U.K.-based Teemill developed a circular production process that turns old T-shirts into new ones. And despite operating with renewables and sustainable materials, the company has experienced exponential growth.
From the company’s perspective, the fashion supply chain acts as a connected system, whereby circular design principles and technology must be employed across the product life cycle. “Our mission is to redesign the way T-shirts are made and modernize the system to make it sustainable,” Martin Drake-Knight, cofounder of Teemill, told WWD.
Tens of thousands of brands, businesses, events and charities connect to Teemill’s real-time fulfillment center to design and produce product — sustainably. Every product made is from natural materials, using only renewable energy at Teemill’s highly automated factory, which employs around 100 people who work alongside the technology. Artificial intelligence and robotics help drive daily operations at the factory while carving a competitive edge, and cloud-based communications allow information sharing across the supply chain, enabling ease for individuals or brands utilizing the on-demand services.
Products are printed on-demand in the seconds after they’re ordered, so there is no waste. And the T-shirts gain traction with their celebrity fanbase — who seek to align with cause-based commerce. Of note, both Alexa Chung and Kate Moss have worn and designed products for some of the charities supported by Teemill.
It’s not just the automation in manufacturing that’s making a statement for an industry poised for change. Teemill questions the entire validity of a product — and fashion system — that isn’t designed with a “comeback” in mind. Every product is made from natural materials, using renewable energy, and designed to come back when worn out. “We remake our Ts again and again and again,” added Drake-Knight.
As what industry experts champion as the “authority on circularity,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published a case study on Teemill, also drumming up insight from the company for its latest report on circular fashion, to which Stella McCartney also was cited.
“Circularity is only possible if you consider the re-manufacturing process when you are manufacturing,” said Drake-Knight, citing the processes as one in the same.
When products are worn out, Teemill’s customers send them back using the pre-paid postage code in the product. At the factory, Teemill’s software powers the pre-sorting, organization and reverse logistics processes to fold the material back into the supply chain — ready for another round in Teemill’s closed loop.
On what differentiates Teemill, Drake-Knight added, “A big part has been using natural materials. In nature, everything is circular. It’s no surprise natural materials are easy to work with in this way.”
Why doesn’t the fashion industry adopt circular practices? Some argue producing less clothing is the answer, but as it stands, departments remain in silos, leaving collaboration and innovative solutions harder to actualize.
To Drake-Knight, the solution lies in “designing a sustainable system, that produces product.” The answers aren’t found exclusively in the technology, but rather the “conscientious application of technology in a wider context.”
The way fashion factories are built is part of the problem, according to Drake-Knight, being catered to high volume and low prices. This “new type of factory” means Teemill can produce products in real-time without waste. Unsold stock simply isn’t a by-product of factories such as Teemill, which lean into on-demand production capabilities.
On par with the consumer’s growing preference for customization and product personalization, Teemill sanctions custom T-shirt capabilities alongside a wider business proposition for businesses, brands and start-ups to connect to its high-speed fulfillment offerings, instead of needing a warehouse or fulfillment center. “They just need an Internet connection and our systems fulfill their orders automatically,” Drake-Knight said.