Upcycling is very much in demand and has its finger on the pulse of the times. More and more fashion labels are launching collections made from leftover and rejected fabrics. Other brands go one step further and use only old textiles which would otherwise have ended up in the bin for their entire product portfolio. Even in luxury fashion, upcycling is no longer a foreign concept: French designer Marine Serre often referred to as an "eco-futurist," has advocated for a sustainable and avant-garde ever since her Fashion Week debut in 2018. Since then, she has successfully implemented upcycling in the high-end sector. But to what extent does the business model for upcycling work for fashion labels, and can it be implemented on a large scale?
A tried-and-tested concept
The basic idea behind it has been around for a long time. Many know grandmothers' tales of how they made their wedding dresses from old tablecloths and bed linens many years ago, how grandpa's shirt turned into a new skirt and how clothes for the smallest family members were sewn from other fabric remains. Today, all this would fall under the term upcycling, that is, the reuse of waste materials or used goods made into something new.
From old to new – an approach that is needed more urgently than ever. Around 7.5 million tonnes of textile waste are generated in Europe every year, according to the study "Scaling up textile recycling in Europe - turning waste into value" by the management consultancy McKinsey & Company. The study says that Europeans produce an average of more than 15 kilograms of textile waste annually, the tendency rising. The Berlin labels MOOT and Avenir want to counteract this development: Turning waste into value is also their overriding goal, so they offer only upcycled products.
Going to work in bedlinens
The young brand MOOT's concept store is located in Berlin's Ostbahnhof. The abbreviation stands for Made out of Trash – upcycling is the name of the game. The space is divided into a store and a showroom, this way MOOT founders Michael Pfeifer and Nils Neubauer want to bring their products to the diverse clientele of the building but also educate and inform them.
In the entrance area of the shop, five large textile bundles made of old clothes are piled high; on the opposite wall, a metre-high sign sheds light on the "Umweltsünde Fast Fashion" (the environmental sin of fast fashion). Only a few steps away, the outline of a map of Germany shows the locations of the textile sorting centres from which the label obtains its raw materials. Former bed linens now hang on clothes rails in the form of T-shirts, long sleeves and dresses in countless patterns. Old woollen blankets shine in new splendour as coats and jackets, while lashing straps are added to pillowcases to create bags
The label's core idea is to integrate upcycling into everyday life with wearable products. "It is our aspiration that in the future it will be normal for people to walk the streets with a bed linen as a T-shirt and a woollen blanket as a coat, making upcycling a very ordinary part of society and fashion consumption," says co-founder Michael Pfeifer in an interview with FashionUnited.
He also emphasises that upcycling has always existed. Not only in the form that was commonplace for earlier generations but also on the international catwalks. "A dress was made out of a rubbish bag in a very exaggerated way. But what is missing right in the middle is a concept that is both wearable and suitable for the masses," says Pfeifer. And that's where MOOT wants to go with its business model, to the masses.
And the label's idea seems to be working. The founders started with a clothes rack full of T-shirts in April 2020. Now, the company offers more than ten products and sells clothes through various channels. The brand obtains its raw materials primarily from two large textile sorting companies, Geo-tex Textilverwertung in Quakenbrück and Textrade in Bremerhaven. Smaller quantities also come from the Deutschen Kleiderstiftung and the Berliner Textilhafen. The growth of the company and the demand for the products are evident from the rapidly increasing amount of textiles procured. Currently, four sewing factories in Berlin are transforming several hundred kilograms of raw materials into MOOT products.
Tonnes of old clothes
In the Storkower Straße, barely four kilometres from the MOOT store, a small blue sign on a bare façade points to the Berlin Textile Port, the transhipment point for all textile donations from the Berlin Stadtmission. "The birthplace of MOOT is the Berliner Stadtmission," Pfeifer recounts. There, the founders collected a hodgepodge of donated textiles, processed them and tried started testing – the result was the idea for a T-shirt made of bed linen.
