Upcycling: From Re-cycling to Re-thinking What We Use

Wrenches to Coat Hooks – Photo: ViralNova

If you ask your grandma, she can surely give you pretty sweet examples of upcycling from her youth. Food sacks that became bed sheets and pajamas for the kids, or old doors that were transformed into bookshelves and coffee tables, are just a couple of examples.

It’s not a new idea, but certainly a good one that is returning with style. Upcycling’s positive impact on the environment (less things go to landfills, and less need to buy new stuff) and a new wave of proud DIY do-it-yourselfers (empowered by social networks like Pinterest) are driving the trend.

The movement also has a huge potential for a more sustainable business model. In the context of corporate gifts and promotional products, upcycling can help drive and communicate corporate social responsibility initiatives, which is one of the reasons why we want to share some insights.

What is Upcycling?

The term Upcycle refers to the transformation of old or discarded objects and materials into something new that is better, more useful or just more beautiful than the original (or at least as good as the original). It always implies giving the object a new purpose and value.

As Jacques and Judy from the Upcycle That Blog describe: “Upcycling is a new term for repurposing” and it was first put into use as a term by Reiner Pilz of Pilz GmbH in an article by Thornton Kay of Salvo in 1994.

Battle of terms: Recycling vs Upcycling

There are many, many terms related to the managing waste resources.  Reuse, Recycle, Upcycle to name a few. They all sound similar to most people… but do they refer to similar processes?

When you Reuse something, you simply use for it multiple times without transforming its original form or properties and extending its life-cycle (for example you may re-use a travel mug, rather that grab disposable coffee cups).

When you Recycle something, it usually implies to break down the material to their base constituents and then use this raw product to remade a new object. For example, when companies break down old glass bottles and then made new ones from that raw material. Often, the result is a product of similar or less quality. Also is important to remember that when you recycle a material, the process consumes energy (of course, you will need less energy for recycling an old bottle than the amount of energy you will need to create a new bottle from scratch).

When you Upcycle something, you transform the object into something new.  The only catalyzer is your creativity!

Upcycling as a business

If you look around, you will find a lot of objects and materials that are no longer in use. If you look closer, you can find a new opportunity to start a green business based on Upcycling. The end result of upcycling is usually a one-of-a-kind product, something original, unique and sustainable. And that becomes a powerful tool to tell a story. It is also a process that tends to reduce production costs (cutting off supplies) while boosting creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Take the example of TRMTAB a company that transforms scraps, dead stock and naturally spotted leathers into limited edition accessories for tech devices, bags and shoes.  These materials are usually categorized into b-grade, or c-grade leathers, and are set aside because they contain scars and other natural defects.  These leathers are not lower quality, but they are treated as such.

Cassandra Michel and Mansi Gupta, TRMTAB founders, were inspired by systems theorist Buckminster Fuller. “Call me trimtab” he famously said, referring to a tiny surface on the end of a ship rudder (with a little pressure, it can change the direction of the ship). Upcyclers like Gupta and Michel can be a trimtabs by making small changes in how we view manufacturing that lead to a big impact.

Promoting Upcycling Initiatives at Fairware

Here at Fairware we are working with our clients promoting this trend and finding new solutions and business opportunities that are more aligned to our values and sustainability approach.

The Environment Foundation of the Aspen Skiing Company decided to repurpose their soon-to-be-retired employee ski uniforms into tote and messenger style bags, a great way to motivate new donations from their staff team and showcase their commitment to corporate social responsibility.

For years, we worked with Patagonia to use upcycled USB wooden drives, made from old pallets, to distribute new catalogs and order forms with their dealer network.

More recently, Nature’s Path created useful tote bags from old grain bags. We’ve also made upcycled ipad sleeves from old event banners and make up bags from upcycled bike inner tubes.

Upcycling and Rethinking about what we use

From small scale creative initiatives to big industrial projects, upcycling is a responsible alternative and a way to rethink about what we use and what we waste. If you want to explore upcycling your organization’s waste into corporate gifts, connect with us at contact@fairware.com