Upcycling: The New Wave in Sustainable Fashion

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A dress made from recycled materials draws a crowd at an award-winning fashion show held at the Museum of Science and Industry. (c) Flickr/Creative Commons

Sustainable fashion: You’ve probably heard the term. Perhaps you know designers such as Stella McCartney are passionate about promoting it, and that sustainable fashion brands including SVILU and Kowtow are gathering more and more of a following. Talent Management explores what ‘sustainable fashion’ really means.

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

The word sustainable comes from ‘sustain’, meaning to be able to keep on doing something. Over the last decade, environmentalists and social commentators have become concerned that how we manufacture our clothes is unsustainable. This could be because the fabric is non-renewable; it is harmful to the environment; it requires too much energy and water to make; or it produces too much pollution. It might also be because of the working conditions of the people making it. But how do you make clothes differently, sustainably?

One approach involves choosing different textiles. Natural fibres such as cotton, hemp, flax and animal hair are considered sustainable because they are renewable. Synthetic materials including polyester and viscose contain non-renewable chemicals from the earth and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

It sounds simple, but this is where it actually gets complicated. Growing cotton conventionally uses a great deal of water and pesticides. Using animal products requires water and food to feed the animals. In addition, high-quality textiles require more dye, which can produce more toxic waste. Truly sustainable fashion is expensive. So is it realistic to expect people to engage in sustainable fashion?

Affordable, Eco-Friendly Clothing

Fortunately, there is a way to produce clothing sustainably without paying a fortune. It’s called ‘upcycling’. And maybe you’re already doing it.

One of the most unsustainable elements associated with fashion in the last 20 years has been its disposability. Fashion giants such as H&M came out advertising that their fashion was ‘throw–away’, that you could use it to stuff your bass drum if it was too loud. The result was twofold: synthetic fibres started to pile up in landfills all over the world, and the quality and durability of clothing was compromised (meaning much of it suitable for donations). But upcycling changes this. Upcycling is taking existing items and re-using the fabric; re-cutting and re-sowing to make something better than the original pieces. This keeps the fabric out of the landfill and away from the charity shop bin, too.

Perhaps the idea of wearing a dress made out of an old pair of jeans doesn’t appeal to everyone. But upcycling uses both pre-consumer and post-consumer materials. Pre-consumer means scraps from the cutting table or unsold products or a combination of the two. Post-consumer items can be formed of fashion denim re-cut into a skirt but it can equally mean a series of skirts hemmed with expensive fabric from a vintage ballgown worn only once.

A Unique Look Through Upcycling

This is a great way to get one-off, unique pieces in a world flooded with clothes that all tend to look a bit samey. And if you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can produce your very own fashion. But even if you’re not, there are plenty of ways in which you can upcycle your own old clothes. How about making jewellery by wrapping strips of your old concert t-shirts or scarves around unfashionable plastic bangles and chipped beaded necklaces? And who hasn’t cut off an old pair of jeans to make a new pair of Daisy Dukes?

But is upcycling sustainable? Didn’t we just say that the quality and durability of fabrics was reducing? Are we just going to run out of quality fabrics with which to upcycle?

This is why upcycling is so great. Upcycling means you’re possibly getting two or more products out of one item. And that means you’ll be willing to pay more for better quality. Upcycling is driving a surge in high-quality vintage shopping. And the fashion giants are paying attention: Your shopping habits are making them take sustainable fashion seriously. Isn’t there something in your wardrobe by H&M Conscious?

Okay, Stella McCartney might not be overly impressed with their efforts, but it’s a sign of how the fashion industry is slowly changing. And the more the major brands begin to improve their materials, the more quality material there will be for upcyclers in the future. And who knows, pretty soon we might be upcycling clothes made from sustainable fabrics. Double points!