Why Fashion Brands are Upcycling Their Way Down the Runway

We’re all familiar with recycling and its massive impact on the environment, but there’s a new movement happening in the fashion industry that takes repurposing waste to a whole new level: upcycling.

Upcycling is the process of reusing existing fabrics and accessories and reworking vintage pieces into something new and fresh.

The fashion industry, unfortunately, is a major contributor to both landfills and toxic water pollution. According to Greenpeace, over 15 million tons of clothing produced end up in landfills every year. Upcycling can reduce textile waste by reusing deadstock or previously used fabrics that would otherwise end up in landfills, to create a new garment.

In addition to decreasing textile waste, upcycling can also help to decrease water consumption.

It is estimated by Global Fashion Agenda that the fashion industry uses over 80 billion cubic meters of water in production per year. That’s enough to fill over 30 million Olympic-size swimming pools! Making a single new cotton t-shirt can use up to 700 gallons of water, however using a pre-existing t-shirt to craft something new requires close to no water.

Consumers, especially Millennial shoppers, are becoming more aware of the fashion industry’s negative impact on the environment and are beginning to demand that brands and retailers do more to decrease their footprint. Upcycling is one of the most efficient and straightforward ways to do just that.

Rather than sourcing new to market fabrics, women’s fashion brand Reformation purchases deadstock fabric from other fashion houses that over order. They focus on reworking these fabrics into new, on-trend garments. Additionally, they recently launched a collection of upcycled vintage items that are available both in-store and online. The collection includes denim, tops, and dresses, all of which have been altered and updated from existing material.

Denim brand RE/DONE has built an entire business out of upcycling jeans. The Los Angeles based company collects vintage men’s and women’s Levi’s jeans, takes them apart at the seams, then repurposes the fabric into new styles. In addition to being more eco-friendly, each pair of RE/DONE jeans is hand cut and one of a kind.

UK-based retailer ASOS has also launched a collection of upcycled or “Reclaimed Vintage” pieces on their website. Similar to RE/DONE, ASOS sources vintage items and makes slight alterations to the garments to make them feel fresh.

So the question stands: should all brands start upcycling?

Brands with a long history or legacy, such as Levi’s and Ralph Lauren, have a unique opportunity to pull from their own archives, bringing back items from decades past. Beyond the environmental benefit, vintage items are largely seen today as exclusive and special, especially for a younger consumer, allowing for a higher price point.

Although vintage items are not the right fit for all brands and retailers, there is an element of upcycling that can be adopted by all fashion brands. Deadstock, fabric that hasn’t been used, or purchased, is usually discarded to landfills at the end of the season or year. Rather than focusing on the newest fabrics in market, a brand can use these deadstock fabrics to create new garments, thus decreasing the amount of fabric ending up in landfills.