Circular Fashion Teemill Interview
What if waste could be entirely eradicated from the fashion industry? What if Steve Coogan (AKA Alan Partridge) thinks organic cotton t-shirts fuelled by cow poo are suddenly the coolest thing since Abba managed to brilliantly massacre boho chic at the Eurovision Song Contest circa 1974? Reader, anything is possible! Hey Steve, are you listening? Fancy a trip to Queen Vicky’s island? Now read on and prepare to be amazed at where hanging out in a garden shed and daring to dream big can take you on the road to a circular fashion revolution.
Journalist, editor and sustainable fashion expert Alison Jane Reid interviews Rob Drake-Knight, co-founder together with his brother Martin of Teemill. The disruptive organic and circular economy t-shirt business started in a garden shed on the Isle of Wight with only £200, a millennial genius for marketing, a passion for ecology and surfing, and a firm belief that the secret to making the fashion industry cool, organic, zero waste and desirable in the age of collective environmental anxiety is to simply re-invent the process using the latest circular tech to eradicate waste entirely. And let’s not forget their secret weapon – old school organic farming and the wonders of coo poo! You could say it is an ideal marriage of old and new ideas working as nature intended.
Today, Teemill has made that potting shed dream a reality. Its factory in sleepy Freshwater, once the home of the Victorian rockstar poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, is powered by a solar farm on the roof, what else? Well, the Isle of Wight is renowned as the sunniest place in Britain. They make trendy, on-demand, organic, circular t-shirts for Warchild, Oxfam, River Cottage HQ, the NHS, and a growing hotbed of independent creative talent from fashion designers to bands to artists and now, this organic magazine to help power #moregoodjournalism and paid editorial internships.
This Queen Award-winning circular fashion wunderkind is growing so fast that it has already outgrown its current site (the foundations for a new factory hit the ground this week). Rob and Martin represent the new breed of super switched on circular economy ecopreneurs who want to empower each and every one of us with open source tech to create fashion fit for the age of climate crisis and circular economy innovation. Now the world is sitting up and paying attention.
Drake-Knight believes that we can’t put the genie of fast fashion back in the bottle. But, what we can do is re-design the fashion process. The goal? To ensure that no t-shirt winds up in the landfill but instead, continues to be forever recycled. So, could organic, circular cotton transform our disposable fashion culture? Will it make us feel good to wear organic, regenerative cotton that can be re-made again and again in a virtuous, never-ending fashion cycle? Let’s find out.
1. There is a lot of confusion, propaganda and vested interests surrounding the info the public has access to as debate rages over the ills of the fashion industry and what is and isn’t sustainable and that includes farming. You are a scientist, what are the facts and benefits of switching to organic cotton v recycled synthetic fibres? Are natural fibres like organic cotton, flax and hemp better in the long-term to halt and reverse climate change and reverse the damage done to our ecosystems? Why should readers make the switch to buying an organic, circular cotton t-shirt? How can it make a difference? Give me the facts and bust some myths!
We view the life cycle of our products as a connected system. Our products are designed from the start to be remanufactured over and over which is made possible when you use pure materials. If you think about it, everything in nature is designed to be compatible with nature and reused again and again. Organic cotton is just a plant, and the organic bit means growing it in a more natural way. From the moment it goes into the ground, organic cotton is better for the producers and the ecosystem. For our products, instead of more toxic pesticides and fertilisers, co planting and insect traps are used which encourages biodiversity and leads to the extra soft feel of our tees.
This can also mean organic cotton costs a little more, which is great if you’re an organic cotton farmer. And we’ve found that the marginal extra cost of using a higher quality natural fibre is easily offset by the cool stuff we can do with it later in the life cycle, like recovery and remanufacturing. And at the end of the day, when we created the first circular economy for fashion, we proved that it’s not just possible – it’s better for business – because instead of consuming more material and creating loads of waste, we take waste and make new products from it – so there is no waste.
