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Upcycling: a climate action plan

Has the upcycling movement made significant progress in addressing the issue of climate change or is it just another seasonal trend?

Climate change simply refers to the shifts in temperatures and weather patterns caused by natural and human factors. Unfortunately, this has been recognised as a negative environmental situation due to the process being sped up by human activities. The rapid climate changes have had detrimental effects on different societal sectors like animal habitats, food production and even health. It has also caused an increase in natural disasters such as tsunamis and droughts which leave devastating consequences on the areas impacted. Due to the fashion industry being one of the most attractive and influential consumer markets on the globe, it is only fair that we address the numerous ways this industry is aiding the climate change crisis, whilst also recognising how the industry is trying to do better in combatting climate change.

Confronting the fashion industry

Clothing stores like Fanfare and RE/DONE are making headway in the fashion industry by taking on the concept of upcycling. On a more affordable note, clothing retailer, Urban Outfitters has created an increased sense of curiosity for the upcycling sustainable practice. The outcome of this process has created a variety of clothing designs that have now taken social media by storm, increasing the demand for upcycled clothing.

Creating something new out of old, used or waste materials gradually reduces the negative environmental impacts brought upon by the fast fashion industry for decades. Upcycling works to reduce the consumption of new raw materials. Thus, the process potentially helps limit greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, two of the most significant causes of climate change today.

This image shows the process of upcycling by taking used tyres and making them useful
Upcycling tyres into art work

The growth of upcycling

Apart from the fashion industry, upcycling has been used to reduce the number of wasted plastics, rubber, and other toxic waste materials, showing that you can upcycle almost anything. From unwanted furniture to tyres, the upcycling process is growing in popularity.

Since the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the slow economic deterioration of many countries, consumers now have less disposable income, driving society to become more minimalistic. Minimalism has promoted the growth of thrifting, shopping on sites like Depop and Vinted, the "Vintage" Aesthetic and of course Upcycling. Before this, the fast fashion industry was at its peak, with brands like Shein and PLT dominating consumer markets as buyers spent a large sum of their disposable income on cheap and convenient clothing. This was prompted by the supremacy of the "throw-away" culture which encourages consumers to view items as disposable and easily replaceable.

This image also displays fast fashion brands like Zara
A showcase of consumerism in a mall

A reliable solution

However, as individuals are becoming more aware of the climate change crisis and how it negatively affects our societies, nature and other living animals, some fast fashion brands will soon struggle to fit in if they do not adopt more sustainable practices.

In search of a new approach to tackle the climate change crisis, upcycling came at the right time. So far, upcycling has:

  • reduced the number of materials going to landfills,

  • used less energy which reduces the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas,

  • limited the emission of greenhouse gases.

  • and encouraged consumers to minimise their carbon footprint.

Even though consumerism and overconsumption are still very prominent, which could override the efforts put in to tackle environmental issues, it can be said that upcycling has made some contributions as a climate action plan, but as of 2023, carbon dioxide emissions are the highest it’s ever been in more than 2 million years, the average population of a variety of animal species have decreased by 68%, and global sea levels have reported having increased drastically as of 2021. In other words, upcycling is a small step towards stopping climate change, but it might not be enough.

A better action plan

In conclusion, I would not refer to the upcycling movement as a "seasonal trend" as it has proven that it is here to stay and is slowly changing the fashion industry. Unfortunately, the ratio of sustainable/ upcycling brands to fast fashion brands is small, and the large scale of overconsumption in society is diminishing the influence of the upcycling movement. I believe it would be more beneficial to focus on changing our mindset and living a more sustainable lifestyle, even if it means becoming a vegetarian. If we move away from throw-away culture and other personal habits that add to the climate change crisis, it would be more impactful in tackling the challenges brought about by climate change.

Climate change is sometimes misunderstood as being about changes in the weather. In reality, it is about changes in our very way of life. - Paul Polman


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