7 Nov 2019

The clothing cycle: how our sustainable clothing range is made

Every year 100 billion new items of clothing are produced, while a truck full of clothing is burned or buried in a landfill every second. Teemill, who produce BirdLife’s official clothing range, are leading the charge against wasteful ‘fast fashion’ with their innovative circular fashion business model. Co-founder Mart Drake-Knight explains how.

Material from worn out t-shirts is recovered and turned into new products © Teemill
Material from worn out t-shirts is recovered and turned into new products © Teemill
By Shaun Hurrell

You’re one of two brothers who started a clothing company from a shed on the Isle of Wight, UK. How was the idea originally born?

When I was five, we walked past an overflowing dustbin and I started crying because I couldn’t work out where stuff from the dustbin goes. So I wrote a letter to the bin-man. When we grew up we were uncomfortable being part of the problem, and we wanted to make the sustainable products we wanted to see in the world. We started in our Mum’s shed in the garden when we were teenagers, with about £200 savings. If you’re small and don’t have resources, you have to come up with new ways of doing things. You cannot afford waste, and designing a business that is efficient is well-aligned with sustainability too. Our team is about 100 strong now, and we have a wind-powered factory the size of a football pitch.

It’s fantastic that all your products are plastic-free. But whilst cotton is natural, it’s a water-intensive crop that often is associated with a lot of pesticide use...

The water issue depends a lot on where you grow it. Ours is grown in the north of India in the wet season, so it’s just a really rainy place. In the dry season they grow onions. They’re able to do this because the farms are organic. Often farmers spray on insecticide and use fertilisers that are not sustainable, but organic farms are really simple. It’s just cow poo and clever farming. The best bit is how dense the air is with life. When you walk around organic cotton farms the ground is damp and warm, and there are insects everywhere making a racket. And as you’d expect, following the bugs are the birds. It’s actually scary coming home as the fields are noticeably silent here in comparison. Because the cotton grows slower, it’s higher quality and results in longer strands. This means a really nice soft product, so actually farmers get more revenue per acre even though the farms are less productive by weight.

For someone who has bought clothing produced by Teemill, can you explain how else you have aimed to limit its environmental impact?

From the farm to the factory, we look at the entire product life cycle and look for positive solutions. For example, wastewater from dye-house effluent is a major source of pollution in the clothing industry. Where the BirdLife fabrics are dyed, the water is recovered, cleaned and recirculated and used again. At the end, the water coming out of the filters is crystal clear; there’s a video of me drinking it. Further down the line, we have some cool tech that manages our supply chain, basically an AI, that speeds up decision making and prediction accuracy for stock so much that we don’t need to use planes to run our freight; we use boats instead.

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You recently launched a ground-breaking innovation in the clothing industry that looks like a promising solution to fast, wasteful fashion. What do you mean by ‘circular economy’?

If you think about it, the economy is like a production line. We take resources out of the ground, turn them into products that we then throw away. It’s a conveyor belt that extracts resource and makes waste.  We’re talking about bending that line and making it a circle. It’s not about turning waste material into compost. It’s about designing the product from the start to come back, and developing a system to re-manufacture worn out material into a new product. Every product we make is designed to come back when it’s worn out. The instructions are inside on the wash label. We give the user money off a new order. And we make new products from the material we recover. So instead of contributing to the waste problem, or designing a product with less waste and less impact, we design out waste altogether - when our new products are made from our old products, there is no waste. For the clothing industry to transform to a circularity, we need transformative change at scale.

How do you see yourselves scaling up?

It’s cheaper to buy fossil fuels than renewable energy, or plastic clothes than clothes made the right way – and just like the economy does not reward people for doing the right thing, it does not reward businesses for sharing good work with each other. There’s a conflict between competition and cooperation. Just like any other problem, it needs an innovative solution. So we built Teemill, which basically gives anyone access to our supply chain and systems, and lets people build a store to connect to our factory via the cloud. Anyone can build a store and start a brand at Teemill, but we really love working with charities and values-based organisations. It’s important to us that our tech is used to do good, and we’re really stoked that great charities are using the platform and bringing the cutting edge in sustainability to people who care about important issues in the world. It’s satisfying that they’re getting the product first.

What advice do you have on what individuals can do to reduce their environmental impact when it comes to clothing?

If there was one thing we’d recommend, it would be to think about products as part of a connected system. What is a product made of, where does the material end up when it’s worn out? Little questions like that can unlock answers. It’s this kind of thinking that’s led to the increasing awareness that insect conservation has on bird life, for example. When you start thinking about systems, and what’s upstream or downstream, the solutions open up.

Anything else you’d like to say to BirdLife supporters?

That we’re really proud to support the charity, and we hope that supporters have enjoyed the products. And to please remember to send worn-out products back so that we can keep the material flowing.


Find out more: teemill.com/circular

Check out: birdlife.teemill.com