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Fashion upcycling: a new way for brands to be sustainable

Upcycling, or creative reuse, is one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental footprint of fashion companies

What is fashion upcycling? 

Upcycling is a method of creating something new out of something that already exists. It involves taking an item and transforming it into something new with the same or greater value. 

When it comes to fashion, upcycling has been around for decades. In recent years, however, there’s been a surge in interest due to its potential positive effects on both people and the environment.

From an environmental perspective, upcycling helps reduce waste by using existing materials instead of producing more from scratch. This can result in significant reductions in the massive ecological impact of the textile and fashion manufacturing processes.

From a consumer perspective, upcycling offers an opportunity to showcase individual creativity and style. Recycled garments are often accompanied by a unique story that can be shared with friends, family or the general public. This is particularly interesting for those looking for something different in their wardrobe. Moreover, they represent a form of saving and a more sustainable purchase.

And for businesses? Upcycling can offer cost savings due to reduced production costs and waste management fees. It also has the potential to generate positive effects on brand reputation and brand awareness as a result of its sustainability credentials. 

An example of a fashion brand that has embraced upcycling is Patagonia, with its Worn Wear programme that allows customers to give away their used Patagonia garments in exchange for a credit. The second-hand garments are then recycled, repaired or reused.

What is the difference between recycling and upcycling?

These two words may sound similar but refers to different things.

Recycling involves breaking down materials into simpler components, which can then be used to create something new. For example, plastic bottles can be recycled into fabric or carpeting.

Upcycling takes a different approach: it uses existing materials and gives them new life in the form of something better than before. This could involve transforming an old dress into a fashionable jacket or vest, for instance.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the context, but upcycling often offers more potential for reducing waste while creating something new and unique at the same time.

fashion upcycling icons

Why is upcycling important in fashion?

The textile and fashion industry is one of the largest industrial sectors in the world, with a significant environmental impact. It consumes large amounts of water (2.700 liters for just a t-shirt), energy and chemicals for production processes such as dyeing, printing and finishing. Additionally, it produces vast amounts of waste material since only 1% of garments are recycled. The industry is also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions from both its production processes and transportation activities. By upcycling existing materials instead of producing new ones, the fashion industry has an opportunity to reduce its ecological footprint significantly while creating unique products at the same time.

How can fashion brands surf the fashion upcycling trend? 

There are several things fashion brands can do to incorporate upcycling into their activities and enjoy its benefits. Here are some examples: 

  • Launch a line of upcycled products
    Brands can start by upcycling their own deadstock fabric and items or buying used ones and transforming them into new one-of-a-kind items. This includes even the creation of unique pieces.
  • Collaborate with designers
    Brands can also collaborate with talented upcyclers who create unique pieces from pre-loved garments or materials. This allows them to take advantage of the creativity, quality and sustainability of upcycled items without having to invest in production costs.
    However, designer involvement is also important for the development of new products that incorporate elements that make them suitable for easy upcycling once they reach the end of their life cycle.
  • Inform consumers with the right marketing campaigns
    It is also important for fashion brands to use the right marketing campaigns that inform consumers about upcycling and its potential benefits. This can be done through advertisements, social media posts or even a dedicated website that explains what upcycling is and how it can help protect the environment. 
    The important thing is that brands avoid greenwashing and offer maximum transparency on their collections of upcycled products. This is possible by making upcycled garments connected products, i.e. products that give the consumer the possibility of accessing content and information directly from the product, for example by scanning a QR code on the label, like the ones from the brands that has chosen Through the QR code, the consumer can access certifications and information on the origin of materials, the previous history, and the impact on corporate sustainability.
    In addition, brands should consider offering incentives to customers who choose to buy their recycled items to increase sales and visibility.
  • Teach people what to do with garments when they no longer want them is a very delicate moment because in most cases the garment ends up in landfill. However, this is often due to the fact that consumers do not know what else to do with it.
    Brands interested in fashion upcycling can, for instance:
    • organise collection systems for used garments by offering incentives in return and then use the used garments to create collections of upcycled products;
    • create online and offline tutorials, guides, events and workshops to explain to customers how to upcycle their clothes.

Both cases not only solve the end-of-life problem, but also give companies the opportunity to increase customer engagement, foster the growth of their community and even incentivise actions that serve business objectives. For example, fashion brands can ask consumers to post their creations on social networks after participating in an upcycling shop. Or, the transfer of used garments can be accompanied by the delivery of a discount voucher for the purchase of another garment from the brand. The possibilities are endless!

By embracing these strategies, fashion brands can successfully capitalise on the growing trend of fashion upcycling. This trend is becoming an increasingly important part of the fashion industry, and it's easy to see why. By leveraging creative reuse, brands can reduce their environmental impact while providing customers with stylish and sustainable clothing options. With upcycling, everyone wins.

12 Apr 2023

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