What is upcycling?
Upcycling, also known as ‘creative reuse,’ refers to the method of repurposing a used item into something else. In the context of upcycling clothes, it means taking an old piece of clothing that’s tattered, worn, broken, ripped or frayed and giving it new life so it can be worn or used again.
“If you’ve heard the phrase ‘turning trash into treasure,’ that’s exactly what upcycling is,” explains Laura Wittig, CEO and founder of sustainable online platform Brightly. “Essentially, upcycling means taking something old – that would likely be destined for the landfill – and turning it into something new.”
What are the benefits of upcycling?
When you upcycle just about anything, you’re prolonging the item’s life and ultimately preventing it from heading to the landfill – or, at least, extending its life prior to the landfill. You’re choosing to get more use out of the item before throwing it away.
“Upcycling is one of the best things you can do for the planet,” Wittig says. “It gives a new life to something that would typically be thrown away, keeping waste out of landfills. Aside from reducing waste, it also minimises the use of new materials needed to produce new products, as well as reduces the carbon emissions from mass manufacturing.” This means you’re also reducing your carbon footprint.
Reader’s Digest consulted Stephanie Moram, CEO and founder Good Girl Gone Green and host of the Green Junkie podcast. She adds: “Upcycling reduces landfill waste and textile waste, requires less energy than recycling, saves natural resources – and therefore reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the process – encourages creativity, encourages sustainability practices and [results in] one-of-a-kind products.” Talk about a win-win!
There’s also an undeniable monetary benefit to upcycling. “When you need something, your go-to response is probably buying something new. It’s something we’re all so used to doing,” Wittig notes. “But upcycling what you already have not only reduces waste – it also saves you a lot of money.”
What types of clothing can you upcycle?
Just about any type of clothing can be upcycled, as long as you have a vision and a little bit of imagination.
“Clothing is one of the easiest things to upcycle,” Wittig says. “You can turn old jeans into jean shorts, tote bags and household items like wall organisers. T-shirts can be transformed into produce bags, doormats and hanging planters. You can even upcycle old socks, turning them into cleaning rags, erasers for whiteboards and bean bags for outdoor activities. The options are truly endless.”
Clothing that can be easily upcycled includes (but is not limited to):
In fact, even something as occasion- and fabric-specific as wedding gowns can be upcycled. Just take it from Nadia Manjarrez, creative director and founder of Nadia Manjarrez Studio Bridal, who launched both her debut bridal collection and a unique upcycling program last season, to much anticipation. “We upcycle wedding gowns and turn them into another meaningful garment,” Manjarrez tells Reader’s Digest.
And the demand is certainly there. Global search for ‘upcycle wedding dress ideas’ has increased by 33 per cent versus the year prior, and ‘upcycled wedding dress’ is even a popular search on Etsy as of late, turning up small-business vendors who transform gowns into handkerchiefs and other special mementos.
Manjarrez’s clients have the option of then, post-wedding, returning their wedding garment so that it can be altered or reconstructed for another future occasion. The process – a transformation, really – takes place at the brand’s atelier in Culiacán, Mexico, and takes anywhere from six to eight weeks. Manjarrez and her all-female team consult with customers in person and/or via email and video to turn wedding gowns into the repurposed, upcycled garments of their clients’ dreams.
Some brides who anticipate having children in the future may even opt to upcycle their wedding dress into a christening gown for their future child. How crafty (and special!) is that? Celebrities are even hopping on board the upcycled-wedding-dress bandwagon. Emma Watson made her first red-carpet appearance in years in October 2021 donning an upcycled wedding dress designed by Harris Reed.