“Nature does not know the concept of waste; the only species capable of making something no one desires is the human species.”
—Gunter Pauli, Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives
Forget recycling. Yes, it reduces our consumption of raw materials, air and water pollution (from incineration) and our impact on the landfill, but the hottest eco-fashion trend since organic cotton is upcycling, which truly transforms trash into treasure.
Mainstreamed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s 2002 book Cradle to Cradle (if you haven’t read it, Kindle it now), the concept takes landfill diversion one step further: Instead of recycling waste into new materials of similar value (or downcycling it into lower-quality materials), “upcycling” transforms it into a new product that’s even more valuable.
Confused? Think about what goes into your blue bin. Because it’s relatively fragile, paper can only be recycled a few times before its fibers become too short to be pulped and formed into new paper; that’s why most “recycled” paper is actually a blend of new and downcycled fibers. Glass, on the other hand, retains its durability as it’s crunched up and reformed into new glass—it’s the perfect candidate for recycling.
And although plastic degrades as it’s recycled—or downcycled—new processes allow manufacturers to upcycle the material into products that would otherwise be made of polyester, such as pillows, carpets, household linens and slinky little track suits from Degree Six or our hands-down favorite, post-consumer recycled poly hoodies from Playback.
But what about those ripped up old blue jeans that no Salvation Army in their right mind would take? You can’t blue bin those. Should you decide to toss them in the trash, you will have contributed to the 11.8 million tons of textile waste—10 pounds for every person—that the average American generates every year. You could downcycle by donating them to Habitat for Humanity, which will shred them into denim insulation. If you have a sewing machine and aren’t afraid to use it, follow the step-by-step instructions in Refashioned Bags: Upcycle Anything Into High-Style Handbags, by Faith and Justina Blakeney, and turn them into a backpack.
Or let someone else with a sewing machine upcycle for you! Send in your old jacket and get $20 off the sticker price to buy it back reincarnated as a reMade USA’s one-of-a-kind bag, made from used leather jackets and scrap materials and lined with vintage scarves. Leather scraps go to good use in Fahmina’s drop-dead gorgeous collection of leather “feather” earrings and sexy metallic cuffs.
FIDM designers created futuristic handbags from discarded industrial felt—they unzip all around and lie flat for perfect storage (or packing). Anamu uses brightly-colored vintage scarves to create their gorgeous line of limited-edition, upcycled clutches, while Recyclicious turns them into retro-pretty, one-of-a-kind headbands, perfect to upcycle your bad hair day.
Because they come in a rainbow of colors and styles, you’d think Ashley Watson’s drool-worthy collection of leather bags, belts and accessories is made from new materials, but you’d be dead wrong: Each and every piece is upcycled from reclaimed leather.
You wouldn’t necessarily throw them away, but gone are the days when a found penny guaranteed your good luck. Designer Lorna Leedy throws them under the train tracks in her hometown of Marta, TX to create the cascading squashed penny necklaces for her FancyPonyLand boutique, and scores some luck for all of us.
And over at Alkemie, old copper from electrical wiring becomes gorgeous cuffs, rings and necklaces in fantastic shapes inspired by nature.
Lizz Wassermann of Popomomo recreates her signature shapes—with its classic cut, the Skinny Blazer is a perennial favorite—in vintage and deadstock fabrics to craft one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces for her Curatorial collection.
Similarly, the mission behind Looptworks’ selection of skirts, jackets and shirts is to make each and every piece from preconsumer waste.
Finally, remember that blue bin discussion? Costume designer Kresta Lins and producer Lauren Selman emptied it out to upcycle the first dress, pictured above, in their Sustainable Sirens campaign, which is designed to heighten awareness of sustainability issues in theater and film productions. The next dress is a mermaid costume concocted from cellphones, shredders and computer monitors, among other things.
Who says trash isn’t sexy?