upcycling 101

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lately I've become intrigued with the idea of "upcycling" clothing. The term "upcycle", was first used by by authors William McDonough & Michael Braungart in their 2002 manifesto on sustainable design: Cradle to Cradle; Remaking the Way We Make Things so I bought the book and am reading it right now. To be truly upcycled, according to McDonough & Braungard, a material would be either composted and used to fertilize the next crop of raw material or if manmade, returned to it's original pure state for reuse in quality manufacturing. Recycling only converts used commodities to new materials of lesser purity and quality than the original form, using a lot of energy in the process. Most of what is manufactured today are such "monstrous hybrids" that the different components cannot be separated and returned to their original state and ultimately wind up in a landfills after their second, lesser life.

Upcycling has taken on a somewhat different meaning in the indie design world. Upcyclers convert something that has outlived it's usefulness into something equally or more useful and beautiful, extending the life of the raw material. The item may or may not wind up in a landfill when the it is done with its second life, but it doesn't require much new energy to create it and slows down the need for more raw material. Much upcycling is going on in the indie design world by companies like Sardine Clothing Company who use unwanted t-shirts as their raw material and convert them into funky skirts and dresses.

 photo courtesy Sardine Clothing
I visited the Sardine booth at the Crafty Bastards show in DC and again at Cut the Craft! in Philadelphia where they were doing a brisk business with the hipster crowd. They also have a thriving business with boutiques. Upcycled clothing is impossible to mass-produce in the traditional way and has become a niche market for indie companies who also want to be easy on the environment. Cotton production is especially taxing on the environment. 25% of the world's pesticide use is on cotton crops. Cotton also requires extensive irrigation, organic or not. Then comes the milling, bleaching, and dying which release toxins into the environment. After that comes shipping over long distances using fossil fuels.

 photo courtesy Peeko Apparel
Peeko Apparel has found a unique way to convert men's shirts into modern tunic-style tops for women. Brook, founder of Peeko, feels reusing the shirts not only takes some stress off the environment, but also helps the community by supporting the charity shops where she buys the shirts.

 photo courtesy of The Devil Made Me Do It
This gorgeous pieced scarf by The Devil Made Me Do It was upcycled from cashmere sweaters. Cashmere production also causes huge strain on the environment, so extending the life of it is a good thing. If only the demand for new fiber would go down! The incredible demand for cashmere has caused farmers in China to overpopulate the grasslands with goats, stripping the lands bare and causing desertification and dust storms. Unfortunately, the true cost to the environment has not been factored in to the price of cashmere which seems to get cheaper and cheaper every year.

 photo courtesy of Snuggle Pants
This adorable child's skirt by Snuggle Pants uses every last scrap of wool from retired sweaters. First, pants are ingeniously cut from the cloth of sweaters, then whatever slivers are left get made into these charming skirts. The finished garments are even cuter than the original sweaters they came from!

The concept of repurposing unwanted clothing is nothing new. It was done out of necessity in the 1940's and throughout history. What child of the 1980's doesn't have a picture in their mind of Molly Ringwald wearing her transformed thrift store dress to the prom in the movie Pretty in Pink? The difference with today's "upcycling" is that people are aware of the negative impact that typical mass production has on our environment and are being creative about minimizing it. If only the big companies would do more to lessen their impact as well!

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