Teemill’s experience shows that adopting sustainable and circular approaches can work in practice and be profitable, disruptive, scalable, as well as deliver economic and employment opportunities
Through its platform, Teemill sells t-shirts on demand and recovers old t-shirts to produce new ones. The idea behind rethinking the design and production of t-shirts was to contribute to solving the current challenges of the fashion industry, notably short product cycles and overproduction contributing to generation of large amounts of textile waste:
It is estimated that 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.
Overproduction, with an estimated 30% of clothing produced globally never being sold.
The Teemill founders approached the problems facing the fashion industry from an engineering perspective and searched for technological solutions which allowed them to produce only on demand and thereby design out overproduction from the process.
The Teemill platform is free and allows users 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 the Teemill factory in real time and shipped to the customer. The users receive a share of the proceeds and Teemill takes back the products when they are worn out to remake them into new products.
The company takes a circular approach to clothing production as it designs t-shirts that are 100% recyclable and recovers the material of old t-shirts to reuse in new production
Location Isle of Wight, UK
Number of employees Around 150
Start of operations 2018
Type of organization Business
Upfront investment 257 USD
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 QR code on the tag inside each garment, to facilitate returns through an incentivised material recovery scheme.
Production / Distribution
The garments are produced in real time according to demand and shipped to the customer. 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.
Consumption / End of use
Customers are incentivised to return the t-shirts when they are worn out in order for them to be recycled into new t-shirts
Currently, around 1-2 million t-shirts are in circulation at any time and material is starting to return for 2nd generation t-shirts.
The products can be returned when they are worn out in order to remake them into new products, resulting in savings on new material costs.
Materializing the circular design and production solution
The new circular design and production solution for t-shirts was initiated by two brothers who started its development while still teenagers. They used online information to learn how to code and focused initially on building the digital infrastructure. The brothers consider their initial lack of experience and naivety about the t-shirt industry as beneficial when starting the business as they were unafraid of trying something completely new.
The company also uses a community of participators through its platform to develop the production and print-on demand technology further. Businesses accessing the technology over the cloud test it and provide feedback for improvement. In addition, the return scheme enables the designers to personally see failure points and track longevity. This in turn helps them design out waste further through a process of constant improvements.
Efficiency, productivity and profitability are aligned with sustainability goals in a circular model.
Conscientious application of modern technology, meaning purpose led rather than profit led innovation, has been the most important factor for Teemill’s economic success.
For a systematic circular solution to be successful, all company departments must understand and adopt the principles of circularity.
Difficult access to finance forced innovation and solutions, leading to the choice of real time production based on technological and digital infrastructure they could code themselves.
Any attempt to do something sustainable results in more costs if approached within a silo. Having a view of the supply chain as a connected system can allow the benefits of that cost to be applied elsewhere.
New systematic solutions using the principles of circularity in one area created savings in others, especially when factoring in post-purchase recovery and remanufacturing potentials.
Even the most mature linear supply chains (such as for t-shirts) can be disrupted and redesigned in line with the principles of circularity.
As technological solutions were key to developing and implementing a circular design and production solution, the company built an internal school and focuses on enabling technologies internally. Digitising the training enables scalability and faster growth. For example, the robotics systems were developed in-house, using Raspberry Pi for the programming, which reduces training time.
Challenges and solutions
Choosing more sustainable solutions often entailed higher costs compared to linear or less sustainable alternatives (e.g. using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and organic rather than plastic materials). Retrieving materials (old garments) and finding savings in other areas of the production process through technological solutions were instrumental in overcoming higher costs.
Lack of knowledge and awareness about sustainable solutions and design practices in the textile industry was also a challenge, which had to be overcome by inventing the practice virtually from scratch.
Unavailability of sufficient mono-material textile waste in the market, due to a high presence of mixed and synthetic fibres: recovering their own products ensured access to recycled pure material that was designed from the start to be compatible with the company’s remanufacturing processes.
In some cases, government policies pose a challenge to implementing innovation. Promoting equal opportunities and an enabling environment could help support such practices, e.g. giving a voice to SMEs and entrepreneurs who have developed functioning and scalable solutions, to help share knowledge and inform policy debates. A level playing field in terms of taxation and subsidies, or a system which rewards sustainability could also potentially support similar businesses to succeed.
Through the software platform Teemill, the technology is shared for free with anyone with an internet connection who wishes to use it. The platform allows a user to build an online shop, upload their designs and build their own online circular fashion business. Teemill takes back the products when they are worn out to reuse for new products.
As there are is no upfront investment needed or large market barriers, the product innovation can be scaled up in the market.
The manufacturing software required to produce t-shirts in real time has been shared 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.
Sharing access to the company’s platform and technology has enabled faster growth and greater impact on sustainable consumption and production, in line with the company’s mission.
Charities can use Teemill’s technology for free and the platform has for example been used by Greenpeace and War Child to build fundraising campaigns.
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 fertilized 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.
Water use efficiency: At the dye plant water is recirculated, filtered and distilled for reuse. It is clean enough to drink.
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.
Energy 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.
Decent work and job creation: The full supply chain supporting the operations conforms to GOTS 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. Workplaces on the Isle of Wight are modernised and simplified leading to reduced barriers to entry for work. Most employees receive on the job vocational training, while 3/5 of senior management are former apprentices. There is a wide variety of old and young, with an average age of 26 and the oldest employee being around 70. As there is no university on the Isle of Wight, Teemill has created higher skilled employment for the local economy through teaching skills like coding, engineering, and design and enabling undergraduate workers or graduates returning home to begin a career at the company.