2. Only 1% of the world’s cotton is grown and produced to certified organic standards, though demand and production grew by 10% last year and that is set to increase. Can you envisage a world where in the future, all cotton is produced sustainably and organically?
Yes, but the challenge has to be framed properly. Looking at it this way, it’s a 100:1 odds against. But a new type of business model, like the one we built and where the material is kept in circulation, lowers the bar. 30% of all clothing production is never worn, so producing products in real-time is a full 1/3rd improvement. Of the remainder, 60% of t-shirts worn today are thrown away within a year, and 70% of clothing in wardrobes are not worn.
When you consider that a circular t-shirt can be sent back and remade an order of magnitude more times than a “single-use” item of clothing, you run the maths you’re already halfway there by volume of needed organic material. The issue is about how the material is utilised, and that means changing the fundamental workings of the fashion economy. In order for that to happen, it’s unlikely that incumbent businesses will wake up tomorrow and change, so we need new businesses to innovate and replace them, and just one won’t do it.
It’s why we built Teemill, to give our tech away, and help the next generation of startups build their brands on a circular economy, of which there are now tens of thousands. Change is happening already, and very quickly.
3. Many of the ills in the fashion industry have been blamed on greed and the ‘not a penny more’ philosophy of fashion brands and manufacturers. Many fashion activists are focused on exposing and shaming fashion companies with poor supply chains and processes that harm people and the environment. But do you think holding them to account is missing the point?
Could do, but equally why not think bigger and totally replace them?
For us the best solution is to redesign the fashion industry and replace lots of the inefficient business models out there with new, better, sustainable ones. We do that by creating sustainability tech and open-sourcing it on the internet so other people can participate and co-create the future of fashion.
The best rebellion is not to be a commentator, but to be a participant and disrupt it. That’s the cool thing about the 21st century, everyone has the internet and a smartphone, so something like Teemill is accessible for anyone who seriously wants to do something about seeing more sustainable fashion in the world. You can create the products you want to see.
4. How and why did you become an organic fashion pioneer? What was the spark?
Like a lot of young people, we care a lot about the issues around sustainability, and that meant looking for products that are made the right way. And for us, if you can’t find the products you want to see in the world, that means going to make them. I guess it got a bit out of hand when that means building your own supply chain and factories and stuff, but it’s been great fun and we feel like we’re only just getting started.
5. Does organic cotton feel different compared to conventional cotton produced with pesticides and harsh dyes? Or is that not the point?
Certified organic cotton feels different because it is. It’s light and super soft, really breathable. We’re used to it because it’s all we wear, but many first time customers are really surprised by how our products feel. You can’t go back to wearing clothes made from plastic, that’s for sure.
6. Now, can you explain the magical powers and importance of sustainable cow poo in organic cotton farming and organic t-shirts?!
When cotton is processed (or ginned) from harvest into useful fibres for spinning, the waste seeds are separated and pressed into cakes. This is used for organic cow feed. The cows have to poo at some point, and because lots of organic farms are smallholdings, the poo is scooped up and used as fertiliser. Where we grow our organic cotton it’s really rainy, but in the dry season the folks there grow onions and stuff, the rotation is just old school traditional farming – but it works.
One of the things that you notice is how many insects and birds there are on the farms. It’s weird writing this, but it’s like being a child again, back when the air was thick with bugs. That part is equally scary (coming back to the UK, the silence outdoors is deafening) and positive (for the people who live in that healthier environment).
7. It can’t have been easy to persuade the banks to lend you lots of money to set up a wind-powered factory to produce organic t-shirts on the Isle of Wight? How long did it take? Did the bank manager think you were a hippy environmentalist? What did kind of opposition/challenges did you face?
It was impossible, so we didn’t bother, and we started out anyway with £200 in the garden shed. It sounds stupid but it’s one of the best things we ever did – as having very little resources forces you to be lean, and think of new innovative ways of doing things. Waste is not an option when you cannot afford it, and that set us up well for our (albeit slow at the start) growth.
