Products That Never Enter Landfill? Been There, Done That, Got the T-shirt

Guest Post by: Sofia Voudouroglou, Team Member at TeeMill

On a small island in the UK, one company has built a solution big enough to tackle the problem of waste in the fashion industry. And the good news – anyone can be a part of it.

Every day, worldwide, 100 billion items of clothing are produced. 99% of those will end up in a landfill. It’s a system that doesn’t make much sense, because in spite of what we call them – trash, waste, rubbish – materials are worth something. Whilst the problem is huge, the solution is simple: take the linear economy we currently have, where we make, use and then waste products, and turn it into a circular one. That way we can take material from the end and use it at the start to make new products, so nothing is wasted.

Using waste we can make new products like this t-shirt, made from old t-shirts.

Re-thinking the economy: linear to circular

Our current economy, supply chains and consumption systems are all geared towards a linear model. Material is turned into a product, which is used and then thrown away. 

An illustration of the traditional linear supply chain, where products are made, used, then sent to landfill. (Source: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

Over the years we’ve seen several attempts to solve the waste issue. Suggestions range from impractical (stopping production) to bizarre (launching our rubbish into space). Ultimately, they only serve to delay the inevitable. And the most obvious solution is often overlooked: not to let it become waste in the first place.

“A linear model actively destroys value with each transaction and, from what I know about business, that’s not a smart way to play the game. It trashes our environment too, by the way, but; stupid games win stupid prizes.” – Mart Drake-Knight, Teemill co-founder

Walking around a landfill, you can quickly begin to identify materials: steel, aluminium, and paper. The key is in reimagining those as resources that can be used to create new products. If we build things from the start so they can be taken apart and recycled, we can keep reusing materials forever. This saves money for the companies who are currently constantly paying suppliers for more virgin material, and it reframes the economy as something we are all part of. Customers go from consumers to suppliers – and they can see compensation for sending items back for recycling, too.

 In a linear economy, items are used once and then thrown away. In a recycling economy, they are turned into something else and reused, but eventually still end up in landfill. A circular economy keeps materials in circulation and out of landfill altogether.

Using technology to make circularity reality 

At Teemill, we have taken that concept of circularity and applied across the entire supply chain. Every product is designed from the start to be sent back at the end of its life to be remade into a new product. T-shirts from t-shirts from t-shirts. 

Every stage of the Teemill manufacturing process is circular. Water that’s used to dye the fabric is then recycled in a closed-loop facility which makes it clean enough to drink at the end of the process. The cotton seeds that are separated from the usable part of the fibre are turned into cow feed. At every stage, there are circles within circles, so that nothing is wasted.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation’s illustration of the Teemill supply chain, where material is recycled and reused so nothing is wasted.

The idea of circularity is relatively simple, yet in practice it means re-imagining the way we make absolutely everything. That’s no mean feat. It might have taken centuries for us to solve the waste problem, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve created highly intelligent machines that can be programmed to accomplish in seconds what would take a single person years.

“This is our recipe for progress: Design out waste from the model itself, using tech if that’s what it takes, then reinvest the savings to make progress on sustainability.” – Mart Drake-Knight

How Teemill factories work

New technologies mean we can create a product in the seconds after it’s been ordered. Following traditional speculative manufacturing, 30% of clothes produced worldwide are never sold. With print on demand technology, there is no overproduction and no waste.

As soon as an order is placed, artificial intelligence routes it to the Teemill factory closest to the customer. There, software prioritises orders and organises the printing process. The order is then packed and shipped out, sometimes only a few minutes later.

From start to finish, printing on demand only takes about 90 seconds.

This is the power of technology. Used in the right way, software and AI is the way to make sustainability viable. Our renewable energy powered factories keep emissions down to zero and make Teemill clothing completely carbon neutral. Harnessing AI to automate energy output and machinery in those factories then limits the energy required to run them in the first place. It’s all about supporting manufacturing teams in doing their job better, faster, and more easily. Those teams are trained to run and maintain the systems around the factory, so they can adapt them however they need.

A glimpse into a circular future

So here we are, in a factory on the Isle of Wight, surrounded by unique technology that enables a truly circular economy. At one end, GOTS certified organic cotton t-shirts are pre-treated, printed and packed for shipping, in the seconds after they’ve been ordered. At the other end, worn out products are returned to be recycled into new, high quality clothing. Each t-shirt we produce comes with a barcode, and when it’s worn out customers can scan the barcode and return it to us. We get material back, ready to make into a new t-shirt, and the customer gets a discount off their next purchase. 

We designed the solution to waste and now we’re sharing it with the world for free. Because while people might say competition is a good thing, in reality we’ve all got further, faster with co-operation. 

Co-operating with individuals, charities and businesses has opened new avenues to spread the word about sustainability and build a better future together. British charity Choose Love 

was able to use Teemill technology to launch a viral t-shirt campaign on social media. They reached out to celebrities like Jameela Jamil, Harry Styles and Chris Martin and shared pictures of them wearing a Choose Love t-shirt on social media. The #chooselove hashtag went viral, with over a million posts supporting the charity and sporting the t-shirt. In the end, Choose Love raised over 100 times more than the average charity campaign.

Eddie Redmayne, Hassan Akkad and Clemency Burton-Hill in their Choose Love tees

 The great thing about creating open-access tech is that it gives people the opportunity to get really creative. This year, we saw the launch of a new exciting streetwear brand using exclusively Teemill tech and the power of TikTok. Deguisement Clothing was built by two young entrepreneurs who wanted to build their own brand from scratch. After their styling series on TikTok reached 350K views, the brand saw a 34X increase in traffic to their site. Now their streetwear brand is growing through free social media marketing and the power of a well-designed t-shirt. 

This is the power of technology. We’ve built a real solution to the waste problem, that anyone can be a part of, and it’s as easy as creating something you and others will love. On the Teemill platform, we’re sharing what took us 10 years to build with anyone with an internet connection. Because waste is a huge problem, and the solution needs to be just as big. To make a real difference, we need everyone involved. Together, we can end waste, for good.

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