Friday 9 November 2012

The Future Of Upcycling

As we all know, recycling and upcycling are by far the greenest of eco-fashion options open to us as consumers. Why put new stress on landfill sites when you can simply reuse the cool old clothing you've already got? If it's looking a bit too worn or tatty, then use bits of it to make new products! Easy lemon peasy puddings, right?

If only. That works quite nicely for a personal or small-scale enterprise, but it's tricky to ramp up the model to retail level. There are problems with erratic supply (old clothes have a way of running out or simply not being available) and with the material itself. Cotton, for example, is not something that you can simply roll into a cradle-to-cradle loop to create the ever-lasting jumper. Over time, the fibres shorten, and will eventually wear out.

Consider also the complexity of the modern garment. A breathable outdoor jacket with membrane, zips, buttons, rivets, drawstrings and bonded seams is not something that you can build with bits from other clothes. The best you can do in that case is to roll in as much material as you can from materials like PET that are based on recycled sources, like plastic drinks bottles.

The best approach is to rethink the whole process from top to bottom. Not the cheapest of options, but the one that will reap the greatest rewards in the long run. The front runner here is outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, who have run recycling programmes since 2005 and have Ebay shops for discounted preloved clothing, putting the clothes and the people that want them together. It helps that they're a cult and collectible name, of course, but Patagonia have been ahead of the curve in terms of thinking about extending the lifestyle of their products for years.

Meanwhile, Puma's Creative Sustainability Lab is going back to the design stage for future ranges of recyclable and compostable products. This is already showing dividends--the rethink of their packaging led to the introduction of the iconic Little Red Bag. This is made from recycled cardboard and can go straight onto the compost heap. it's also half the size of their old packaging, which has dropped their carbon emissions by millions of tons a year. If the big hitters are thinking like this, then you can be sure others will follow.

Innovations like smart RFID tags in clothing could have a big impact on making large-scale recycling much simpler. Data held on the tags can give a full breakdown of exactly what materials went into each item of clothing. Team this with software that can tell you what can be made from this raw material, and you have an upcycler's dream. A Swiss company called I:CO has already developed this chip, and they claim to be working with major names including yes, Puma, to further develop it.

Automation of the sorting process is also important, and a European Union initiative, the Textiles4textiles plant, is up, running, and looking for backing. This plant identifies and sorts materials like wool, cotton and polyester speedily and efficiently. A big step forward for getting raw materials back into the production cycle.

It's an exciting time for the re-and-upcycling industry, as cradle-to-cradle concepts start to percolate out from the realm of the theoretical, and into real-world applications and solutions. It's an old way of thinking, with a very 21st century spin on it.

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