Upcycling hits the streets of London | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 14.02.2011
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Upcycling hits the streets of London

Britain's landfills may run out of space within the next decade. But London designers have found a way to divert textiles away from dumps and turn them into high-end fashion pieces.

A sewing machine

Is it possible to fashionable without leaving a trail of textile trash?

Designers in London are helping to divert mountains of discarded materials away from British landfills. The trend is called 'upcycling' and it entails taking used fabrics and reusing them in designs which are both commercially and aesthetically more valuable. The concept has been around for years, but the market for these goods is growing. Even large-scale, mainstream retailers are taking an interest.

Textile Recycling and Aid for International Development, or TRAID, uses the profits from its upcycled fashion lines to support social and environmental projects around the world. Their upcycled fashion label rescues cast-off textiles, crafting tweed bags out of old suit jackets and 1960s dresses from old floral fabrics.

TRAID Communications Manager Leigh McAlea says upcycling tends to draw customers who like to look different. "At a time when so much is so easily reproduced, so quickly, in such mass quantities, for such cheap prices, the consequences of that are you are probably going to walk around wearing what everyone else is wearing," she said. "So, (upcycling) kind of offers uniqueness and something ethical at the same time."

Going mainstream

Rolls of textiles

Big companies say mass production is easier and cheaper than upcycling

In order for the movement to have any lasting environmental impact, industry insiders say upcycling needs to go mainstream. Worn Again is an upcycling company that works with large corporations, helping them find ways to reuse their their waste materials. They have managed to get big names like Eurostar and Virgin Atlantic on board, creating bags and accessories from old uniforms and decommissioned hot air balloons.

But creating a sustainable production line is a major challenge for big corporations, says Worn Again's Chief Executive Cyndi Rhoades. "With conventional products and manufacturing, you get a roll of textiles. You can standardize the manufacturing," she explained in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

"With upcycling, you are getting random materials, all different sizes and shapes," she said. "You need to work on a process that will enable them to do it at a higher volume than just one-piece by one-piece."

Rhoades says corporate upcycling could see the return of textile manufacturing to Britain. That would curb emissions caused by transporting materials, and reduce the carbon footprint of the textiles industry.

Upcycling pioneers

Mainstream retailers are showing increasing interest in upcycling. British supermarket chain Tesco has already launched its fourth collection of upcycled clothing, made from waste-fabric collected in their factories. Having already outsourced its clothes manufacturing, Tesco decided to upcycle pre-consumer waste from its factories in Asia.

Textile factory

Big stores need higher production volumes than upcycling currently provides

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Tesco executive Alan Wragg explained that it was difficult to participate in textile recycling, and also maintain healthy sales figures. "It's really, really difficult. You are talking about almost bespoke, hand-crafted, individual pieces, as opposed to mass-market production. We all know that it would take a massive revolution to change it," he said.

But Wragg said Tesco plans to be a market leader in sustainable fashion. "We are really pioneering upcycling. If we back it... eventually it should make commercial sense, and it should become cheaper."

Author: Nina Maria Potts

Editor: Saroja Coelho

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