We now have a site in the UK that’s about the size of a football pitch and packed with really high tech stuff that powers the real-time printing for tens of thousands of brands, and around 100 people on site on a busy day. The business is doubling year on year and self funds its own growth.
8. Who has inspired you to make a difference? Do you have a mentor/role model?
Mentors and inspiration are everywhere if you look for it. From teachers that encouraged us to love science, to people out there like Gwynne Shotwell who runs SpaceX or reading autobiographies. The most important thing is to genuinely want to actually solve the problem. That’s always been there, and the rest takes care of itself.
9. I think a lot of people still don’t get what organic certification means. Can you explain it in a cool way in one sentence
Its just part of the supply chain, but it covers a wide range of social and environmental criteria like checking the way the plants are grown, the soil, the conditions on the farm, in the factory, the way that things are processed and checking things like working conditions along the way. If people want to learn more about how our products are made, it’s super easy to see pictures and video.
10. How far do you want to take Teemill? Where do you want to be in 10 years time?
We are just starting to build a new, bigger factory on the Isle of Wight to serve the rest of the UK market. The main challenge is dealing with the speed of growth at the moment, and because our technology is improving all the time more people are finding it solves problems they have too – from brands, businesses, charities, events, startups – or just regular people who want clothes made the right way.
What’s weird is thinking about what happens after that, as a fairly big chunk of what we do is overseas. We’re pretty good as Islanders with going over water, but it’s a little bit strange thinking about needing to expand into foreign countries. We’re a pretty young team so we just take each day as it comes and try to make a great product that’s truly sustainable. It’s encouraging that people respond to that.
Now you can get your very own Teemill organic t-shirt too! Live like an Ethical Hedonist and flaunt your organic t-shirt today! Hot off the press, we have just launched our first collection of magazine slogan, organic, circular economy t-shirts in collaboration with @teemillstore to help fund #moregoodjournalism. I hope you love the result as much as I do. Which Ethical Hedonist T-shirt will you flaunt?
11. Which T-shirt commission are you most proud of and why?
We built Teemill so that anyone could start their own store and get involved in sustainable fashion. There have been collabs with some really big brands like doing the Attenborough stuff for BBC Earth, Kate Moss for Warchild, and some great charities that are close to our Hearts like Marine Conservation Society. Really what we love most though is seeing young people use the tech to start their own brands.
Teemill lets them do what took us 10 years in 10 minutes, but that’s the whole point we think – it shouldn’t be harder to do the right thing. So we are most proud of the tens of thousands of individuals out there having a go and building a store with Teemill. We don’t spend much time being proud or whatever ourselves, but imagining people out there at home feeling proud of what they’ve built using our tech really keeps us going.
12. How does Teemill work? Can anyone set up their own organic t-shirt empire?
Teemill is like Airbnb or Uber but for the fashion industry, but instead of needing a property or a vehicle, anyone can start their own sustainable fashion business on their phone. It’s made possible through our tech. Stores are automatically connected to our factory where we print and ship orders in real-time.
There are two things that are awesome about that, first the fact that anyone with an internet connection can participate and get involved in the fashion economy. Instead of waiting for big brands to change the industry people can start their own on their phone.
And second the sustainability. Natural materials, renewable energy and products made in the seconds after they are ordered means there’s no waste. Plus, everything we make is designed to come back to us when it’s worn out, and we make new products from the material we recover. It’s the first circular economy for fashion, it’s open access, and it’s free.
13. What’s the coolest piece of advice you have been given?
Somebody once said to us that we’d overestimate what we’d achieve in one year, but underestimate what we would achieve in five. It was good advice because it was true!
14. What would you do if you ruled the world for a day?
15. What’s the best thing about living on an island off the coast of the UK? Why should people come and visit?
It’s like living and working in a nature reserve. Our factory is 10 minutes from one of the Island’s best beaches!
