Interview with Rob Drake-Knight

Face2Face
Rob Drake-Knight
Rob Drake-Knight
Co-founder
Rapanui Clothing
Rapanui Clothing

How much time is required to make a t-shirt in real time from the time the customer orders for it? What is the average batch size that you can produce per day?

If someone ordered a tee now, it would be printed in the next few minutes and with them tomorrow - but the product wouldn't have actually existed until after it was ordered. The batch size is one - We only make what people need, when they need it. 
Full throttle we can produce a t-shirt a second on our current site with all our machines running all day and we are going to double that by the end of the year.

The process of making one T-shirt has a sizeable carbon footprint, for instance in terms of the water consumed. What steps do you take across the value chain to reduce this? What are the energy savings in the process?

Organic cotton has a massively reduced footprint as you don't need heaps of agrochemicals which come with upstream water/CO2 issues. Camels transport the cotton to the market, and for the spin/cut/sew operations, our UK factory and recycling are powered by renewables. It works out about 90 per cent lower than a base-case high street tee, before you take into account the multiple reuse phases that come with our remanufacturing processes. Most of that was simple to achieve. We just decided to invest in a load of renewable energy on our sites. In UK, most of it is on the roof. We have a lot of tech in the building that turns machines on and off when they are needed to load balance for the solar etc (solar farm on the roof and there is one down the road we're connected to via Good Energy), but to be honest switching to renewables is not really a big deal. We just did it.

How many registered users are there for your Teemill platform? How has the response been from customers who want to buy products or start their own brand selling their own custom prints alike?

Right now, there's enough to fill a football stadium. Some are really big names like BBC Earth or National Geographic. But the coolest we think are the small brands and start-ups. The goal with Teemill was simple. We know the organic materials, real time manufacturing, renewable energy and circular model is the solution for our brand. But the solution needs to be as big as the problem for it to work. So, we needed to scale it beyond our brand. That meant opening it up and sharing access. Teemill removes the barriers for entry into the fashion industry so instead of worrying about wholesale stock, learning to code, fulfilment, returns etc people can participate and be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
How many registered users are there for your Teemill platform? How has the response been from customers who want to buy products or start their own brand selling their own custom prints alike?

What are some of the constant challenges faced by you? Cite some examples, also how did you resolve them.

There is a huge list of challenges to build this technology for free and offer products at accessible prices. From engineering issues, communication issues, access to the market, macroeconomic barriers, but we can't think of any insurmountable ones. It's a much steeper slope than business as usual but the rewards for helping solve sustainability problems are substantial. 

One of the ways that we look at the barriers is not to focus on how hard the problem is, but instead to build the tools our team needs to lower the bar. For example, robotics is essential in our factory to overcome the higher materials costs or energy costs that come with sustainability at this time. Robotics engineers are a rare breed, so we built all the things you need in a kit, based on kids-learn-to-code software and a circuit board that converts a Raspberry Pi educational computer into an industrial controller. It means anyone with a basic education can get involved in building automated machinery and own and operate modern technology, rather than be replaced by it.

Which are the organisations you are working with to spread sustainable fashion worldwide?

There's 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 means it's easier for people to get involved. We love seeing that. 

According to you, will sustainable fashion be replacing fast fashion in the coming days?

A lot has changed in the last 10 years. When we started people gave us high fives for traceability, now it's sort of a minimum standard. So that's cool. At the same time, the problems have been escalating and it is definitely not a given that the problem will be solved. At a minimum, we have shown that there is a fundamentally different way of operating. We hope people take some encouragement from that.

According to you, will sustainable fashion be replacing fast fashion in the coming days?

What new ways of producing eco-friendly clothes are you researching on at the moment? What can we expect from you in future?

A big challenge is awareness. We invest all our time and energy on working on the solutions and so we can't compete with the big brands PR spend. We're seeing more values-based outlets pick up on this story though and give it a signal boost - so thank you guys! - that really makes a difference.

Right now, we're working on recycling clothing generally, not just our own. Many other brands use plastic or semi synthetic materials - even recycled plastic - that shed microplastics into our oceans. Removing that is like taking an egg out of an omelette, 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 - it's unlikely the law will change quick enough.

We have some cool new products coming out for Teemill brand owners which we're really excited about, and really we see our role as to be guardians of this supply chain we've built - to try to provide tools for the next generation of Rapanui's to use as a springboard. If we can save them 10 years it will bring progress faster and enable people to create the products they want to see in the world. That's about empowerment and truly disrupting business as usual - replacing it with something that works for everyone, and the environment. That is our goal and that is what our technology is designed to do. (PC)
Published on: 20/01/2020

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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