The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters globally. The production of textiles uses a lot of energy and resources, and a lot of waste is also generated during production and post-production. As the clothes after consumption and the waste generated during production get sent to landfills, all required resources, and energy for producing the fabric itself and the clothes are ultimately lost.
This is how linear fashion works - production, consumption, and finally trash. Most of the mainstream and conventional garment industry is linear. Upcycled fashion is the opposite. But what is upcycled clothing?
What is upcycled clothing and fashion?
The term “upcycling”, coined by German engineer Reiner Pliz in 1994, also appeared in a book written by Willian McDonough and Wilian Braungart called Cradle to Cradle. The main concept of this book is to move away from a linear manufacturing approach to a circular one by focusing on waste or raw materials generated during the production process. Taking the Cradle to Cradle approach into consideration, upcycled fashion is using fabric leftovers to create new products — like a zero-waste approach. This approach uses pre-consumer waste.
Upcycling can also be done with post-consumer waste. You can repurpose old clothes into new pieces instead of throwing them away. This process extends the life and usefulness of the clothes in creative and innovative ways.
Upcycled fashion ultimately is the process where either pre-consumer or post-consumer waste is used to make a new product of higher quality and value. In doing so, it offers a more sustainable and ethical fashion approach.
What is the difference between Upcycled, Recycled, and Reused clothing?
The process of recycling however includes the breakdown and reuse of waste materials to create new products. Recyclability and sustainability vary from material to material. While some materials can be recycled, the other non-recyclable waste is turned into energy and this usually happens by incinerating waste materials. By doing so, this process produces toxic emissions and pollution. Upcycling, on the other hand, permits the reuse of waste materials without breaking them down or converting them into energy.
Reuse of a product is when an old or unused item finds a new purpose or function. Instead of throwing away an old or unused product, a new use can be given to it. Upcycling produces a new item that is better quality, higher in value, and better for the environment. Reuse does not imply better quality or higher value.
What is Upcycling vs Downcycling?
Both upcycling and downcycling promote recyclability and reuse. The only difference is while upcycle fashion denotes an increase in value for the new product, downcycled materials and products transform into a lower value product.
How is upcycled fashion good for the environment?
1. Reduces textile waste and protects natural resources
These circular approaches in general reduce the environmental impact that the textile industry has on the planet. Because the materials that would have otherwise been incinerated or sent to landfill are returned to the production cycle, all resources used in the making of the fabrics and clothes are not wasted, and fabrics are acquired without relying on the finite natural resources of the planet. By doing so, you’re not only reducing waste but also protecting natural resources.
2. Less energy consumption and pollution
Upcycling clothes requires less energy than recycling as less energy is needed to remake a whole new outfit with old clothes or textile waste than the energy needed to break down the wastes entirely. Compared to recycling, upcycled fashion is less polluting in its process.
Upcycling also reduces the strain on the textile industry to produce more products as consumerism increases. As upcycling can reduce demand, these conventional and linear textile industries and fast fashion industries will create less waste. Garment manufacturing also creates pollution due to toxic chemicals and fertilizers.
3. Promotes creativity and encourages community support when it comes to sustainable practices
Upcycling in fashion takes used and unused clothes to create one-of-a-kind pieces or pieces. This promotes creativity and unique pieces! Being on the brink of an environmental crisis now is the time to support local artists, communities, and practices that are sustainable. By buying upcycled clothes, you are promoting ethical fashion with a more conscious approach to consumerism.
How to upcycle clothes?
When it comes to upcycling ideas, Pinterest is a girl’s best friend. There are over hundreds of creative ideas that vary on difficulty level - they have ideas on how to upcycle clothes whether you are proficient at sewing or have never touched a needle in your life! A simple search with keywords like “upcycling”, “beginners” and more depending on what you need will take you to so many ideas and detailed steps.
Instead of taking apart a piece of garment, start small! You can do so by adding embellishments, try hand stitching a pattern, little flowers, or whatever you fancy.
Remove a sleeve from your favorite shirt or turn it into a crop top, that can come in handy in the summer. Don’t forget to save the scraps for your next though, we are all about that zero-waste life here!
