Why Giving Old Garments a Second Life is More than a Passing Trend

Key Takeaways

  1. Small labels seeking to work with upcycled clothing in their lines must have access to significant resources since the process is labor-intensive and costly when scaled up.
  2. Upcycling is a step towards a closed-loop fashion system but the process is not yet 100% sustainable.
  3. By creating a take-back program, brand creators can benefit from indirect marketing, boost brand recognition, and create a channel for receiving raw materials.

Fashion has always been a reflection of society and the events of the last year have undoubtedly affected the visions of designers as well as shifted consumer tastes. While fantasy continues to be an integral part of what drives the industry, buyers are increasingly motivated to purchase from brands that are rooted in reality and take part in sustainability initiatives. Upcycling is the process of reworking fabrics and used articles of clothing into new garments in order to reduce waste and create limited-run products. For small independent brands seeking to introduce upcycling into their collections taking a page from established brands that are paving the way is essential.

Large lines have been creating upcycled jackets, tops, and even bags for several years now. While upcycled clothing is not the entirety of their production, brands with access to more resources have an advantage in this space. Companies such as Patagonia and Stella McCartney have been championing green modes of production and have developed infrastructures to support these efforts. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program established in 2013 “sorts and processes old clothes” by offering customers gift cards for their used wares according to the Business of Fashion. Clothing that is sellable is mended and sold at a discounted price, while pieces that are beyond repair are shredded or taken apart. This material is used in a vertical supply chain whereby pieces are redyed or constructed using what was once considered a wasteful by-product. Stella McCartney takes Patagonia’s process one step further by only working with upcycled fabrics such as her organic denim and pieces leftover from previous seasons in her new collections. The designer, a 2020 Fashion Awards winner in the Environment category, is now branching out to work with cast-offs from other brands proving that her efforts go beyond just good PR (WWD). Smaller established brands that wish to incorporate upcycling into their collections must decide how they will source materials. For brands with access to resources and an established customer base creating a business system that incentives shoppers to return worn items may be optimal. Similarly, young independent designers that are invigorated by the move towards upcycling can learn from companies that have made refashioning garments integral to their brand DNA.

Marine Serre

Established in 2018 Marine Serre’s eponymous label works with “materials that have no inherent value such as old jeans, recycled fabrics, and bedsheets, [with] around 50% of silhouettes in her ‘Green Line’ collection were recycled fabrics.” (BOF) Serre’s commitment to sustainability and closing the fashion circle has informed her design process from inception to completion.The LVMH winner’s team scours the world for deadstock materials and visits second-hand shops where items that fit the ultimate vision for the collection are purchased. Next, careful thought is put into the best way to treat and rework these items. The machines utilized by her suppliers are able to detect the “exact fibers the materials are made of so that they only work with the best materials,” (PAPER). Serre’s process is nuanced and varies depending on what the company is working with at the time. Once these raw materials arrive in studio, quality control is done by her in-house upcycling team. While Serre seeks out used items for her brand, American label Eileen Fisher is reinventing the wheel altogether by changing how it manufactures clothing. In this way, when garments reach the end of their lifecycle, they’re more easily upcycled. According to a recent interview in the Business of Fashion, Shona Quinn, the sustainability leader for the brand explained that garments with a variety of fibers are more difficult to reuse. The brand’s designers are now looking to simplify the makeup of fibers found within their clothing. Like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher’s Renew line takes back worn items from customers to rehab essentially moving one step closer to creating a closed-loop system. This method creates products that are made of repurposed materials “that works to keep clothes in circulation for as long as possible (also known as circular design)” according to the Good Trade. Despite the inherent challenges faced by fashion brands with upcycling, an idea that seems counterintuitive to the industry, since its lifeblood is consumer consumption, there are distinctive advantages.

There’s no question that today’s consumers are inundated with more choices than ever. Newer labels that can’t rely on brand recognition alone, as well as established brands that must continue to evolve, both struggle with customer acquisition and retention. Attracting shoppers through targeted ads and marketing can be a large drain of company resources. Yet clothing brands that participate in a take-back program stand out amongst competitors at a fraction of the cost (Vogue Business). In this way, labels are able to receive raw materials to upcycle into new products, as well as appeal to consumers that wish to purchase clothing from brands that care about sustainability. Brands like For Days which produces t-shirts from recycled fibers and organic bedding company Coyuchi offer subscription programs for customers. They take back their used merchandise to be repurposed into new products. While Patagonia’s Worn Wear line has been able to use the data from their take-back program to understand who their customer is; “The California company found that the line doesn’t cannibalize existing sales, but brings in customers who are, on average, ten years younger than the typical Patagonia shopper,” (Vogue Business). Independent brands can attract a loyal clientele, while creating products that are less harmful to the environment by mirroring the strategies of these startups. In recent years, upcycling has become a buzzword within the industry with notable advantages for the longevity of a brand, but it’s imperative for burgeoning brands to understand that the process is not a perfect science. 

Upcycling alone cannot solve the problem of an open loop system, nor can it resolve all of the issues which have become apparent within our globalized supply chain. Certain materials can not be reworked and clothing that is soiled is sometimes too damaged to save. Patagonia openly admits that its warehouse in Reno has become overrun with worn items that are non salvageable and cannot be repurposed into new product. There is no current solution for this issue, as many countries have stopped accepting imported waste textiles from the West such as China as of January 2018, and India as of March 2019. Incinerating this material would lead to the release of noxious greenhouse gases, so until a new technology is developed the pile continues to grow (Patagonia.com). A small brand without deep pockets could not continue to house these materials. Upcycling also means that a brand must work with what is available, meaning there is a bottleneck in production, as there may be an inflow of more worn clothing than a brand is able to rework. Items that are size XS, for example, may not be large enough to repurpose. Alternately, an item that does well may be short lived because there is a finite amount of a particular piece to refashion. In addition, only products that are a higher price point may be financially sustainable since the production costs of upcycling are generally higher overall (Forbes). Scaling up an upcycling endeavor is costly and may be unrealistic for some smaller brands.

Brands whose core values around sustainability are aligned with growing consumer sentiment are primed for success in an extremely competitive market. The move towards eco-friendly, more durable clothing is not going away. Designers that integrate upcycled pieces into their collections or work with these materials exclusively will run into unique pain points. Careful consideration related to the cost of production, design limitations, and where to source material will need to be determined by brand leaders. For those companies that wish to be part of the solution to the environmental crisis while also developing a loyal clientele, upcycling may prove to be an invaluable asset in their creative process.