How Serious is the Fashion Industry About Upcycling?

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Sustainability has been the bubbling buzz word in the fashion industry for a few years and is gaining traction. As weary as some consumers might be of hearing about sustainability, there’s a friendly reminder that there is an actual doomsday clock for saving the planet from almost irreversible environmental destruction.

While sustainability continues to be the must-have and must-do thing in the fashion industry, upcycling has become increasingly popular. Upcycling is the creative reuse of transforming byproducts, waste materials, previously used, or unwanted products into something of new quality and artistic value.

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Luxury Italian fashion house Miu Miu, the “little sister” of the Prada Group, recently released a collection of upcycled vintage pieces. Miuccia Prada, the designer for Miu Miu, was one of the first major luxury designers to hop on the sustainability train and has been a champion of creating more eco-friendly designs. Prada recently launched the Prada Re-Nylon regenerated nylon project which reimagines the iconic Prada nylon bags in a sustainable re-nylon fabrication.

Prada’s commitment to sustainability has caused a domino effect. Luxury brand Rianna + Nina recently released their Kendima collection, a line of dresses made from upcycled tablecloths from the ‘40s and ‘50s. The products were handmade in the brand’s Berlin atelier, and has been well received on, which is carrying the line.

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Designer Shie Lyu, who had to relocate from New York to China during the COVID-19 pandemic, thought she would have had a difficult time creating a collection in China where she’d yet to connect with anyone in the local industry. But it was the glory of upcycling that saved her collection. The designer created a series of gorgeous, beaded flapper-style dresses that were made of material acquired from leftover materials from previous projects at Chinese factories. This upcycling process made the collection incredibly affordable to produce.

However, Lyu has made it clear that her end goal isn’t to create a 100 percent sustainable brand, but, rather, she was getting resourceful during the COVID-19 lockdown. This begs the question, is the fashion industry serious about sustainability and upcycling, or is this just a trend for the moment?

 “Greenwashing” has unfortunately become an issue in the fashion industry, where fashion brands give the impression their brands are sustainable, when that is quite the contrary. H&M has been considered one of the guiltiest greenwashing megabrands. H&M has a network of 4000 stores with plans to add thousands of more stores in the future. While this growth stands to bring in more revenue for the company, producing clothes to fill all these stores, no matter how sustainable they try to make them, comes at an environmental cost.

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ReMake, a non-profit fashion company, reported that 80 percent of discarded textiles are globally incinerated or landfill bound. Rather than letting their discarded materials go to waste, why doesn’t H&M create their own sustainable collections?

In October, H&M did take at least one step in the right direction of upcycling and sustainability. Their Stockholm store launched a program where customers can transform used garments into one of three different clothing items.

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Customers can bring in any garment they don’t want, which will be cleaned and then put into a machine called Looop. The machine disassembles the product and shreds it into fibers that are used to make a new garment with options including a sweater, a baby blanket, or a scarf, all for a very modest fee of $11 to $16. H&M says its goal by 2030 is to have all its products made of completely sustainable materials. The company has also launched a garment collecting program where they give customers a discount on new clothes when they bring in unwanted clothes.

The issue with a lot of fast fashion is the materials used are often synthetic, which can’t be easily recycled. Fast fashion megabrand Zara, in their quest to become eco-friendlier, has said that by 2025 all cotton, linen, and polyester they use will be organic, sustainably sourced, or recycled.

Despite fast fashion’s efforts to curtail their environmental footprint, the 2015 documentary “The True Cost” exposed the problems fast fashion causes by creating mass amounts of new products in weekly production, in addition to creating inhumane working conditions for workers. The environmental cost of fast fashion is also affecting the quality of life for garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia. While the price of clothing has continued to decrease, the environmental costs continue to surmount. This causes us to question if H&M and Zara’s steps are sufficient, or just small bandages on a larger problem these megabrands have yet to address?

Luxury brands like Chanel have even come out with sustainability plans, such as the Chanel Mission 1.5 plan which involves upcycling cast-off wood chips to create biodegradable packaging for their fragrances and cosmetics. The company’s sustainability plan also targets things like reducing carbon emissions, shifting to renewable electricity, and financing climate change adaptation by working with communities most impacted by climate change.

While cost has been considered a factor in whether companies decide to become more sustainable, upcycling is actually a very effective way to cut costs. This is effective for both younger brands, as in the case of Shie Lyu, and large corporations who are looking at cost effective maneuvers to help their bottom line.

Some brands are even building their business around upcycling. Denim brand RE/DONE’s entire business model is upcycling jeans. The Los Angeles-based fashion company owes their brand ethos to vintage Levi’s, which they repurpose into new garments. All of their pieces are one-of-a-kind, building a strong following in both the womenswear and menswear markets.

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Vintage retailer Beyond Retro has also found brilliant ways to avoid letting anything go to waste. Their buyers search through thousands of vintage pieces, while only very few make it to the sales floor. As for the rest? The fabrics are upcycled and turned into brand new products based on fashion forecasts. The pieces are also very affordable, making shopping sustainably very accessible to consumers shopping at all price points.

One of the founding fathers of sustainable fashion is Patagonia. The fashion brand is considered one of the companies that paved the way for the ethical fashion space beginning in 1993 when the outdoor wear brand started using recycled plastic bottles to make their garments. This recycled plastic is used to create fleeces for many Patagonia outerwear pieces. If you own a Patagonia item that can’t be repaired, it can be returned to a Patagonia store to be reused and recycled.

Upcycling goes beyond just ready-to-wear. Berlin-based upcycling clothing brand Anekdot crafts underwear and lingerie using materials sourced from production leftovers, deadstock, and end of lines. Their company also helps empower women in Poland and throughout Europe by employing them to make the intimate wear instead of outsourcing production for cheaper labor.

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Longevity is one of the key goals of sustainability, and such is the core mission of Los Angeles-based brand Christy Dawn. Every Christy Dwan garment is made in Los Angeles using deadstock fabric to reduce their environmental footprint. The brand also sews a limited number of pieces for each look, each one numbered. This severely reduces the chance of catching someone at a party in the same dress as you.

British-based Fanfare is considered one of the UK’s pioneers in sustainability and is also a major proponent of “slow fashion.” The brand only launches one collection per year and encourages consumers to use their clothes for as long as possible. They also help prolong the life of used clothes by redesigning them into new pieces. The brand upcycles vintage pieces and turns them into new one-of-a-kind pieces.

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While there are still issues in the fashion industry, like greenwashing, in the long run, upcycling and sustainability look like the most monetarily efficient and in-demand direction of the future. As customers continue to become more educated about products and the environmental costs, they are asking for brands to step up and offer better quality and more eco-friendly products. Sustainability and upcycling are moving beyond buzz words, to the inevitability of the future. Say hello to a greener future and a greener fashion industry.

—Kristopher Fraser

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