Eco-Business Owner Jeremy Litchfield Turns Trash into Treasure

kathryn by Kathryn Hawkins on April 6, 2012
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Five years ago, a personal experience inspired Jeremy Litchfield to launch his own line of high-performance athletic gear. The avid runner had worn a new running shirt for the first time and, after his workout, noticed that its color had leached into his skin. “I was covered in red dye,” he recalls.

That started him on a mission to create Atayne, which features clothing made from recycled waste products, such as plastic bottles, old shoes, and even race numbers from marathons. The Brunswick, Maine-based company now sells running, yoga, cycling, hiking, and boating apparel to various retailers across the United States, including Potomac River Running Store and Maine Running Co. It also ships products directly to consumers through its website.

Intuit Small Business Blog recently spoke with Litchfield about his company’s eco-conscious mission and why he opted to relocate it from Virginia to Maine (which Forbes ranked last on its 2011 Best States for Business list).

ISBB: What was your mission in launching Atayne?

Litchfield: After my experience with the red shirt, I became concerned about the apparel that I was wearing and how it was made. I didn’t know what kinds of chemicals were being absorbed by my body, and after doing a little research, I realized that the way that most apparel is made is horrible on the environment. There are so many nasty chemical treatments on clothing, and I thought that everything being done was wrong.

I wanted to create an apparel company that manufactured products that were safe for people and the environment. In May 2007, I launched the company in the worst economy since the Great Depression. I’ve thrown every dollar of my life savings into it and have yet to collect a paycheck. I’m [investing] all of the money we make back into the company.

The company’s philosophy is about driving change within the industry. I’m striving to create a better apparel industry that doesn’t exploit people or make products that are bad for people. We’re never going to be a giant like Nike, but I hope we can take enough business away from them that we force them to change their business model and become more responsible. We want to eliminate waste within the industry and inspire other companies.

What is your manufacturing process?

Everything we make is from recycled materials. We didn’t invent that technology, but we’ve partnered with mills around the United States to develop high-performance fabrics made from recycled fibers. The average T-shirt travels around the globe before it hits stores, but ours might travel 500 miles because all of our partners are domestically based. We talk to owners of much larger apparel companies who can’t fathom how we do everything in the U.S. It took a lot of time to put the supply chain together, but it really benefits us: The typical turn on overseas garments is six months, and ours is just two to 12 weeks. It gives us the chance to adjust to consumer demand and market conditions.

How do you plan to differentiate Atayne from its competitors?

We’ve had significant growth each year since we started out, launching new product lines and producing custom apparel. This year, we’re launching a large line expansion, with about 40 new styles. We’re also developing some custom-manufacturing techniques, such as made-to-measure apparel that’s designed to fit the consumer’s specific measurements. There’s nothing like that on the market right now.

You originally based your company in Arlington, Va. Why did you decide to move it to Maine?

I grew up in Durham, near Freeport, and went to Bowdoin College. I’d always hoped to move back to Maine. Around the end of 2008, it seemed like a good opportunity to move the company and, from a business standpoint, Maine made a lot of sense. There’s a lot of support for startups and entrepreneurs; the business community wants to foster innovation. It’s such a small community that, once you get settled, you’re only one or two degrees away from anyone in the state. And from the consumer’s perspective, people view Maine as a place where high-quality goods are produced, such as those from L.L. Bean.

People complain about high taxes here, but there are so many pros that they greatly outweigh the negatives of doing business in Maine.

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