By Marieta-Rita Osezua
About 14 years ago, motivated by a desire to reduce waste, Azadeh Hessami had an idea: What if promotional banner flags from events around Vancouver could be repurposed instead of being thrown away?
She ended up launching an organization called Common Thread, which worked with women who had disabilities to create tote bags from the flags.
“They used to throw out all the banner material. It’s a lot of fabric that goes into the landfill, and it is the type of material that doesn’t degrade easily,” says Hessami (Common Thread unfortunately ceased operations just before the pandemic, but she now runs a slow fashion brand called Jonnon, where the upcycled bags continue to be made). “So it just made sense to use this material, and turn it into shopping bags that would last forever. We tried to use very high-quality thread and reinforce all the seams so they last a very long time.”
The process of converting or repurposing used textiles into a new item of higher quality is called upcycling (as opposed to recycling or downcycling, where materials are remade into something of equal or lower quality). By creating items designed to last longer, upcycling produces less waste than other forms of reuse—and it’s a growing trend.
Nicole Fontaine has been upcycling clothes for about 20 years. She’s driven by a desire to offset the amount of low-quality, cheaply-made garments (you know, the ones that fall apart after one season) that are still being produced each year.
“There’s so much fast fashion out there, and all of this fast fashion pollutes waters; it makes an enormous amount of waste,” she says. “There’s so much existing clothing out there—why not just take things that are already made and rework them into something that’s a wearable piece of art, versus buying something new?”
Fontaine launched her custom upcycling brand, Falconic by Fontaine, earlier this year. She hopes to create upcycled clothes for festivals and performers.
The fashion industry produces an estimated 100 billion items of clothing each year, and the majority of these clothes end up wasted or in landfills. Clothes are incredibly difficult to recycle, and only about one per cent gets that treatment—making upcycling all the more valuable.
Most upcycling today is done by independent creatives like Fontaine and Hassami, who are making items on a small scale. And while this might not create the large structural change required to make the fashion industry more sustainable, Elise Epp, country coordinator for Fashion Revolution Canada, says there is a happy medium to be found—and that upcycling can play a crucial role.
“I’m not working towards a world in which H&M has an upcycled collection,” she says. “I’m working towards a world in which there are thriving small businesses in every local community around the world.”
She wants to see the Canadian government legislate changes to encourage more local production of clothing, less reliance on fossil fuels, and more initiatives that help small businesses and designers thrive. She points to recent legislation in France that gives people money back for mending their clothes instead of throwing them away (though it is not without its critics).
Epp sees upcycling as a way to “address the side of fashion that has been overproducing for decades.” At Fashion Revolution Canada, they host a Student Upcycling Challenge to encourage fashion students to think creatively and sustainably about the materials they use.
“We have the materials already,” Epp says. “Instead of drilling for oil and gas to get petroleum out of which we make polyester, it’s like, ‘Well, we already have piles of fabric. Let’s use that.’”
Taylor Brydges, a research principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures in the University of Technology Sydney, says that upcycling “has a potential to change our approach to clothing”—but because it is currently done at a small scale, while global fashion brands continue to put out new clothes, its impact has been quite limited. She also stresses the importance of regulations and producers taking responsibility for fashion waste and its impact on the environment as the future of sustainable fashion.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of learning across the industry,” she says. “But hopefully we are able to start moving towards an industry that actually kind of operates within planetary boundaries—because that’s not the industry that we currently have.”
Will upcycling save fashion’s bad reputation? Not by itself. But it’s a stylish place to start.