The value-added benefits gained through upcycling are quickly propelling it to a top position in the aspirational fashion market. As a result, it is gradually overshadowing its older counterpart, "recycling," which has become more of a mass consumer-driven sustainability activity. While efforts to secure a continuous supply of recycled materials (feedstock) progress along the sustainable innovation ladder, upcycling is thriving, driven by the creativity of emerging designers. These unique designs are challenging the luxury market and setting a new standard for sustainable design leadership.

While this article primarily focuses on closing the loop in the lifecycle of garments and its implications for fast versus slow fashion, it's essential to examine the regulatory frameworks within which fashion businesses operate. Designers are bound by legislation and regulations that create incentives and, at times, unintended consequences. These constructs may not always be at the forefront of daily fashion business operations, yet they profoundly influence industries and provide powerful tools that dictate the pace of change, meeting the needs of consumers to preserve, and potentially increase, their share of household spending.

As consumers grapple with information overload and take on the added responsibility of checking item quality post-payment online, they rely on brand performance, which builds trust and reputation. Consumers choose brands that align with their lifestyle choices. Maintaining trust is a long-term endeavor, and reputations can be shattered in an instant. Therefore, a granular approach to tracing the origins of a fashion item is one of several tools available to companies to ensure adherence to brand values. Encouragingly, leading brands in the mass market are adopting comprehensive approaches to sustainability, reaping the benefits that come with such responses.

Why is recycling or upcycling important?

Recycling and upcycling play significant roles in the sustainability criteria of economic, environmental, and social dimensions. They support a closed-loop model that embodies the idea of "for all forever" in a world with finite resources. In the fashion sector, recycling contributes to waste reduction through material and finished garment reuse, environmental conservation by decreasing landfill and pollution through repurposing waste, and preservation of natural resources, including water and virgin fibers, by enabling the repeated use of the same materials. As the market shifts from staple fibers toward continuous filaments, the potential for innovation in recycling technologies is substantial, offering economic stimulus and employment opportunities in addition to environmental benefits.

Securing continuous supply would also have a flow on effect to upcycling which often commences at the beginning of the material development process. Upcycling therefore has an inherent stake in other sustainable activities such as design for reuse, reduction of carbon and water footprints, reduction of air pollution (greenhouse gases), use of renewable energy, ethical treatment of labour, adoption of product safety standards, safe use of dye stuffs & chemical treatments; use of biodegradable packaging and elimination of animal cruelty in the processing of fibre, leather and furs.

There is one other global incentive driving the recycling/upcycling trend. According to the United Nations report released in June 2013, World Population Prospects: the 2012 Revision, the current world population of 7.2 billion is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. With the rise in affluence of the emerging countries, fear mounts about the strain on finite resources particularly natural resources. The questions being asked are "Where will the fibres, materials and items be derived to meet the demand and how much will be needed?" The fashion sector simply must find a way to deal with the issues it is facing, a scarcity of supply of raw materials and an abundance of waste product. It must 'learn to churn'. To do this it must firstly also identify and measure the extent of the problem by quantifying and reporting on worldwide trade using units and weight.

Difference between recycling and upcycling

Recycling is finding another use for an existing garment or in the case of textiles it sometimes also means converting (waste) into reusable materials. Garment recycling generally involves finding another use or user by re-entering a new phase for its life beginning at retail. The loop to recycle therefore closes towards the end of the supply chain and frequently re-enters the market through charities and collection points. The process of recycling textiles can also include the break down or grinding of high-grade materials into their purest raw forms or substrates. Recycling technology is seen as important in combating scarcity of raw materials and offers companies additional ways of managing their supply of raw materials.

Upcycling however includes the performance of value added activity on the material or disassembled garment in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. In upcycling the new life cycle commences with a design and may require a complete manufacturing cycle as with a new product. The time frame for upcycling can be lengthy to allow for sourcing, disassembly and reconstitution.

Fast fashion vs. slow fashion

Fast fashion is derived from the principals of quick response and refers to the way in which designs move quickly from catwalk to store in order to capture current fashion trends. There are sustainability benefits to quick response principals in that they more accurately meet the needs of the market and reduce the risk of mark downs. However on the down side fast fashion has also acquired a reputation for excess and feeding an insatiable consumer demand.

Slow fashion on the other hand is a program of designing, creating and consuming garments for quality and longevity. Slow fashion has gained a reputation for inspiring lengthier production schedules, ethical treatment of labour and fair payment, lower carbon footprints and zero waste.

Challenges in designing with post-consumer clothes

Reuse of post-consumer clothes heralds the most attention and in many ways has come to represent one of the first steps on the journey to sustainability. Designing with recycled garments is also something in which consumers can actively participate through donation. Each of the fashion market segments of haute couture, ready to wear (pret-a-porter), mass market including premium, mid-market, fast fashion and discount market experience design challenges in recycling and upcycling.

At the high end the issues are in translating designs to scale and at the low end they are in securing a consistent supply of materials to replicate for a mass market. Sorting in terms of style, size, color, and fabric, requires individual creative responses to unique challenges. The requirement of innovative material responses lends itself to creative solutions, so it is no surprise that the area of upcycling used garments is dominated by small to medium enterprises.

While fashion tends not to want to bother with the arduous complexities of legislation, it does operates in an artificial construct of legislation, regulation, tax incentives, tariffs, concessions, awards, standards, provision of services, compliance and audits introduced by all levels of Government. There are many policy changes Governments can make (NGOs and advocacy groups can undertake in persuading them) to create incentives for behavioural change within the sector.

Examples of legislative levers that are or could be used to promote sustainability (recycling /upcycling) include waste redirection through landfill taxes; tax deductions for donations to charities to collect waste; Harmonized System codes which facilitates trade uniformity and could make further provision for upcycled items; stronger anti-dumping legislation to avoid trans-shipment and abandonment of responsibilities; product stewardship incentives to encourage return of goods to their origin where recycled product information is held; global apparel size standards to reduce returns of online purchases; regulation to support third party verification and standards as a solution to the problem of non-standardised materials; and finally programs to encourage R&D in upcycled materials etc. and high tech labelling to assist in sorting materials.

Furthermore quantitative methods can also be used to measure impact and improve quality of process and end product including packaging/transportation of goods e.g. benchmarks, indices, metrics, testing, auditing, reporting and accounting, bearing in mind however that recycling / upcycling adds a further layer of complexity in what is fast becoming a crowded marketplace of textile accreditations and certifications.

Market for recycled fashion garments

The market for recycled garments is difficult to assess. It is being driven by a generation that has been educated about the consequences of excess and is conscious of the finite resources of the planet. The concept of recycling is not new. In the 19th century "Rag and Bone" men scavenged for household waste and on sold to merchants. Since then "fabric jobbers" have sold mill ends and charitable organisations have fostered the growth of vintage and second hand clothing markets.

According to the Textile Exchange Fast Facts, US over seventy percent of the world's population use second hand clothing and the supply of women's clothes is seven times greater than men. Nearly five percent of the municipal waste stream in developed countries is textile scrap and the recovery rate comes in at approximately fifteen percent when the maximum recovery could be as high as ninety five percent.

What is certain is that when a garment can be made and delivered to store in under two weeks and last for as long as ten years, the pile of product at the end of the apparel supply chain will continue to escalate. As a recycled item reenters the market particularly at retail, it reestablishes a cheaper value for clothes in the minds of the consumer. This puts enormous downward price pressure on the front end of the supply chain and will drive new sustainable models for an apparel business.

Jo Kellock is the Director at Kellaborate.