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Recycling and Upcycling in the Apparel Industry


Recycling and Upcycling in the Apparel Industry

Recycling and Upcycling in the Apparel Industry

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.

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