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Upcycling: The New Wave of Sustainable Fashion

3p Contributor | Thursday May 8th, 2014 | 4 Comments
Models prepare to walk the runway in upcycled garments at Redress Raleigh's 2011 fashion show.

Models prepare to walk the runway in upcycled garments at the 2011 Redress fashion show.

By Beth Stewart of Redress

In a world still churning out trendy throw-away fashion pieces at breakneck speed, the idea of upcycled or refashioned apparel can be an anomaly. But it is a continuously growing trend and is one of the most sustainable things people can do in fashion. As upcycling makes use of already existing pieces, it often uses few resources in its creation and actually keeps ‘unwanted’ items out of the waste stream.

Yes, your clothes have an afterlife

There are more textiles produced in the world today than can be used — many of the large clothing chains can produce as many as a half a billion garments a year. And what happens to those clothes after they have fulfilled their ‘useful’ lives? About 14.3 million tons of textiles were sent to the landfill in 2012, or around 5.7 percent of total municipal solid waste generation in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

If not discarded as trash, unwanted apparel is often donated to thrift stores. Though a good step toward avoiding the landfill, this is not as beneficial as people think – only about 20 to 30 percent of donated clothing is actually re-sold. And the drastic increase in the volume of secondhand clothing has driven down its value in the past 15 years — meaning that charity shop stores are now filled with cheap fashion and junky basics instead of vintage gems.

In addition, massive amounts of donated clothing that are not deemed as ‘re-sellable’ in the U.S. are shipped to developing countries, inundating them with unnecessary goods that stifle any emerging economic development in textiles. While many people may have the idea that they are helping clothe the poor in these countries, access to the Internet and cell phones has made many of these countries more fashion-forward recently, and they may have no interest in our American cast-offs. Since this model relies on a waste economy — where instead of mending clothes or leasing clothes, items are bought and discarded — what happens when exportation is no longer an option?

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is a way of processing an item to make it better than the original. In the example of clothing, this is often taking something that doesn’t fit or is stained/torn and refashioning a wearable product from it.

Upcycling can be done using either pre-consumer or post-consumer waste or a combination of the two. Pre-consumer waste is produced while items are being manufactured (such as the pieces of fabric leftover after cutting out a pattern) and post-consumer waste results from the finished product reaching the end of its useful life for the consumer (such as a T-shirt that doesn’t fit anymore).

“Manufacturers and designers in the mainstream fashion industry discard on average 15 percent of materials en route to production.” – EcoFashionTalk.com One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

Benefits of upcycling

Upcycling stops adding stuff to a world that is already overwhelmed with material things. It also reuses materials that may otherwise end up in the landfill in creative and innovative ways – producing original often one-of-a-kind items from what many consider to be waste. It is a way for companies and designers to be more efficient with leftover materials such as upholstery scraps or vintage textiles and to give new life to worn-out jeans and tattered T-shirts.

“As we move into the ’90s revival, grunge will be back, and upcycling will fit that look perfectly. I predict modern upcycling will actually look “upcycled,” but with a much edgier feel.” – Orsola de Castro, Co-founder of Estethica, From Somewhere, and Reclaim to Wear; via Ecouterre’s 37 Eco-fashion Predictions for 2014

Whether as everyday apparel or runway exhibition pieces, upcycling can challenge cultural codes — questioning what we consider to be trash versus fashion or beautiful versus ugly. For some it can also be a connection to our heritage — incorporating vintage clothing or using a family heirloom to create an original piece preserving a bit of history.

Who is doing it?

refashionedThe world of upcycling has exploded in the past few years, and there is a plethora of inspirational design in this facet of eco-fashion. An excellent summary of many designers throughout the world can be found in the newly released book “ReFashioned” by Sass Brown.

To see some great examples on the runway, Redress Raleigh’s annual Spring eco-fashion show often features innovative designers using upcycling in their collections. Mother/daughter team Zass Design creates gorgeous jewelry from overlooked materials. And Little Grey Line takes old men’s work shirts and remakes them into adorable dresses for little girls. This coming spring’s show will also feature a North Carolina State University student duo using denim remnants, a Durham-based designer creating chic handbags made from plastic bags, and another NCSU student showcasing how simple white T-shirts can become an elegant wedding dress.

In addition, a few companies are recognizing the combination of nostalgia and sentimentality many of us have about our clothing and seizing the opportunity to create memorable objects from apparel. Project Repat, based out of Boston, Mass., is one such example that creates quilts out of old T-shirts — a great way to commemorate all your favorite concert gear without having a closet exploding with shirts that don’t fit anymore.

As consumers start realizing the devastating effects of fast fashion, they will begin looking for innovative ways to change their wardrobe. Upcycled apparel can be a part of this revolution — helping people make meaningful choices with their clothing while appreciating the history of the industry.

Images courtesy of Redress and “ReFashioned” by Sass Brown

Beth Stewart is the co-founder and Strategic Director of Redress, a company that connects and champions eco-conscious designers and companies through event planning and marketing. Stewart has a passion for catalyzing ethical and environmental consciousness within the fashion and textiles industry and looks forward to the day when people don’t brag about their fast fashion scores.


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  • Veronica N.

    I been following NewDressADay.com for a few years, which is run by Marissa who re-fashions thrift store finds to make them wearable today. She’s inspired me to learn how to sew.

  • http://www.style-is.co.uk/ style is…

    I love upcycling although sometimes struggle for inspiration and time. I am definitely going to check out Sass Brown’s book!

    • Elizabeth Stewart

      Awesome! I have both of her books (her first was Ecofashion, and it covers more than just upcycling) and both are inspiring and beautiful – great motivators!

  • yourtrashmytreasure

    I love upcycling although sometimes struggle for inspiration and time. I think it is a really good concept for generating more values among the society. I’m doing a campaign called your trash, my treasure for the up-cycling project. Please follow my page if you are interested https://www.facebook.com/yourtrashmytreasure2014