Beyond Recycling: How ‘Upcycling’ Is Paving The Way For Sustainable Entrepreneurship

The textile industry isn’t known for being environmentally friendly. Over 11 million tons of textile materials are wasted each year, and with just 1 pound of textile waste emitting over 7 pounds of CO2, that’s no small footprint left behind.

Still, many clothing and textile companies boast that their products are made from “recycled materials,” giving the impression that they’re doing the environment a favor. But simply recycling isn’t enough for some entrepreneurs like Erika Brown, founder of Berkshire Bohemian, who built her business on the concept of upcycling.

If the word “upcycling” isn’t yet part of your vocabulary, let Brown explain: “When you recycle something, generally the components are broken down and the result is an item of lesser quality,” she says. “Upcycling, on the other hand, is to re-purpose something that would otherwise be considered waste — therefore ‘upping’ its value and quality by doing so.”

In other words, upcycling is an even greener version of recycling. Unlike the process of recycling, which involves consuming extra energy and resources, upcycling is the ultimate in reuse: no extra machinery or wasted resources necessary.

It may be surprising to hear that upcycling isn’t a new concept: in fact, it’s been around for thousands of years. Back in “the olden days,” when you couldn’t simply drive over to the nearest big-box department store, people repurposed and upcycled everyday objects all the time.

Given the production-oriented nature of modern consumerism, however, upcycling has gotten lost in the shuffle. But at its core, upcycling really makes sense: why throw something away or degrade its quality when it can be used as-is to make something else? That’s why entrepreneurs like Brown are trying to bring it back.

As part of her mission to “green the earth,” Brown creates hand-sewn bags from scraps of fabrics and other materials that normally would have ended up in landfills — generally from salvaged high-end textiles and post-consumer interior design materials. Working together with the community, she’s brought together local businesses to contribute their excess materials in exchange for a link on her website or a donation receipt to use as a tax write-off.

Brown notes that this is usually a win-win for all parties involved. “My friends and colleagues hear about [my business] and are more than happy to offload their unwanted materials,” she says. “It make them feel good to be donating to a larger cause and give these fabrics a second chance at life.”

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Berkshire Bohemian / Photo: Jan Gerards

Brown, who built her entire business on the concept of upcycling, is a shining example of how upcycling and entrepreneurship can go hand-in-hand. But she’s not the only one who’s been catching onto the trend. Other fashion companies are starting to see the benefits of upcycling, too — such as Sword & Plough, which works with veterans to upcycle military fabrics into purses. Even Hermès tried their hand at accessories and decor made of upcycled materials, showing that upcycling isn’t just limited to — in Brown’s words — “bohemians.”

Though upcycling is most commonly seen in the textile industry, other companies are showing that its possibilities are pretty endless. Hammer & Hand, for instance, makes new furniture out of discarded barn wood, school bleachers, steel piping, and other left-behind materials.

Ultimately, entrepreneurs like Brown are paving the way for creating a more sustainable future. In Brown’s words, she envisions a future where consumerism doesn’t “cost the earth” — meaning that economic gain doesn’t necessarily mean environmental loss.

Berkshire Bohemian is living proof that upcycling can form the basis of a successful business. And as companies like Sword & Plough, Hermès, and Hammer & Hand endeavor into upcycling, it’s likely that we’ll see more of it in the future. After all, it’s environmentally friendly, economically viable, and it literally turns trash into treasure: what’s not to like?

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