‘Since 2002, all of my collections have followed the principles of upcycling − a process which brings leftover materials back into the production cycle with the help of design. I was (and still am!) so excited about the possibilities of upcycling that I enrolled in a doctoral program and began working on my dissertation entitled “Trash to Trend: Using Upcycling in Fashion Design”,’ says sustainable designer Reet Aus. In four years, she has taken her passion to the next level and created software which enables brands and manufacturers to apply industrial upcycling methods and turn textile leftovers from cost to value. Upmade software has already been noticed worldwide – this year it was one of the finalists of The Ecolab Award for Circular Economy Digital Disruptor. The jury of this reputable competition explained their choice, saying that this software really has the potential to make production of globalised mass clothing more sustainable.
Upmade is a production and design method that can be implemented with the help of software. The software itself won’t solve the problem, but it creates the opportunity to receive information about the volume and material of leftover textile from production. For example, the software makes it possible to predict how much will be left over from a certain volume of jeans going into production. ‘The Upmade software uses algorithms created by us, which is our main know-how. The software helps us to share our knowledge in the best possible way. It is the first level of value creation,’ explains Marko Kiisa, Manager of Upmade.
But the reduction of waste is not only achieved on the basis of information – someone needs to create new garments out of leftovers, someone has to sell them in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach in financial terms and not just in terms of environmental sustainability. As cynical as it may sound, large fashion retail chains have never been concerned about the mountains of waste they have created in developing countries – dealing with this problem is only seen as an additional cost and therefore there is little interest in solving the problem. The factories of developing countries have no choice but to literally leave tons of textile leftovers “behind the building” in a pile.
‘Many brands want to do the right thing, but if that is something one has to systematically spend extra money on, it is just left out of the business plan,’ admits Kiisa. This is where Upmade comes into play – the software enables designers to think about what to do with specific leftovers, in other words, to turn waste into money.
How to make designers and producers aware of the software, while at the same time profiting from Upmade? What is the business plan of Upmade? ‘First and foremost we are approaching the headquarters of fashion brands, because they hold the keys to solutions. Garment producers who are under contract cannot produce clothes for another brand from the leftovers of a third brand, at least not at the industrial level. Our software offers brands the opportunity to get rid of their own waste, by creating products which will bring additional profit. And we will earn from the additional revenue they make,’ explains Marko Kiisa.
To producers/factories, Upmade offers the chance to get rid of textile waste systematically by producing upcycled garments and profit rather than disposing of material bit by bit or throwing it away. Each producer who starts to implement Upmade technology will receive a special certificate. The Upmade certificate confirms that the producer is capable of industrial upcycling and follows specific social and environmental criteria.
Reet Aus’ own fashion label Up-Shirt includes T-shirts with an upward pointing arrow, which are made of leftover textiles. These shirts save an average of 91% of the water and 87% of the energy used in production and create 80% less CO2. Under the label Reet Aus, she also produces tops, business shirts and jackets for women on the principle of slow fashion. Those clothes are the proof of the concept of Upmade technology. They demonstrate the capacity of the technology as well as financial viability for large corporations because the model is simple to scale up. ‘Since completing my doctoral studies, I have been applying my research to the real world. In 2012, I began cooperating with Beximco, one of the biggest apparel manufacturers in Bangladesh. In my collections, I implement upcycling in the early stages of the mass production process. This has improved efficiency and reduced environmental impact − each item we produce this way uses, on average, 70% less water and 88% less energy compared to regularly mass-produced items,’ says Aus.
Currently, three producers have Upmade certificates − Kishor Export in India; one of the largest factories in Southeast Asia − the above-mentioned Beximco in Bangladesh; and the Estonian shirt producer Sangar. Beximco is also a member of the ILO (International Labour Organisation), meaning they are regularly audited for their employees’ working conditions, salary levels and social guarantees.
A fourth factory, in India, is set to join the ranks soon and negotiations are ongoing with many other producers. The whole process of waiting for a larger fashion brand to experience the “click” moment and start thinking of upcycling as part of their business strategy takes time.
‘Several large brands are currently focusing on post-consumer waste because the consumers are here in Europe and North America. We see those volumes and we are demanding solutions. But we do not see the production waste created in third world countries and hence we are unable to demand anything. It just demonstrates the complexity of the problem,’ explains Marko Kiisa. At the same time, the problem starts with the lack of know-how or the lack of will to make use of leftovers whilst designing or producing clothes.
‘I can give an example about real production data – one global fashion brand orders 250 000 male shirts from a single factory every month. According to Upmade’s calculations, we could produce up to 25 000 additional upcycled shirts from these textile leftovers. That would reduce leftovers by more than 50%. And this 10% of additional production is where Upmade can also earn revenues from its technology.’
The difference between upcycling and downcycling
In general, there are three terms used when talking about the waste hierarchy.
Reusing describes practices when, for example, a glass bottle is used again for the same purpose – or when objects are used repeatedly for their intended functions, as in the case of all common second-hand stores.
The other two terms – upcycling and downcycling – go under the umbrella word Recycling.
Upcycling means that, rather than transforming a material, it is given a new quality or value through design – which is what I do.
Downcycling covers the transformation of potentially useful material into another product through the use of energy or resources, like plastic bottles that are downcycled into another form of plastic of lesser quality.
These terms are often used in the wrong situations. Furthermore, calling downcycling upcycling gives the product more value in the waste hierarchy, downcycling consumes more energy. The most sustainable approach is of course to reuse products in their original functions. This is followed by upcycling, which is the most ethical method of recycling – for example, making new clothes from old ones.