British clothing manufacturer Teemill has launched a new line of “circular” T-shirts it says can be returned after use for recycling into new products.
Made from 100 percent organic cotton, every product is designed with the circular economy in mind, meaning that the dregs of one cycle become grist for another.
“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,” the company wrote on its website. “Slowing fast fashion down a bit won’t fix it. But when we take the waste material at the end, and make new products from it at the start, it changes everything. That’s what we’ve done.”
The shirts—which cost 20 pounds ($25) apiece and include designs that benefit charities such as World Wildlife Fund and Care International—are ethically made in U.K. and Indian facilities powered by solar and wind energy. Products are made in real time using a mix of industry-scale automation and artificial intelligence, which helps avoid surplus inventory. All water used is processed, clean and recirculated in a closed-loop system. It freely shares its technology, even with competitors, “to replicate the benefits and earn profits.”
To incentivize customer returns, Teemill trades every worn-out tee with a 5-pound ($6) discount that can be applied to a future purchase.
All Teemill products are completely and intentionally free of plastic. “A pure material makes remanufacturing possible, and means products that are softer, and not harmful to the environment,” the company said. Even its packaging is derived from natural materials, it noted.
The ubiquity of plastics in apparel is one reason why Teemill isn’t recycling shirts from other brands—at least not yet.
“Many other brands use plastic or semi synthetic materials—even recycled plastic—that shed microplastics into our oceans,” it said. “Removing that is like taking an egg out of an omelet, whereas our products are made from natural materials in a way that is designed for easy re-manufacturing. We also need to find a way to make it worthwhile for us to do recycling for other brands who don’t currently pay for the waste they produce. We are going to do this soon, so watch this space.”
Teemill has a cross-Atlantic cousin in For Days, a Hawthorne, Calif.-based startup that also takes back old T-shirts for transforming into new. For Days works on a membership model: Customers who purchase one, three, six or 10 new shirts for $38, $108, $210 or $340 a year, respectively, are free to solicit replacements as often as they like in exchange for an $8 “refresh” fee. All new shirts come with a pre-paid envelope for sending back the old, which are sanitized, chopped up and blended with virgin fibers to jump-start the process once again.
Evrnu from Seattle also has its eye on old T-shirts and other forms of post-consumer cotton waste. Its technology creates good-as-new fiber that can be spun into textiles such as denim. Paul Dillinger, head of global product nnovation at Levi Strauss, once hailed Evrnu an “industrial miracle.”