The value added benefits that are gained with upcycling, are quickly driving it to a number one position in the aspirational fashion market. As a result it is slowly consigning its older first cousin 'recycling' to a mass consumer driven activity in the sustainability continuum. As efforts to grapple with continuity of supply of recycled materials (feedstock) grind their way up the sustainable innovation ladder, 'upcycling' is enjoying a freedom to soar into truly innovative materials and creations thanks mainly to the talent of emerging designers. These designs are hard to replicate and herald a new challenge for the luxury markets that is one of sustainable design leadership.


Whilst this article will focus on the drive to close the loop in the lifecycle of a garment and what this means for fast v slow fashion, it is not possible to look at the challenges in designing with post-consumer clothes without also examining the artificial construct in which fashion businesses operate. Like it or not designers are bound by legislative frameworks and regulations which create incentives as well as unintended consequences. Sometimes these constructs are not at the forefront in the daily machinations of a fashion business. And yet they shape industries and provide powerful tools to dictate the pace of change which in turn must meet the needs of consumers if the sector is to preserve, let alone increase its share of household expenditure.


As consumers grapple increasingly with information overload and the added responsibility that comes with physically checking the item quality after payment online, they rely on accrued brand performance which builds trust and reputation. They chose brands which reflect their lifestyle choices. The challenge with maintaining trust is that it takes a long time to build and reputations can be destroyed in an instant. It is not surprising then that a granular approach to the traceability of a fashion item is one of a suite of tools now available to companies to manage adherence to brand values. Even more encouraging is the evidence of all-inclusive approaches to sustainability being taken by leading brands in the mass market and the benefits that come with such a response.


Why is it important to recycle or upcycle?


Recycling /upcycling play a major role in the sustainability criteria of economic, environmental and social dimensions. They underwrite a closed loop model which funds the notion of "for all forever" in a globe of finite resources. For the fashion sector recycling contributes to the elimination of waste through reuse of materials and finished garments, conservation of the environment in particular reduction in landfill and pollution through redirection of waste to alternative uses and preservation of natural resources including water and natural virgin fibres through a model in which the same materials can be used over and over again. As the market moves away from staple and towards continuous filaments, the opportunities to grind blend and extrude fibres offers enormous potential for innovation in recycling technologies in addition to economic stimulus and employment.


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.