It is clear that we can no longer continue with “business as usual” in the fashion industry. Circular fashion is a given and strategies are implemented across the globe to increase reuse and recycling of textiles. However, there is one circular fashion practise that is often left out of the discussion - upcycling.
In this series about fashion upcycling, we want to show you why upcycling deserves more attention and why it is important to focus on upcycling if we want to achieve a more circular fashion industry. In this first post, we will start with the basics - what is upcycling, why is it so awesome and why are we not talking about it as much as we should?
Before we start: I wrote my master thesis about fashion upcycling, so I apologize in advance if the next part gets too nerdy.
What is Fashion Upcycling?
Upcycling is not limited to textile waste, it can be applied to nearly any waste stream - metal, plastic, glass - you name it. So starting with the general definition of upcycling: it is a circular waste management strategy, where you transform waste products into new products of the same or higher value than the original item.
In the waste management hierarchy, it is placed right below reuse and above recycling. The main difference between upcycling and recycling (downcycling) is the amount of processing and the value retainment in the end product. With recycling, the original product often undergoes a lot of processing (glass is melted, textiles are shredded etc.) and the end product will, therefore, be of lesser quality. With upcycling, you often use the material as it is, and as the definition states, the end product needs to be of either the same or higher quality than the original product.
It is basically possible to upcycle anything. Imagination + research = unique sustainable pieces of decor/clothes/accessory/footwear etc.
Fashion Upcycling When it comes to fashion upcycling, we define it as “The reuse of textile waste to produce new fashion items of integral or higher value than the original items”. In practice, this means that we use the fabric as it is (reuse), but we transform the product into another product e.g. from pants to a skirt (upcycling). It is easy to become confused because there are many overlapping terms out there when it comes to circular fashion. Below, we have tried to illustrate what is included and excluded in the upcycling term and how they are connected to each other.
And now for some fashion upcycling examples - both from private upcyclers and from bigger companies.
Why is upcycling so awesome?
The main reason why upcycling is so important in transitioning to a circular fashion industry is that it's a great way to recirculate textiles that cannot be reused. And believe it or not, there is a lot of textiles that are deemed unfit for reuse. This includes clothes with holes or stains, textiles that are “out of fashion” and last but not least, all scrap fabrics from production. Apart from being a great way to recirculate a lot of textile waste, it is also a sustainable production method. The main environmental savings of upcycling is the avoided virgin textile production and the diversion of textile waste from landfill or incinerators. By upcycling we skip polluting steps like farming, spinning, weaving, dyeing and the environmental footprint of an upcycled product will therefore often be much lower than a new fashion product.
Upcycling also has some other benefits apart from the environmental ones. First of all, it is often a cheap input material - since we are working with textiles that would otherwise have been discarded, it is often possible to get it cheaper than virgin fabric. Another benefit is the uniqueness of the upcycled products - since we are using discarded textiles and not a roll of fabric - every product will have its own unique story.
This is also why we host upcycling workshops, so people can use their creativity and make new unique products from discarded textiles.
Why does everyone not upcycle if it is so great?
Upcycling is currently being done by millions of DIY upcyclers and fashion students all over the world - but for some reason, it is not a widespread industrial practice. This is mainly due to the fact, that the fashion industry has to change their current manufacturing process if they want to harvest the powers of upcycling.
Companies will meet different barriers when it comes to upcycling. One of the main barriers at the moment is the sourcing of the materials. Even though there is an overflow of textile waste, since there normally is no demand for it there is no infrastructure or easy access to discarded textiles and cut-offs. Unlike rolls of fabric, textile waste is an inconsistent input material and therefore requires a flexible and multi-skilled workforce, as well as finding a factory that will be willing to work with waste fabric. It requires more time and effort to implement automatization into the process, especially because the industry lacks the technology for this kind of manufacturing - such as for example an effective sorting technology.
Due to this, it also becomes costly to upcycle.
Since it is an inconsistent input material, it also makes it difficult to create identical collections. This means that it does not just require a change in their production method, but also a change in their business model. For big businesses, standardization and mass production is the backbone of their business model and it, therefore, becomes close to impossible to offer upcycled fashion items.
It is a difficult and time-consuming process, but we believe it is possible to make it profitable and scalable - if we think outside the box so we can benefit from the superpowers of upcycling.
Upcycling is not an easy solution - which is also why you won’t see upcycled collections from the big fashion companies. However, if we can crack the code on how to make upcycling more scalable, then we can ensure that much more textiles can be diverted from landfill, incineration or downcycling. At Wair, we are determined to find a way to make sure that many more textiles can be upcycled and to spread awareness about the importance of this.
In the upcoming blog posts devoted to the power of fashion upcycling, we will take you behind the scenes of how we at Wair are working with upcycling and show you how you can become an upcycling superhero yourself. Apart from that, we will also go more in-depth with some of the intricacies of fashion upcycling - is it always sustainable and is it the solution to the textile waste problem? All interesting questions that our inner nerds are very excited to dive into - so remember to follow us if you want to stay in the loop.