into new ones

Every product produced by Teemill is designed to be sent back when it’s worn out or the customer no longer wants to wear it. Although the printer ink used is slightly more expensive than normal ink, the composition allows it to be removed more easily. Scanning a QR code in the wash-care label generates a free post label, which can be used to send the garment back to Teemill, earning credit towards the next purchase. Importantly, this keeps the t-shirt, and the value of the materials, within the system.

“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”

- Mart Drake-Night, co-Founder

In recycled cotton fabric, the length of the fibres is shorter, which makes it harder to turn this material into a saleable product. Some companies add plastics to stabilise the yarn, which makes the new product even harder to process the second time around. Instead, Teemill designed their recycled t-shirts and reconfigured knitting machines to accommodate the characteristics of the recycled cotton. The result is a slightly heavier weight t-shirt.

There are two benefits to this. The extra weight gives a more durable product, therefore the garment is much more likely to be passed onto a friend, and because the material stream is pure, the cycle itself is renewable. The company say they have not yet found a limit in terms of how many times a Teemill product can be remade. This is in part because second or third generation products that go back round the cycle are mixed with first generation waste, which influences longevity. What’s more, demand for ‘re-milled’ t-shirts has exceeded the amount of waste the company produce, which has resulted in different recovered materials being introduced to the resource flow.

Teemill circular supply chain
Teemill circular supply chain

Big problems need big solutions

Whilst it used to be that only governments and multinationals had the power to change the system, with the conscientious application of modern technology, Teemill have shown that it is possible to operate differently.

Teemill views its entire supply chain as a connected system and looks for solutions across the life cycle to develop technology that could amplify positive impact.

Tens of thousands of startups, designers, and even former competitors are now connected to their circular supply chain via the cloud. By harnessing Teemill technology, fashion startups and incumbents can remove almost all the barriers to incorporate circularity into their business through pooling resources and access to technology. Where most fashion houses use their own economies of scale to compete with each other, Teemill’s model results in economies of shared-scale.

As Kurt Lewin the pioneer of organisational psychology observed, the best way to create positive change is not to incentivise, but to create systems where people can behave better effortlessly. By launching their technology platform - Teemill has ensured that all fashion brands can be better, more easily.

Further info:

Company info

  • Founded in 2009
  • Manufacture custom circular t-shirts for business & consumer
  • 50 full time staff
  • Circular fashion at scale
  • 30,000 sq. ft site powered by renewables
  • Real time manufacturing on the Isle of Wight

Case study uploaded: April 2019

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