16. Which celebrated person would you love to wear a Teemill T-shirt or design one?
We had Ricky Gervais in one and we’re massive Brent fans, so pretty much achieved that life goal. Steve Coogan as a pipe dream, maybe, but it’s never gonna happen. Unless he reads this? Steve get in touch…
17. What do you say to fashion activists who tell people not to buy any new clothes?
100 billion items of clothing are made every year. 3 out of 5 of those t-shirts will end up in landfill within 12 months. So they’re right, there’s a problem here – a big one – and driving towards a cliff like the fashion industry is, it is common sense that we need to slow down. Our point is that slowing down and doing less buys time, but at some point, we need to change direction too.
After all, even if everyone halved the amount of waste they produce each year, that would mean the same amount of waste but in 2 years instead of 1. It’s not realistic to stop the world, but we can change the course of the economy and in simple terms the problem is not the buying of the product, its the consequence – we’ve shown that it’s possible to recover worn-out products, make them back into new products, and do that time and again – designing out waste.
That’s a viable solution. If there are solutions, we think they’re worth exploring and supporting. Most of the calls to boycott fashion come from people who are not aware that an alternative exists.
18. How organic are you in your everyday life? Do you subscribe to an organic box scheme?
Another good thing about the Isle of Wight is there’s loads of local organic farm produce to choose from.
19. Do you think the circular economy is the answer to the climate crisis?
It’s sort of a different thing, but it’s linked. A circular economy powered by fossil fuels reduces emissions but does not eliminate them. A wasteful economy powered by renewables is not truly sustainable. A circular economy powered by renewables, however, is the only viable, sustainable long term economic model that we know of. It stands to reason that it is inevitable, we would rather transition sooner than later.
20. What keeps you awake at night?
The sea, a good south-westerly, and the incredible variety of designs and brands folks are creating on Teemill, whilst at the same time contributing to the solution of fashion, making it circular, organic and free of waste. It’s amazing what can come out of navel-gazing in a garden shed.“
It took less than half a century for post WW2 Russian agricultural policy to drain the Aral Sea in Central Asia – one of Asia’s great inland seas once teeming with life and vibrant waterside communities reduced to a vast, barren dust bole, blighted by lethal pesticide use and littered with ghostly shipwrecks to feed an insatiable demand for cheap cotton apparel. But there is hope. The rehabilitation of part of the North Aral Sea has been a success and water is once again flowing and bringing life, joy, fish and hope back to communities on the brink of obliteration.
Cotton is the most popular fibre on the planet. It is also one of the dirtiest and most unsustainable to produce. Over 15% per cent of the world’s pesticides used annually go into the production of non-organic conventional cotton and 25% of all insecticides used. Until a decade ago, the image of conventional cotton was very carefully orchestrated in glossy advertising campaigns to present cotton as a desirable, squeaky clean, ‘pure’, luxurious and ‘natural’ fibre even though the truth about cotton hides a tragic and far darker picture.
Are you ready to pay more for philanthropic good cotton? Organic GOTS certified cotton farming and production takes a very different, holistic, long-term approach. One where cotton is grown in partnership with people, land and ethical and fairtrade companies. It’s all about nurturing healthy ecosystems, where everyone must benefit to thrive.
Interview by Editor-in-Chief, Alison Jane Reid.
Layout, design, and illustrations by Gwynnie Duesbery. Gwynnie recently completed her joint BA(Hons) in Media + Communications and Sociology at Kingston University London after interning with Ethical Hedonist for the past year. Support Gwynnie as our very first paid editorial assistant by pledging to our @patreon campaign, buying our organic magazine t-shirts, donating to our Paypal or hiring us to put some stellar stardust into your ethical storytelling.
Want to read more of our deliciously organic September journalism? Check out this month’s Editor’s Diary! Alison Jane, editor-in-chief and Organic Girl Reporter, shares the very best organic, biodynamic and circular economy heritage brands, icons, national treasures, and slow travels so you can truly live like an Ethical Hedonist!