At ten o'clock in the morning, the first truck is unloaded with the contents of the clothing containers while four employees are still sorting the donations from the previous day. Two large halls are situated in the building, one filled to the brim with unsorted old clothes, the other with long sorting tables and countless storage boxes lined up next to it. In the colder months, up to 20 tonnes of donated clothing from the 13 clothing containers of the Stadtmission arrive here every week, explained director Annett Kaplow in an interview with FashionUnited. "80 per cent of the donated clothes inevitably end up in the bin or the recycling container for old clothes," said Kaplow, "Many donations do not have the quality that we would like for the people. They are dirty or tattered. Often there are also duvets, pillows, which we cannot pass on." In addition to dirty clothes, a lot of fast fashion also goes straight into the waste bin because of the poor quality of the fabrics.
Only 20 percent of the donations are usable. The majority (ten percent) goes to charity, providing clothes for homeless and vulnerable people. Nine percent of the donations are given to the "Kiezläden", where surplus donations are sold as second-hand goods.
"Anything that can't be placed with charity or in the shops, we try to sell in the material pool," says Kaplow. About one per cent of the donations end up in the material pool designed for upcycling. "This is where we find a lot of textiles with flaws that are to be repaired and recycled." The origin of the material pool lies in the oversupply of some textiles such as jeans, which cannot all be donated or sold in bulk and would otherwise also end up in landfills.
Twice a week the material pool is open for a general sale, used by many students, theatre professionals and hobby sewers. But it is not only private individuals who take advantage of the wide range of textiles, from corduroy and denim to wool and fabrics by the metre. Many upcycling labels also source their materials from the textile port. Through sorting orders, brands can specify which fabrics they are looking for. "For us and the designers, the textiles are an important resource. The sorting order is a way of ordering material from us, which we pre-sort, on a larger scale," explains Kaplow.
Reusable instead of disposable
The roots of the Berlin brand Avenir also lie in the textile port: founder and designer Sophie Claussen worked as a helper at the material pool. The idea for her fashion brand came from the enormous amount of textile waste. The upcycling label still obtains a large part of its materials from the textile port through a sorting order. Claussen collects up to 15 kg of jeans on demand - preferably men's sizes with less than two percent spandex in the fabric content.
However, Avenir not only obtains its raw materials from textile sorting but also incorporates leftover materials from production sites in Portugal into the manufacturing process. This allows materials left over in production from other brands and manufacturers to be processed directly. "This is not only cool for us because we can recycle the fabric, but it is also good for the other manufacturers because they can empty their warehouses," Claussen adds.
So far, the label has mainly focused on made-to-order products made of denim. The orders are handmade in the studio in Berlin's Neukölln district and some models are additionally produced in small series in Portugal. In the future, the whole concept of the label might change a bit and the production in Portugal might be expanded. "You have to think about the next sensible step to be able to offer upcycling in a way that provides both exclusively, locally produced upcycling pieces and a somewhat more affordable upcycling small-series collections," says Claussen.
Matter of Price and Behavior-Gap
Both Avenir and MOOT show that different approaches to upcycling are possible, feasible and in demand. Both brands want to extend the life of textiles through their work and thus counteract the wasteful overconsumption of our time. For upcycling to work, however, it is not only the business model of the brands that is important but rather the consumers who have to rethink their needs and the way they consume.
"We see a big gap in behaviour: everyone says they are sustainable and interested in sustainable clothing and concepts, but then when it comes to the everyday decisions, many tend to behave differently," says Pfeifer. In his opinion, upcycled fashion can never compete on price alone, "this is an elaborate, handcrafted commodity, and we also want to sensitise people to that. For them to also realise what value clothing actually has." Claussen also shares this view: "It's so absurd that all people want something sustainable, but then when it comes to the price, they don't feel like paying."
It is clear that the approach works and that upcycling brands can bring their products made from old clothes to the mainstream on a larger and, above all, growing scale. For this to happen, however, one more thing is necessary – the consumers' commitment.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de