What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the creative re-use of a discarded product or material into a new product of higher value than the original. In simple terms, when you use creativity to bring a waste product back to life by creating something new out of it, it is termed as upcycling.

What is upcycled fashion?

When any discarded material is used to create a fashion product - a garment, an accessory, a shoe etc, the end product is called an upcycled fashion product.
For example - Plastic waste used to create fashion jewellery or shoes. Another example would be using an old pair of jeans to create a new utility bag.

Why is upcycling important in the fashion industry?

We live in a world today where consumption is at its peak. We are in the midst of a use and throw economy and discarding products after using them a few times has become the norm.
When it comes to fashion, it has become one of the largest polluters of the environment. Not just in the way that garments are produced but also how they are consumed and discarded. The fast fashion industry has made fashion less about clothes and more about “fast” trends. Where earlier fashion houses would have 2-4 seasons every year, now some brands house upto 52 “micro” seasons every year. With every new trend, the older trend is designed to look obsolete and no longer in “vogue”.

According to statistics, women wear a garment approximately 7 times before throwing it away. Some are donated, some are given to charity stores but most of them end up on the landfill. Our landfills are choking with products that were consumed for a short period of time and discarded mindlessly.

95% of the garments that end up on the landfill could have been recycled, re-used or upcycled. This is what makes upcycling a vital solution for waste that is generated in the world today to close the loop of fashion and pave a way towards a more circular economy.

How is upcycling different from recycling?

Recycling is the process of reducing a product to its' raw material form and then creating a new product out of it whereas upcycling is the process of using creativity to make something new and of better value, from an existing product.

For example - If there is a glass bottle, melting it down to its raw material form to make a glass is termed as recycling. Whereas, adding a bulb and a lampshade to the glass bottle to make a lamp is termed as upcycling. (See image below)

upcycling vs recycling


Recycling and upcycling are both possible solutions for materials that are on their way to the landfill and both have their advantages and disadvantages. However, we need both to be able to achieve circularity in fashion.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy is one where no waste is generated and after a product has reached the end of its’ life, it is re-used, recycled or upcycled to create a new product. It completely eliminates waste and increases the life of each product by many years.

It is the opposite of a linear economy where products follow a “take, make and dispose” model.

Advantages of upcycling?

Upcycling has many advantages, some of which are listed below -

  1. It helps divert waste products & materials from the landfill
  2. It challenges over consumption and drives consumers towards conscious consumption
  3. It encourages self care, repair and mending of products that get old or damaged using basic skills like stitching, craft or carpentry.
  4. It results in the creation of unique, one of a kind products with a soul

What can we upcycle?

Almost all products can be upcycled - from clothing to furniture to tyres.

How can you upcycle?

Although it may sound like a professional skill, there are easy ways that can help you get started on your upcycling journey from the comfort of your home. They are listed below -

  1. Learn how to stitch using a needle and thread so that the next time you loose a button from your shirt, instead of discarding the shirt, you can bring it back to life.
  2. Use your creativity to mend garments that have either gotten stained or torn by using natural food dyes like beetroot to dye garments or using threadwork to create a pattern where a garment is torn.
  3. Swap garments you don’t wear anymore with your friends or colleagues.
  4. Buy second hand garments and accessories from a vintage / thrift store so that you help elongate the lives of the old treasures that could have been on their way to the landfill.
  5. Create a capsule wardrobe where each garment is something that you can wear for a long time. Buy garments the way you would buy jewelry, after much thought.
  6. Care for your garments like they matter - ensure that you wash them less and take care of them so that they can be worn longer.
  7. Buy from upcycling brands who are creating fashion and accessories out of waste.