Atayne, Clothing Made Out Of Trash: The Next Big Idea?

09/26/2010 01:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2011

If you tell most entrepreneurs their products are trash, chances are they would be furious. In Jeremy Litchfield's case, it serves as a successful business model.

After all, Litchfield's Brunswick, Maine-based company Atayne makes athletic clothing using recycled materials, ranging from recycled cotton to Chitosan, a material made up of snow crab shells, to recycled polyester that comes from recycled plastic bottles.

Litchfield, 33, came up with the idea for his business during a bad experience he had with a company that is now one of his competitors. He was wearing a new red performance shirt during an eight-mile jog along the Mount Vernon Trail in Washington, D.C. -- in 90 percent humidity. When he finished, he realized he hadn't been the only one running. The red dye in his shirt had run down the lower half of his body, staining his shorts, socks and shoes.

Litchfield was furious, but he was also ecstatic, suddenly realizing he had a valid idea for a business. "I started doing research that afternoon and realized how out-of-line a lot of the performance apparel is with my values," says Litchfield, an avowed environmentalist. "The next day, I told my boss I was quitting my job."

Litchfield had been running the consumer insights and brand strategy for a company called RedPeg Marketing. "I didn't have any background in apparel," he says. "I didn't know what materials I was going to use for my clothing, or that my clothes would be made out of trash. I just knew that the way things were being made was wrong, and I wanted to offer something that was better for consumers and better for the environment."

"I had less than six months of savings, and I used all that money for Atayne," Litchfield adds. "I initially got by living in the basements of friends. During the startup of Atayne, I lived in three different basements."

Even now, Litchfield says that he isn't taking a salary -- his wife's full-time job pays their bills, for now.

As for figuring out what type of clothes he would sell, Litchfield's first thought was bamboo products, "But when you get deeper into that, you realize it's not as sustainable as you would think," he says. "I mean, to convert bamboo into fabric, you still have to use a lot of harsh chemicals."

Eventually his research took him to making clothing out of materials like recycled polyester, which Litchfield liked, since that involved taking items such as plastic bottles that would otherwise sit in a landfill. "At the end of the day, anytime you can reuse something, the amount of energy you save is considerable," he says.

And so while Atayne (a play off the word "attain") was born as a company in May 2007 and formally launched that July, it didn't earn sales until August 2008. This year, the company is projected to reach $110,000 in revenue, which would be double what it made the year before.

Litchfield is the company's only full-time employee with about nine contractors pitching in where they can. His wife, Rebecca, whom he just married about a month ago, is one of those contractors. She is also a co-founder of the company ("I met her probably the same day I officially formed the LLC for Atayne, because later that day, I'm pretty sure I went to a networking reception, and that's where we met.").

Litchfield has also managed to keep his supply chain solely in North America. A mill in Tennessee grinds and melts plastic bottles into material that can be knitted into fabric. (A mill in North Carolina does the same thing with recycled cotton and also turns plastic bottles into recycled polyester.) And then the garments are cut and sewn in either Utah, Massachusetts or Ontario, Canada.

"It was very hard to get our clothes 100 percent made in North America," says Litchfield, who was driven to keep his clothing manufactured at home to keep the company's environmental footprint smaller. "The way some companies manufacture their clothing," Litchfield notes, "a T-shirt could pass through four or five countries before it reaches the U.S."

Litchfield also made sure his company passed the requirements to become a B Corporation, a certification given to companies that consider the environmental impact of their decisions.

"The more you know Jeremy, the more you realize the business is an echo of his core values," says branding expert Charlie Jones, one of Litchfield's mentors and investors. "He values substance first, appreciates the power of people to make a difference and believes business should serve customers and feed their aspirations and better natures."

And while one might think it would be hard to convince consumers to pony up $24 for an Atayne T-shirt, Litchfield says the economy hasn't appeared to hurt sales.

"Our products pretty much sell themselves," Litchfield says. "How the economy has affected us is getting access to capital. It has been very difficult to keep up with the demand for new products, and we often find ourselves in out-of-stock situations. We just don't have access to the cash we need. It has been very difficult to get funding of any sort to grow our company. While consumers are hungry for value-centric brands, investors have been slow to understand and take advantage of this fact."

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 9/26/10.

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