Upcycling and the circular economy

Article written by fashion designer and environmentalist Reet Aus PhD.

Our world is naturally circular. Earth’s ecosystems, when left alone, are self-sustaining. Most living things have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, giving as much as they take. One example of this is photosynthesis, in which plants convert carbon dioxide and water into energy, releasing a waste product that is essential for life on Earth: oxygen. The planet doesn’t need to attend conferences or adopt resolutions on sustainable practices. Perfect resource management happens naturally. 

It’s no secret that things get out of whack when humans gets involved. We want to be the masters of the planet, to control it and bend it to our will. 100+ years of industry and commerce have shown that we can get rich trying, but our activities are having a clear impact on the health of our world. Let me be clear here: I do not think we will completely destroy the planet. Humans are a small blip in the 4.5-billion-year (and growing) lifespan of Earth. But we are altering the state of our planet to such a degree that our own survival is threatened. To quote Michael Crichton from the prologue to Jurassic Park, “the earth would survive our folly, only we would not.”

Our current economic system is linear, which means we take, make, use, and dispose. Our planet offers finite resources, so this practice is clearly unsustainable. To serve the needs of both people and the planet, our human-created systems need to be aligned with the natural rhythms and processes of Earth. And we don’t need to live in huts, without electricity or running water, to do so. We don’t need to give up our creature comforts. I believe we can have our cake and eat it, too, by adopting a global circular economic system.

Circular economics, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is “one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.” Within this system, waste does not exist. Or to put it another way, one company’s waste is another company’s resource. It makes no sense – environmentally or financially – to throw away resources.

In environmental circles, there currently is a focus on dealing with post-consumer waste, which is time-consuming and expensive. We also need solutions that we can apply earlier in the process, before products even reach consumers. In traditional clothing manufacturing and according to the Upmade waste analysis of Beximco, 18% of the materials that enter the manufacturing process are leftover at the end. And most of it ends up in landfills. For my own brand – Reet Aus – we use existing materials as much as possible. Upcycling is one of the easiest methods to apply within the circular economy. It doesn’t require big financial investments, as it is a matter of smart design and reorganising production. I don’t deny that when recycling textiles, it can be difficult to maintain and ensure quality. But if you take my brand as a case study, it can be done! In addition to keeping leftover textiles out of landfills, my method of upcycling saves an average of 75% water, 88% energy and creates 80% less CO2 (compared to products made from virgin materials).

More than “just” healing our planet and making sure that future generations have a home, there is a strong financial case for the circular economy. The global financial institution ING produced a report in 2015 called ‘Rethinking finance in a circular economy’. In their view, “the circular economy is the ultimate answer to solving the problem of the depletion and economic scarcity of resources.” It also makes good business sense. (I won’t go into detail here, so do check out the report.)

In order for there to be a global shift toward a circular economy, major corporations need to get on board. Yet companies resist this kind of change, even when it’s good for the planet and sometimes even when it is good for the wallet. I’m not an economist, but I advocate for a change in tax policies to encourage industrial upcycling. Unfortunately we cannot rely on companies to make the necessary changes out of the goodness of their hearts, so providing real, positive incentives seems like the logical way to push the world toward a sustainable, circular economy.

By Reet Aus PhD
In Tallinn Feb. 2017

Another important lesson I have learned is to not compromise my values. Simply put, compromise leads to suffering. My business must operate within a capitalist system. There is so much pressure every day to cut corners and reduce costs in order to earn more money. I have employees to pay and my own children to feed, so I understand the need to earn enough money. It’s good to earn money, but let’s do it ethically! It’s possible. And it’s a choice. If I compromise, my customers may get clothes of lesser quality. If I compromise, the factory I hire to produce my clothing may in turn hire children or use toxic chemicals or have unsafe working conditions. Make no mistake, compromise always leads to suffering. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m preaching, because I truly believe everyone has their own journey. This one is mine.

European Union European Regional Development Fund – Investing in your future