Upcycling: why is it becoming essential in fashion?

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The current need to find increasingly sustainable production and consumption models makes upcycling a buzzword. In the fashion industry, upcycling is the creation of one-of-a-kind clothes and accessories starting from waste materials, which can be unsold products and stock, vintage items, and unused raw materials.

The history of the term upcycling

The history of the term upcycling begins in October 1994, when the German mechanical engineer Reiner Pilz used it for the first time in an article. Pilz commented on the European Union legislation about waste disposal, affirming that it provided for destroying what should have been reused and repurposed (as involved by upcycling today).

The idea was yet forgotten until 2002, when the US architect William McDonough and the German chemist Michael Braungart published the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things about creative recycling, stating that we should do everything to extend and improve the life cycle of materials and items.

The difference between recycling and upcycling

The difference between recycling and upcycling is pretty big. Recycling means collecting and processing materials and items which have been thrown away to make new products. The final quality is equal to or lower than the initial.

On the contrary, upcycling allows reusing materials and items which have yet to be thrown away to make new products with improved quality, new functionalities, and higher value, aesthetics included.

Both recycling and upcycling can happen pre- or post-consumer. In the first situation, the materials have not been sold and used by consumers, while in the second, the finished products have already been sold and used.

The data about the clothes thrown away each year

If we look at the data about waste in the fashion industry, it is clear why often upcycling is not a voluntary strategy anymore yet an increasing need. According to the European Parliament, since 1996, the amount of clothes bought by each European citizen has grown by 40%. This trend has been due to the sharp price decline, which has shortened the clothing life cycle. European citizens buy almost 26 kg of textiles and dispose of 11 kg of them annually. 87% of the clothes thrown away each year end up in landfills or are burned. The same happens to unsold garments, about 25 billion worldwide.

The benefits of upcycling

The benefits of upcycling are mainly linked, but not limited, to environmental topics. Upcycling allows giving a second life to materials and items, drastically reducing the impact of an industry on the environment. This activity decreases the amount of waste to be disposed of, the demand for new materials, and consequently, CO2 emissions and the use of polluting substances used in the production processes.

Upcycling also means that companies and consumers can save money: the first since they need less water, energy, and raw materials in their operations, the latter since they can modify and repurpose their items when needed or desired.

Finally, upcycling allows creating of one-of-a-kind and precious products and releasing creativity if people decide, for instance, to repurpose a garment or an accessory firsthand.

Candiani Upcycling Project

We saw in the fall-winter 2023-2024 fashion shows that upcycling is supposed to be a big trend in the denim industry. The Candiani Upcycling Project (CUP) aims to give new life to our old fabrics and denim garments. Every piece is unique and fully made in our micro-factory in piazza Mentana, 3, Milan.

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