The Rise of Upcycling


Upcycling is the transformative process of turning waste materials, unwanted products, or by-products into new, higher-value items. Unlike traditional recycling, which often involves breaking down materials into their basic components for the creation of new products, the term “upcycling” was coined in 1994 by German engineer Reiner Pliz who explains in the British monthly magazine “Salvo,” “I call recycling down-cycling. What we need is up-cycling, thanks to which old products are given a higher, not a lower, value.”


But fashion upcycling seeks its deep origins in the UK, for example during WWII in the 40’s. The British government needed to reduce the production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. The ability to repair, upcycle, and make clothes from scratch became increasingly important as the war went on.

Supplies became so scarce that women couldn’t buy the fabrics to make the families’ clothes and resorted to using homeware textiles, such as curtains and tablecloths, to make clothes. Later, it re-emerged and exploded in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the UK faced a major recession. A trend mostly led by punk teenagers who upcycled clothes from their grandparents’ wardrobe in search of a creative, unique, original, and inexpensive fashion. (Source: [Alterist])

“Take, Make, Waste”

However, the scourge of fast fashion had already begun during this time. In the 1990s, the industry became official although it began to establish itself in the early 1970s. Fast fashion resulted from cheaper, speedier manufacturing, and shipping methods. It was on December 31, 1989, in the pages of the New York Times, that the term was used for the first time to talk about Zara (founded in 1975), which is now one of the current leaders of fast fashion. Like many other fast fashion brands, Zara continues the throwaway culture, violating human rights and being part of one of the most polluting industries. The fashion industry produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply, drying up water sources, and polluting rivers and streams. For example, polyester, a petroleum-based fabric, is widely used by Zara and other fast fashion brands. The production of polyester not only consumes significant amounts of energy but also produces harmful greenhouse gases and petrochemicals, and microplastics.


Although there is a range of estimates, the fast fashion industry produces 8-10% of global CO2 emissions (4-5 billion tonnes annually). The fashion industry is also a major consumer of water (79 trillion liters per year), responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution from textile treatment and dyeing, contributes 35% (190,000 tonnes per year) of oceanic primary microplastic pollution, and produces vast quantities of textile waste (more than 92 million tonnes per year), much of which ends up in landfill or is burnt, including unsold product. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 17 million tons of textile waste were generated in 2018, of which only 2.5 million tons were recycled. (Source: [Aalto]) The throwaway nature of fast fashion exacerbates the problem, as overproduction and rapid turnover result in an estimated 85% of textiles being thrown away each year, much of which ends up in landfills or is incinerated, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Fashion Without Waste

In a world where mass production often takes center stage, we have been hearing more and more about upcycling in the fashion industry since 2020 (thanks to the pandemic) to restore ecological harmony and limit the colossal damage of fast fashion on nature and human exploitation. The era of fast fashion is fading. As people become more aware of the environmental impact and ethical concerns associated with the fast fashion industry, they are opting for quality over quantity and upcycling is starting to gradually come back on trend for fashion enthusiasts. While upcycling was a necessity in the past century, it is currently becoming a choice made by consumers aware of the impact that their purchases and ways of consuming have a devastating effect on the world.


In the realm of fashion, upcycling involves taking pre-existing garments or materials and reimagining them into fresh and stylish pieces, and the trend is gaining importance due to the decline in natural resources and as a result of social change. Upcycling is now also respected and often used by artists and designers. For example, the luxury brand Gucci created Equilibrium to foster circular luxury for the future. By its very virtue, luxury has circularity already built-in, retaining the quality and longevity of its products to foster their preservation and their rediscovery, again and again. This is why the Climate Change Award was presented to Gucci at the 2022 CNMI Sustainable Fashion Awards ceremony, which closed Milan Fashion Week SS2023. (Source: [Ellen MacArthur Foundation]) By changing consumer behaviors and encouraging resale shopping, carbon emissions are drastically reduced.


In the last 40 years, factors such as the rise of e-commerce, the platform and the sharing economy, the growth of social media, new consumer preferences and environmental concerns, and sustainable consumption have driven a progressive increase in the market for secondhand goods. The secondhand personal luxury market is estimated at over EUR 20 billion, with an annual growth of 12 percent. This growth is especially prominent in Europe, driven by the young generation of consumers and new segments. Meanwhile, affluent buyers are becoming more environmentally conscious and ‘eco-fashioned’ and increasingly support reducing the mass consumption of clothes. Overall larger luxury companies are more environmentally friendly because they pollute less per product sold. Movements such as ‘slow fashion’ are gaining more popularity every day because they promote buying fewer, higher-quality clothes and wearing them longer.


Similar to governments and companies internationally, the luxury fashion industry also follows the recommendations of the 2030 Agenda to promote sustainable economic growth while respecting the environment and society. The vertical integration of processes in their chain value, the use of eco-friendly materials, research into environmentally friendly materials, increasing the life of products, or betting on the second-hand or rental market are some of the measures that the major luxury fashion brand holding companies, such as Chanel, Kering, or LVMH, are working on for sustainable production. (Source: [LVMH]) Luxury brands have always responded to major societal challenges; hence, luxury today has a strong environmental component with a focus on sustainability and climate change.


Also, outdoor companies like Patagonia, Jack Wolfskin, and Marmot are now focusing on sustainable and environmentally friendly production. These companies offer their customers the upcycling of their clothing if it shows heavy signs of use. Depending on their condition, these are recycled, resold, or donated to charitable organizations. Vaude and Houdini are pioneers in the rental of outdoor clothing. Both companies offer shell rentals in their own stores. Houdini launched the service back in 2013. The Swedish manufacturer wants to offer its customers alternative ways of consuming and sees renting as a good alternative to buying new. Houdini is one of the companies that places recycling boxes in its retail outlets and collects its customers’ discarded polyester clothing in them. Customers can use the containers with a clear conscience. Houdini guarantees professional recycling.


In 2022, dozens of outdoor brands have been exploring creative ways to keep their gear out of landfills, either by upcycling scrap material into new items or by collecting, repairing, and reselling used products. This practice allows for constant evolution in fashion, catering to our innate desire for novelty and self-expression, without the environmental footprint associated with new clothing production. By embracing upcycling at scale, the fashion industry can take a significant step toward a more sustainable, waste-free future. (Source: [])


In conclusion, it’s a collective journey that requires the participation of all stakeholders: designers, businesses, consumers, and policymakers alike. This practice helps to reduce the 92 million tons of textile waste and 2.1 billion tons of carbon emissions produced by the global fashion industry annually. (Source: [Sustainable Jungle]) Furthermore, purchasing upcycled accessories is a way to support local artisans and small businesses that specialize in creating sustainable products. This promotes entrepreneurship and boosts local economies while also contributing towards a shift from unsustainable systems like fast fashion, where a significant portion of clothing ends up in landfill every year.


“Improved Employability through circular economy education for Adults” (IDEA) is a 24 months Cooperation partnership aimed at promoting Circular Economy and Sustainability among unemployed adults, by fostering a greater interaction between the European Green Deal and the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. In the 24 months of cooperation, IDEA Consortium will implement:
– 3 Transnational project meetings
– 1 JSTE aimed at:
a) providing comprehensive joint learning and exchange between the participants on tools and methodologies to foster Circular Economy and sustainability through art, craft and NFE methodologies
b) testing the Training Format produced in R1
c) lay the foundation for the co-creation of the activities to be included in the R2 and tested in the local phase
– Local workshops involving participants in the C1 as trainers and unemployed adults, to test the activities to be included in the R2 and lay the foundation for the co-creation of the video-tutorials to be included in R3.
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