Rapanui’s Teemill revolutionises fast fashion with circular T-shirts

You care about the issues facing our world, and you want people to know that. But have you considered the impact of those slogan T-shirts? Whether it’s asserting your support for an urgent political campaign or sharing a joke about the latest TV hit, it could be argued that no other clothing dates quite so fast. Meanwhile, global demand for clothing continues to grow, with consumption projected to triple by 2050. Garments are usually manufactured in large volumes to keep unit costs down, meaning hundreds of thousands of tonnes each year remain unsold. The world’s dwindling resources, including cotton often sourced in questionable circumstances, are used to manufacture millions of T-shirts, many of which will quickly end up in landfill.

Now there’s another way. An award-winning UK-based online software platform is using modern technologies like AI to make circular fashion stylish and open source, enabling anyone to build a sustainable fashion brand from scratch.

Teemill, launched in June 2014, emerged from Isle of Wight-based fashion brand Rapanui. Since brothers Martin and Rob Drake-Knight started that company in a shed in 2009, they’ve put sustainability its core. Now it’s revolutionising the T-shirt industry, ‘closing the loop’ by retrieving and recycling its products at the end of their life. Teemill’s 100% organic cotton garments (which also include sweatshirts and hoodies) are specifically designed to be posted back to the factory for recycling.

Teemill also makes it possible for anyone to run their own T-shirt business, small or large, entirely online and without substantial advance investment. Disruptive new technology has been used to automate the complex decision-making required to run a real time supply chain, minimising overstocking. Users of the free site upload their own T-shirt designs to Teemill’s server, and set up a Teemill-powered online store. They then have real-time access to a T-shirt factory via the cloud. Tees are not printed until seconds after they’re ordered, eliminating the need for overstock waste. A helpful blog encourages anyone with an idea to start their own brand.

Existing customers range from online influencers, individual creatives and groups through small start-ups to event organisers, charities and large organisations needing merch. Big names in fashion to use Teemill have included the queen of the cool slogan T-shirt, Katharine Hamnett. Bella Freud’s adorable Peace And Love T-shirt for War Child is perhaps the most iconic Teemill-produced line.  In recognition for the revolutionary impact of Teemill, Rapanui was awarded the 2019 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the Innovation category.

Kate Moss models a Teemill T-shirt designed by Bella Freud for Warchild

“Slowing down fast fashion won’t fix it,” suggests co-founder Martin Drake-Knight. “What is needed is the technology to make the reverse logistics of fashion possible and economical. That’s exactly what we’ve done. Through better design and conscientious application of technology, we’ve applied circular economy principles at every stage of the product life cycle and by powering our factory with renewable energy, we’re making waste a thing of the past.”

Teemill’s GOTS-certified organic cotton is grown in the North of India and cultivated naturally, using a combination of co-planting, cow poo and wee and insect traps to nurture the plants and eliminate pests. Avoiding toxic pesticides and fertilisers encourages biodiversity and is better for both the environment and the farmers. After harvesting the plants are de-seeded and the seeds made into cakes to be fed back to the cows. The fibres are separated and spun without adding plastic or any synthetic materials. Maintaining the purity of the cotton allows the material to be repeatedly recycled without deteriorating quality. It also creates a softer garment which won’t pollute local waterways when laundered.

Spinning, dyeing, weaving and cut-and-sew are all integrated in the Indian factory producing the basic garments, resulting in a simple, transparent supply chain and allowing control of quality standards while creating cost savings to be reinvested in the facility and its workers. SA8000-certified for social accountability, the company is one of the leading socially-responsible manufacturers in India. The plant is powered entirely by renewable energy from two wind farms and a 150kw PV array. Most water used in production is locally harvested rainwater, and all used water is cleaned and recirculated. Water from dyeing, typically the most polluting stage of fabric manufacture, is filtered using reverse osmosis and distilled to drinkable quality, ready to be used on the next batch.

At the UK factory, a converted supermarket on the Isle of Wight using only solar energy, internet-connected printers automatically print the T-shirts to order. The design is impressed on the fabric via a newly-developed process based on the inkjet printer, using the most eco-friendly dye and relying on local suppliers wherever possible. Picking T-shirts and dropping them onto conveyor belts, sorting boxes and mixing inks are among the tasks carried out by robots, many built in-house with parts from eBay or scrap sites. The 100-or-so machines involved communicate via Raspberry Pis, small computers more typically used to teach programming to children. The robots are designed for easy repair and spare parts can be 3D-printed on site. Avoiding plastic or synthetic packaging, rip-proof, splash-proof paper mailing bags are used to send out individual garments, while large orders are packed in cardboard boxes sealed with paper tape.

The products can be remade again and again. Owners using the dedicated Freepost address to return old garments to Teemill receive a coupon against a future purchase as an extra incentive. “Because our customer is also our supplier, everybody is rewarded for keeping the material flowing,” says Martin Drake-Knight. “We only make products people actually need, when they need them. And sharing this work with other brands via the cloud means that everyone can participate and co-create the future of fashion. The future of fashion is circular, and we are building it on the cloud today.”

Find out more about Teemill and how you can become part of the revolution at teemill.com.

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