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What's Upcycling?

February 15, 2018

 

Upcycling: Reusing leftover/ excess/ discarded materials or objects (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a products of higher quality or value (and often, quality) than the original. (Ref: - Merriam-Webster Dictionary)


It is an inescapable fact that the environment is in jeopardy. We have all seen the plight of polar bears struggling for survival against climate change, and have heard about that terrifying monument to consumer waste, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Alarmingly,  an estimated 12.6 million deaths each year are attributable to unhealthy environments (source: World Health Organization, WHO). Meanwhile, global land and ocean temperatures have been steadily rising since 2009 and the general trend has been steadily upward since 1980 (source: National Climate Data Center , NCDC). Such examples of environmental degradation abound.
Recycling has thankfully become so ingrained in our society, with recycling symbols and signs being commonplace and with almost every home having separate bins for aluminum and plastics, that it’s now second nature. Recycling is now a $500 billion dollar global industry. But the threat of pollution and carbon emissions is growing more pressing with every passing day. In order to build a truly sustainable society, doing what we’ve been doing is not enough. Recycling is no longer enough. We need to improve, innovate and do so much more.
Enter upcycling, a greener step beyond recycling, for a greener world.

What’s Upcycling, Doc? Upcycling vs Downcycling


Most recycling is downcycling, which involves breaking down a used item into its components to make a lesser value product. In terms of the supply chain, downcycling squeezes out extra value from a worn down product, extending the last ring of the chain to delay the material’s eventual “death.” While necessary and environmental,  this process both reduces value and requires a large amount of energy, all without lessening the demand for higher value new products.
On the other hand, upcycling takes that waste and crafts it into an entirely new product; one that is more valuable than the original. Upcycling not only saves the materials being used, it moves it higher up the supply chain, giving that used material a fresh new life. That upcycled product can then be reused and recycled in its own right, or even upcycled again. Furthermore, almost all upcycling uses considerably less energy than recycling as it skips the breaking down step. Upcycling is better for the environment than recycling, generates value for the economy, and is often used to create beautiful and eye-catching products. So why is the idea just taking off now?

 

A Familiar Idea, A Brand New Life

 

Upcycling itself is not new, and most people have probably upcycled something at least once. Whether it’s using an old wine bottle as a vase, cutting an old chair into a stool, or something as simple as using a mason jar as a cup, everyone has done it.
Upcycling has come into prominence as the threat of environmental disaster grows ever more pressing. ‘Upcycling’ itself is relatively new term that was popularized by chemist William McDonough and architect Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. That book that emphasized the dire need to improve the reuse, reduce, recycle model, so that we can move from simple waste reduction to actual waste elimination. Since then Upcycling has also caught on as a hip new aesthetic. Instagram is filled with people proudly posting their DIY upcycled handicrafts, and bars in treny locations like Williamsburg Brooklyn have taken to upcycled decor as a symbol of youthful ingenuity. But in order to truly reach the levels of upcycling outlined by theorists such as McDonough and Braungart, and to maximize our positive environmental practices, we need to think beyond the personal.

 

Going Green on an Industrial Scale

 

We all must do our part to help the environment, but DIY upcycling alone is not enough. The truth is that Municipal Solid Waste (household garbage) makes up an extremely small fraction of waste generated. The vast, vast majority of waste made by a consumer product is made during production. Furthermore, the fashion industry is particularly infamous for generating discarded material, and at the same time recycling second hand clothing is becoming more and more infeasible. The current movement towards cheap and disposable “fast fashion” is wreaking havoc on the environment. This push for faster fashion season turnovers not only generates tons of excess product, but that clothing then breaks down so quickly that charities cannot even donate it. In 2014 alone, Goodwill had to send nearly 22 million pounds of clothes to landfills for being unusable. To build a truly sustainable practice, we need to attack the problem of waste at all angles.
This is where Rust and Fray comes in. We take raw unprocessed denim, leathers, and other leftover materials from industrial production and upcycle that into the fashionable, high quality accessories you see here. When mass producing a textile product such as vegan leather jackets or blue jeans, thousands of pounds of perfectly usable textiles get thrown out as scraps. At Rust and Fray, we recover those lost scraps and refashion them into our few of a kind laptop carriers, duffles, yoga bags, and so on. We are not simply being environmentally responsible, we are opening up a new avenue of sustainable green production, giving you the chance to use materials that were otherwise never going to enter the supply chain. To date, Rust and Fray has managed to recover over 19,800 square feet of textile destined for landfills and convert them into long-lasting and fashionable accessories. So what is our process?

 

Fair Trade Few of a Kind Products

 

We are proud to work directly small businesses in underprivileged communities to ensure fair wages, regular hours, and safe working conditions. Currently the factories we source from are from Bangladesh, so we have carefully chosen three Bangladeshi entrepreneurs who employ local artisans to handcraft our products. We regularly conduct rigorous auditing to ensure that the working conditions of each of these businesses meet our high standards of fairness and safety.
Our Few of a Kind designs are a direct result of our process. We personally visit each factory we source from to handpick the best raw materials, textiles that are high quality, in good condition, and match our chic, New York aesthetic. All of these materials are sourced early in production so no potentially harmful processing chemicals have been added to them. We design each bag around the fabrics we source. Rust and Fray’s stock is therefore always fresh, unique, and exciting. Each handcrafted, artisan bag is one of only handful that exist anywhere, and so each bag has its own unique story to tell.

 

The Future of the Fray

 

The immediate future for us is to expand our product line. Plans are in motion to move beyond bags, so check back with us frequently to be the first to see our designs for sustainable scarves, caps, other accessories, and eventually a clothing line. We also have long-term plans in the works to expand beyond Bangladesh, and to bring our ethical and sustainable production to underprivileged communities South America and the United States.

We plan on leading the Upcycling movement into the mainstream. Theoretically, an ideal future society will run entirely through closed circuit production, a system where every material used gets reused to fully eliminate waste. The next step in achieving that future is through upcycling, in order to move beyond recycling for an even more sustainable mode of production. At Rust and Fray, we are proud to work towards shaping a better, more environmentally friendly world.

 

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