Waste has become a major environmental challenge in cities as the population increases and people consume more goods. It is estimated that the European Union (EU) alone generates 2.5 billion tonnes of waste every year. In our linear economies, such waste generation is common in every sector. In the fashion industry, for example, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles ends up in the landfill or gets incinerated. However, people are coming up with innovation and initiatives to tackle these problems and propose ways of avoiding the accumulation of waste. One such concept is called “upcycling”. “Upcycling is the reuse of otherwise discarded objects or materials in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original”. The product created can have more artistic or environmental value. The main motive of upcycling is to continue the life of the product.
How is Upcycling different to Recycling?
Upcycling is basically a part of the recycling process. The opposite of upcycling is downcycling, which is another part of recycling. In downcycling, the products are converted into new materials which sometimes have lesser quality. The term ‘upcycling’ first appeared in William McDonough’s book, Cradle to Cradle. Upcycling drives the materials back up the supply chain to be reused, negating the need for further virgin stock and reducing waste. Recycling, on the other hand, does lengthen the lifespan of the materials but it only delays the problem as the materials are likely to still end up in landfills. Intercon illustrates how the treatment of soda cans is closer to a true upcycling model. The aluminium containers have the potential to be melted down and made into brand new cans. Through the process, over 90% of the energy required to make new ones from scratch is saved. ‘This cycle can continue in perpetuity, reducing energy consumption and effectively removing certain materials from the waste stream’.
Why you should buy upcycled products?
There are various environmental, social and personal benefits of upcycling that you should care about.
- Reducing Waste: The obvious benefit of upcycling is that waste is repurposed as a valuable product which results in less waste. This would mean that fewer goods end up into landfills due to upcycling.
- Reducing the use of natural resources: Another core benefit of an upcycled product is that the less raw materials are used in the production process. The above-mentioned example of soda cans illustrated how there is an over 90% reduction in energy during the production.
- Celebrating Artisanal Work and Old School Craftsmanship: Behind every upcycled product, there is a maker who strongly believes in a level of craftsmanship that we just don’t see very much anymore. Upcycled products celebrate people who love making things with their bare hands and encourage creativity that benefits both the environment and society.
- Supporting Local and Rural Industry: Most of the delicate and specialized work is undertaken by the local and rural population which use their traditional craft skills to produce new items. This generates employment and income for the low skilled workers.
- One of a kind items: A lot of upcycled products are unique especially when buying form designers. Every upcycled item is one of a kind and has a beautiful history behind it.
Why is it so expensive?
The main reason why upcycled products aren’t so popular and mainstream is that they cost more than other products. The concept of why they are made for the privileged people and cannot be accessible to low-income people is similar to the concept of the ‘Kuznets curve’. The Kuznets curve suggests that “economic development initially leads to a deterioration in the environment, but after a certain level of economic growth, a society begins to improve its relationship with the environment and levels of environmental degradation reduces”. Upcycled products require a certain set of skills, technology and resources to be made available. People start to focus more on the standard of living and the environment after they have achieved their other needs. The environment usually comes as a secondary priority to people. Following are the points put by Dwij as to why exactly upcycled products cost more:
1. Economies of scale
Upcycling is by principle, usage of whatever material that is made available at any point in time. Generally, this material is highly non-homogeneous, while significant effort is spent on sorting and cutting the material into the right shapes and sizes. The process is more similar to a ‘tailor shop’ than a factory ‘shop floor’.
2. Additional accessories
While only the underlying material is generally upcycled, many additional accessories are involved in manufacturing such as sliders, zips, belts etc., which involve an added cost and often more expensive than the underlying material itself.
3. Products that are built to last
One of the underlying reasons for upcycling is to increase the life of a material. Naturally, an upcycled product too should be built to last. Thus, all accessories need to adhere to high-quality standards, which come at an added cost.
4. Little control over the choice of raw material
In virgin manufacturing, a raw material that is sourced can be of a desired type and quality at a pre-negotiated price. Further, virgin raw materials can be sourced in bulk too. Whereas in upcycling, sourcing is done from various places leading to additional transportation costs. Further additional steps are involved too such as sorting, washing, customized processing, and a higher degree of quality assurance.
5. Attention to hygiene
Since the raw materials for upcycled products are second hand in nature, high attention needs to be given to hygiene and washing procedures, such that the customer views an upcycled product at par with a virgin material product. These hygiene procedures also involve logistical complexity.
6. Ethical work practices
Principally, when we talk about caring for our environment, naturally we feel it is equally important to care about our employees too in terms of payment of wages and maintaining an ethical work environment.
7. Marketing overheads
Upcycled products typically fall in a stage where the market for such products is still developing. In this stage, each player in this market needs to educate the customer in their way for using these products, leading to an indirect marketing overhead.
Do people like to pay the extra price?
Elliot and Freeman (2001) had found in their study that the actual known retail price of a product will have an impact on the willingness to pay a premium for an ethical product. Although upcycling products might add value to them, it is not the main reason why customers buy it. It is rather the product itself that the people are paying for usually. “People might see the need to support good causes, but they are not willing to pay considerably more for an upcycled product than for a similar non-upcycled product”. In case people are willing to pay a premium for an ethical product, they would pay that only if the product is acceptable on other attributes as well. For example, having a designer branding on a product would be the necessary additional feature that consumers would pay the extra amount of money for.
Research has also shown that people consider factors of the design/looks, the creativity/innovation, the uniqueness of the product as well as the good environmental and social cause as the main motives for the purchase. Design or looks is the most frequently used factor for the people purchasing upcycled products. Environmental cause is not the main priority. With that said, people tend to give environmental cause more importance when the product is visible in the public. People like to portray their identity in the public. Using a product which has an environmental and social cause attached to it in the public is significantly more important than a product which is not visible to the public. A good example of the concept used in previous research is a laptop bag and a hook. People were more likely to buy the laptop bag for the environmental cause than the hook. Guiot and Roux (2010) have suggested that consumers buy ethical products because of “experiential” reasons, meaning that they seek for original products with the help of which they can better express their unique personality. Research has shown that people prefer to be recognised as ethical consumers rather than as ethical customers which reinforces the need to brand the products. ‘A brand works as a symbol that its consumers use to express their identity with something that is easily distinguishable by others’.
In general, consumers need to realize that when we are buying a product, we are not just paying for the value that we receive for that product. As people become more environmentally mindful about their consumption of goods, we can start thinking about how we are paying for the cause behind the manufacturing of the product, and for maintaining the environment that we live. Reducing emissions and waste are key to eco-friendly consumption. Upcycled products can achieve both objectives.