One person’s trash is another person’s leggings
3 March 2021 at 8:20 am
Your pair of workout leggings might look and feel great, but odds are, they’re doing some serious damage to the environment. It’s something that Rhianna Knight, the founder of Team Timbuktu, is trying to change, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
Over the past few years, the conversation around the ethics of the textiles and fashion industries has undergone an enormous shift.
Thanks to consumer-driven demand, these days ethical clothing options are much more mainstream, with even some of the globe’s biggest fashion brands looking towards ethical production.
But when Rhianna Knight first launched Team Timbuktu, an activewear brand that uses recycled materials such as plastic water bottles and fishing nets to create clothing, that wasn’t the case.
Knight had spent three years before launching her brand working in the fashion industry, with a particular focus on sustainable design and production. But it was when she was hiking through South America, that she realised that there was a gap in the market for activewear that ticked the boxes of looking good and being sustainable.
“I was hiking through volcanoes, glaciers, and these incredible national parks, but I was really frustrated with the clothing that I was wearing. It didn’t reflect my sense of style or sustainability values,” Knight told Pro Bono News.
The average pair of sports leggings are made out of synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, and spandex. While these materials are what make them light, stretchy, and workout-appropriate, they are also seriously harmful to the environment.
When washed, these materials shed hundreds of microplastics that find their way into river systems and oceans. There are estimated to be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces in the ocean, killing around 100,000 marine mammals and turtles annually.
With that in mind, it was a no-brainer for Knight to launch a brand that avoided as much environmental harm as possible.
“The decision to make clothing that was ethical and sustainable was just common sense for me,” she said.
“We’re trying to encourage our community to get outdoors and enjoy the natural environment, and if we’re making a product that has a direct negative impact on the environment, It just doesn’t make sense.”
Team Timbuktu’s clothing is designed for people who love to get into nature (but aren’t about to climb Mount Everest), want to look good, and care about the environment.
Instead of using oil to create polyester, Team Timbuktu manufacturers sort, sterilise, and melt down old plastic bottles to create a new material that is sustainable, breathable, sweat-wicking, and durable.
Its activewear fabric is 75 per cent recycled, while the other 25 per cent is elastane to make the leggings stretchy.
When the label first launched, the waterproof jacket fabric was 75 per cent recycled, but that has now increased to 100 per cent, using approximately 31 bottles per jacket.
To date, the company has recycled over 75,000 bottles into fabric.
Transparent, from top to bottom
When Team Timbuktu first started out, it pledged 20 per cent of profits to a charity partner.
But Knight explained that the small size of the business meant that donating to charity actually came at a cost to the business.
“In the beginning, we weren’t profitable, and so we were donating anticipated profits which was a really great gesture, but at the same time, it just doesn’t work for financial viability,” she said.
Instead, Knight introduced an initiative to plant a tree for every order, which has to date seen 2,500 trees planted.
“It’s a long-term sustainable initiative that scales as the company scales. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to achieve with the program,” she said.
She said that one of the key values she wanted to instill in Team Timbuktu was being transparent about the things that did work, didn’t work, and the things that it was trying to improve.
One of the ways she has done this is by making a sustainability report readily available on the Team Timbuktu website.
This report found, for instance, that the company still relies way too heavily on air freight, something that Knight has pledged to decrease in the coming year.
“I think it’s about admitting that we’re not perfect. We’re a tiny company, but we’re also doing our best with the resources that we have, which are actually quite significant compared to the standard of most companies,” she said.
“Because when a large multinational brand comes along and says they’re sustainable because they’ve launched a 10 piece eco-collection, that’s greenwashing rather than truth.”
She also said that she didn’t expect her customers to be experts in sustainable fashion, which is why all the manufacturing and sustainability information is listed on Team Timbuktu’s website.
“Most people wouldn’t know what fabrics are made from or what factories look like, because why would they have ever been in one,” Knight said.
“So I think it’s really important for brands to educate their customers about fabrics, fibers, factories, transparency, materials, sustainability, and ethics in a way that’s easily digestible and educational and easy to learn.”
These things take time
An artist’s collaboration and a new product category will be keeping Knight busy for most of this year, as well as slowly but surely chipping away at making the label more and more sustainable.
“Normally businesses have a marketing department, a product development department… sometimes it’s a lot when you’re trying to do 20 different jobs and balance it all out,” she said.
“We’d love to be carbon neutral, and we’d love to be B Corp certified, but all of these things come in time. This is what we can achieve with what we’ve got right now.”