On-demand production of t-shirts

United Kingdom | Europe | Sustainable Design Practice | Textiles

Location:  UK (Isle of Wight): HQ and printing | EU: Remanufacturing and production | India: Raw material and production | Europe and Asia and The Pacific
Number of employees: Around 150
Start of operations: 2009 (Teemill platform launched 2018)

Key characteristics of the sustainable design practice

Teemill has taken a circular approach to clothing production, designing t-shirts that are 100% recyclable, allowing for a new production from materials from recovered products. This has been made possible through circular design, and the use of software and hardware engineering to facilitate utilisation of recycled cotton fibres, which are shorter than virgin fibres. Garments are made out of only one material to ensure their recyclability, while the dye and ink used in the production are easily removable. The design also includes a scannable code on the tag inside each garment, to facilitate returns. Currently, around 1-2 million t-shirts are in circulation at any time and material is starting to return for 2nd generation t-shirts.  

A further key aspect of the design practice is that the garments can be produced in real time according to demand. In this way, overproduction has been designed out of the process. As products are made in real time there are also no costs of unsold stock. This technology is shared through the Teemill platform, allowing anyone with a phone and an internet connection to build an online shop, upload their designs and build their own online circular fashion business. When they receive an order, products are made in a Teemill factory in real time and shipped to the customer. They receive a share of the proceeds and Teemill takes back the products when they are worn out in order to remake them into new products.

Materializing the new design practice – a holistic, circular, and inclusive approach

The founders of Teemill, two brothers, developed the design practice in their garden shed while they were still teenagers. They taught themselves to code and first focused on building the digital infrastructure. They considered their initial lack of experience and naivety about the industry as useful enablers when starting up, making them unafraid of trying something different.    

During the process of scaling up the solution, they noted that for a systemic solution such as theirs to work, all departments must be aware of and engage in the basic principles of circular business. 

There is no university on the Isle of Wight where Teemill is based, which affects employment and education opportunities. Through a vocational training programme, Teemill has created higher-skilled employment opportunities for the local economy. Teaching skills like coding, manufacturing engineering, design or management skills enable undergraduate workers or graduates returning home without much experience to begin a career at the company. Teemill’s workplaces are modernised and simplified leading to reduced barriers to entry for work. Teemill’s supply chain conforms to GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and SA8000 social audit criteria. The proceeds gained from technological efficiencies are used to fund living wages or top up payments in overseas supply chains.

As technological solutions have been key to the development and implementation of the design practice, the company built an internal school and focuses on enabling technologies internally. Digitising the training can enable scalability and faster growth. As an example, the robotics systems were designed in-house, which reduces training time and speeds up development.

The company also utilises the community of participators through the Teemill platform to develop the product further. Businesses accessing Teemill technology over the cloud test, provide feedback and help improve the product. In addition, the return scheme enables Teemill designers to personally see failure points and track longevity. This in turn helps them design out waste further through a process of constant improvement.

The introduction of this new law marked an important step in France’s transition to SCP and the circular economy as this was the first time that a sustainable development strategy was supported by a law with quantitative targets.

The Law for Energy Transition and Green Growth was introduced in the lead up to the Paris Agreement of December 2015. Timed at this strategic moment, the new law sent a strong signal of France’s commitment to take a leading role in mitigating climate change and transitioning to the circular economy. At the same time the European Union was preparing the publication of the first EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy, involving a strong support and engagement from France.

Key issues the new design practice aims to solve

  • Overproduction in the textile industry, with an estimated 30% of clothing produced globally never being sold.
  • Large amount of waste in the textile industry, with an estimated 3 out of 5 purchased t-shirts thrown away within 12 months and around one truck of textile waste going to landfill or incineration per second. In addition, around 60% of clothing is made from plastic based fibres.

Key success and learning factors

  • Efficiency, productivity and profitability are aligned with sustainability goals in a circular model.
  • Purpose led rather than profit led innovation has been the most important factor for Teemill’s economic success.
  • Modern technological solutions and automation have enabled savings that have contributed to covering additional cost of the design and production process.
  • Real time production based on a largely technological and digital infrastructure that the founders could code themselves, designing out overproduction from the process.
  • Designing products to be returned and remade using a tracking system, saving on new material costs.
  • Sharing access to the supply chain and technology is aligned with the company mission and has enabled faster growth than if they only sold the t-shirts themselves.
  • Having a view of the supply chain as a connected system can allow the benefits of that cost to be applied elsewhere.

Applicability of the sustainable design practice to other industries/settings

Through the software platform Teemill, the technology is shared with anyone with an internet connection who wishes to use it. Teemill is free and allows a user to build a website, design new t-shirts and participate in the market as a seller. Given that there is no need for capital investment and no large associated barriers to enter the market, the product innovation can be scaled up in the market.

In parallel, Teemill has developed the manufacturing software required to produce t-shirts in real time and shared this with other traditional manufacturers, thereby enabling other companies to print and produce garments using this innovative practice. Other clothing manufacturers that may wish to modernize their production and switch to a circular model can also benefit from the technology.

Resource efficiency and environmental impact

Key issues the new design practice aims to solve

Material use efficiency

100% of the product range is designed to be sent back and remade. Waste leakage, e.g. water and lint, is recovered in fractal opportunities: The company makes notebooks and stickers from organic cotton lint and rainwater, printed with soy sauce that is fertilised from the sludge from the organic waste.

Teemill recovers and remakes approximately a tonne of textile a month, which reduces the needs for virgin material inputs.  

Waste reduction

The company only makes products if there is demand for them and therefore there is no unsold stock. This leads to significant waste reduction benefits.

Water use efficiency

At the dye plant water is recirculated, filtered and distilled for reuse. It is clean enough to drink.

Energy use efficiency

Teemill is powered by renewable energy. MQTT / IOT telemetry systems have been installed inside Teemill factories. These systems enable machines to communicate with each other and turn on and off according to demand, thereby helping to optimise energy use.

Greenhouse gas emissions reduction

At a garment level, a reduction in GHG emissions of 85% compared to a baseline fast fashion product has been achieved.

Reduction of pollutants

Teemill’s products and supply chain are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified Organic.