Challenges to upcycling
Although upcycling is becoming more mainstream, there remains limited shared- knowledge on the topic, especially in regards to the feasibility and challenges of upcycling. Challenges are varied, from brands not being able to offer a full-range of sizes due to the limited quantity of the upcycled fabric, to the materials used in production not being uniform.
It is often a challenge for fashion SMEs to find good quality and quantity of used materials to utilise in designs. There are usually a limited amount of the upcycled fabric, making it difficult for brands to figure out what to do with the limited quantities. For brands who are trying to scale their business, this makes things especially difficult.
Margot Lyons, Coyuchi Sustainability Manager
"[One challenge for us is] economies of scale in general. For our particular upcycling program we have Renewal Workshop give us quarterly impact reports. [If we have] 10 pounds of linen there's nothing really to do with that. There's no point in trying to even figure out a project, with 10 pounds. You can't do anything with it. You can't recycle it. You can't even approach a recycler. You could approach an individual craftsperson, but most likely they're going to want larger quantities and also [want] colour options, you know? So volume is another real challenge for us."
"We've been contacted by a lot of bigger retailers that want to place large orders with us. But the biggest challenge is we can't say yes to them right now because we produce in limited quantity. And when you have deadstock fabric, when the roll of fabric runs out, you can't reproduce it."
For small fashion brands who have a limited workspace, storing upcycled fabric and scraps becomes an issue. Upcycled products also often need special equipment and tools which requires additional storage.
"The challenges are studio space [and] timing. Not all factories want to take that extra time on them to collect something from [your studio]. So a good relationship is very important. We need to be aware of the size of the business and also the [physical] space because obviously to upcycle something, there needs to be a supply chain for that as well. People think that supply chains are only these complex things where you produce garments. But to produce [upcycled] things, it's also supply chain- even if it's just within your own studio it's still supply chain. Definitely the more space you have, the more opportunities you will have to do that and actually incorporate [upcycling] into your business."
Sabinna Rachimova, Sabinna Founder
Upcycling is a time consuming activity requiring a surplus of time and energy because of the innovation required and resources needed to make the upcycled textiles into profitable garments.
Olivia Lara Weber, Founder of
"I think it's about being patient and definitely kind of working on your own methods of doing things because the fashion industry hasn't really developed very many upcycling tools. [You have to work on] how you do things in your studio and patchwork things together. It's developing your own strategy. It does really need creativity and freedom but at the same time, it's not really that difficult. That's why I'm kind of teaching upcycling, as well. And I really kind of want to spread this movement because it's actually really simple in a way."
Consumer interest is sometimes a problem as brands have often been posed with the challenge of attracting customers to buying sustainable garments. Thankfully, this is slowly changing.
"Conscious consumption is not really a mainstream concept yet. Over the past few years [that] we've been in the market we've been so thrilled to see the traction and the engagement from our customers and then some people who aren't even our customers, but are looking for a solution and they can't find it."
Cayla O'Connell, Co-founder of Knickey
Miette Farrer, Founder of Remie Studio
"It is difficult because my bags are also one of a kind, as well. [So] just the nature of [it makes it so there is] not necessarily enough fabric to make two or three or four bags... Persistence is key. I don’t think there are many business models doing this. So it can be quite difficult when you’re trying to find stockists, and they don’t understand when you only have one of that item [or] you want to do a photoshoot but there is no such thing as like a sample bag. It can be quite difficult because this business model is not [common]. Obviously, more and more people are doing it but it’s not the tried and tested thing. And it just takes a bit more patience and problem solving. Keep going."
The limited quantity of upcycled clothing often comes with challenges in regards to marketing and selling. Brands must consider how much time and effort they want to put into selling a garment that they potentially have very limited quantities of due to limited deadstock fabric. Additionally, some retailers will only accept a certain quantity of products and will not accept one-offs.
Brands also discovered various logistical challenges when starting out their upcycling programs.
"You can you have the factory [do the upcycling for you]. Scrunchies headbands, whatever that might be. I find [it to be] a bit [of a] disadvantage [because] you would have a big margin for your upcycled products that you offer. [However], if you do things yourself in the studio, you're very flexible with the margin and you can only produce for the demands rather than ordering in advance from the factory. And you can repurpose in a more flexible way. You can keep something for later and be like, [this is] more suitable for summer, this is more suitable for winter and so on. So a good relationship is very important [to have with your manufacturer]. If you don't have the skillset to know how to do it [in-house], I think this would be [a disadvantage]."
Sabinna Rachimova, Sabinna Founder
Chloe Guss, Mara Hoffman Production Manager
"One tricky thing is, is all the intellectual property, because all of our prints are so specific and our designs are really proprietary to the company. We don't sell them. So like, we won't sell deadstock of our prints. So that sort of means that we end up just sitting on all this old fabric. We also have like tons of rolls of spandex prints in our swim factory. And we're basically just sitting on it, waiting for a technology to come out so that it can be recycled. We've had it for years. But the good news is Mara Hoffman refuses to throw it away because she was like, I'm not going to put that in landfill. So we were paying to store it. That's a sacrifice, but Mara Hoffman is thinking that eventually there's going to be a technology that comes out that will allow us to recycle."
"I think one [challenge] that's coming up is tracking and identification. All of our product, I know what it is. But that's not efficient and Renewal Workshop [who] doesn't know what it is. So, whereas when they get something back [like a fitted sheet] they can check the product and look at all the seams and hopefully our brand labels are still in there to confirm it's from Coyuchi, hopefully the care -content labels there. [Otherwise, they cannot tell exactly what the material is]."
Margot Lyons, Coyuchi Sustainability Manager
It is often difficult for these brands to scale their upcycling initiatives because upcycling is not yet a mainstream practice.
"Scaling [the upcycling program] continues to prove [to be] challenging. Out of the gate, just finding partners that would even do this- it's very difficult. I know speaking from the national standpoint, we were very fortunate that we were able to find someone that is local. I think there are very few options for companies located elsewhere in the country. We have also looked into local partners in other areas of the country and other parts of the world as we do ship internationally. Like we have a lot of Canadian customers who are eager to recycle with us but we don't want to import textile waste just from a carbon footprint standpoint and also from a cost of shipping [standpoint]. It just doesn't really makes sense for the business or the customer.
Our ability to even run this program, already we're up against odds because of the lack of recycling facilities in the world. It would be great to be able to do more things with the downcycled fibre or to be able to identify what exact fibre makeup each garment is and be able to extract it and just put it back into the system as a recycled distilled fiber quality. And maybe sell that back or reuse it ourselves. If we can distill organic cotton, we could reuse that ourselves. Or we could use our recycled poly perhaps. That could be a stretch component or an underwire. So I think that those are longer term goals and challenges that we're really eager to meet [and] that I think we will work toward. Some other challenges are just technical, like building a program that really hasn't been done before is very difficult. From a technical standpoint, whether you're working with a custom website or you're using a platform that is sort of prefabricated, you'd be surprised at how difficult it is to create inbound labels to your warehouse just through a shipping provider. I would say at every which turn, it definitely was rethinking things and thinking outside of the box and trying to work with systems that exist, but change the systems that exist."