We all know how much we love dresses with pockets and how hard it can be to find them. Observe how clothes are made and unpick the seams of a dress wherever you’d like to add pockets. There are many youtube videos that you can follow that will show you how to make the pockets and add them to your dresses.
Another great upcycling project is making distressed and frayed jeans. The latter is usually more expensive than normal jeans too. If you have normal jeans lying around, waiting for a new life, get that razor (or sandpaper to be safer) and go to town and distress that pair of jeans!
Upcycling allows you to be creative at the end of the day! Use your imagination and creativity to breathe new life into your clothes.
Did you know we have a ton of guides here on The Eco Hub that will help you get rid of your old clothes responsibly including:
Upcycling Clothing Brands To Check Out
Outerknown embraces circular models by prioritizing resale, repair, and upcycling. Their goal is to make “excellent quality, sustainable products that last a lifetime, keeping our garments out of landfills and in circulation forever.” They do not use harmful chemicals during production and they believe in transparency. Most of their fibers are organic, recycled, upcycled, or regenerated. They offer a range of upcycled clothing for men and women.
Zero Waste Daniel uses pre-consumer waste materials and leftover materials. They have genderless, upcycled clothing and accessories for various body types; their size ranges from XS to XXL. Zero Waste Daniel is committed to sustainability and zero-waste fashion.
This Diné (Navajo)-owned sustainable art-wear brand produces handmade, one-of-a-kind, and upcycled women’s clothes and accessories. They use upcycled materials like military parachutes, post-consumer textile, and vintage pieces and they work with the Indigenous people of Dinétah. In doing so, they uplift their community and they have also founded the Dził Asdzáán (Mountain Woman) Command Center to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Beyond Retro
Beyond Retro specializes in vintage men’s and women’s clothing and sportswear. They produce upcycled clothes from post-consumer recycled items. They even recycle their cardboard boxes and price tags!
Fanfare makes upcycled bohemian clothing for women made from sustainable fabrics. This sustainable fashion house is one of the rare ones that is tackling the fashion’s waste crisis by using a circular manufacturing and economical approach. As stated on their website, “With circularity, longevity & recycling at its core, Fanfare Label offers customers timeless, seasonless pieces that are made to be cherished”.
Preloved is an upcycled brand based in Canada. They produce casual wear for women and carry a clothing size range from XS to XXL. Their items are made from deadstock materials, upcycled vintage fabrics, and post-consumer garments.
LOTI is an upcycled brand based between Lima, Peru and LA, California. They make women’s clothes from leftover 100% cotton from the Peruvian Textile Mill and their fabrics come in the form of production scraps leftover pieces, damaged yardage, and small quantity deadstocks. They also salvage men’s silk ties and make accessories out of them.
Specializing in making clothing and accessories for women, this innovative, forward-thinking fashion company uses reclaimed materials for their products. All of their materials and workmanship is sourced within the Uk and they remain as local to their studio as possible.
“RubyMoon combines the industry’s substantial potential to positively impact the social and environmental state of our planet, with the knowledge that women and innovation are key to a better future. Jo is committed to activate women’s potential and elevate their status in communities where they often don’t have a voice. Investing in microfinance enables females to drive development and progress”.
10. Hôtel Vetements
“A fashion brand born out of a wish to revive discarded treasures; vintage fabrics which weaves a rich history of fantasy and craftsmanship”, Hôtel Vetements makes women’s clothes, accessories, and kidswear from upcycled hotel curtains, upholsteries, linens, tablecloths and more. If you’d like to literally wear a piece of french-hotel history, this is the place to go!
A final word on upcycled clothing
By choosing upcycled clothing brands or making your own, you are also actively decreasing demands from other linear fashion brands that create a lot of waste and products with low longevity which also get sent to the landfills faster than other sustainable fashion brands.
Upcycling can be a DIY project you want to do at home but you can also find many fashion brands and company that uses upcycling as a creative and sustainable response to the environmental crisis that the traditional, linear fashion industry contributes to. Upcycling materials, waste or pre-loved garments, and more allow for creativity and uniqueness, all while protecting the planet and living sustainably! If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – help me to help others 🙂!