• Amid the ever-growing consumer focus on sustainability, upcycling has started to become a noticeable trend as part of the wider media conversation around overconsumption in a world where many industries rely on annual refresh cycles.
  • Our media analysis found that Samsung was the most influential company in the debate thanks to its new Galaxy Upcycling at Home program, while fashion brands have jumped on the bandwagon in a bid to fix their reputation.
  • We suggest that PR pros can use the emerging upcycling trend as an ESG differentiation strategy in all the media noise around sustainability while focusing on a “climate plus” model.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis.

If you work in PR and comms, hardly a day goes by when you don’t hear anything about sustainability – in fact, you may have heard the word “sustainability” so much that you might think that term is at risk of becoming so overused that it soon wouldn’t mean much to consumers. This overuse makes it difficult to gauge which new trends within the sustainability conversation are more than just fads and really tap into consumer perceptions of value.

However, there’s a new concept that seems here to stay: upcycling – reusing existing materials without producing new ones. Upcycling has become an emerging trend among consumers who want to draw attention to the problems of overproduction and overconsumption. The Instagram tag #upcycle currently has over five million posts, including images of upcycled art, clothes and DIY furniture.

The best way to understand upcycling is to compare it to downcycling. Both are types of recycling, but downcycling is the kind of recycling we usually think of—recycling paper or plastic, for example. These materials are broken down and reused to create a product that is considered less valuable than the original. For example, most recycled paper, like old newspapers, is considered to be lower-grade paper.

Upcycling is the same process of reusing old materials, but it creates something more valuable or of a higher quality. Examples of upcycling include using materials from plastic bottles to make new shoes or reclaimed wood to make quality furniture. Many consumers see upcycling as one of the pillars of the circular economy – a system in which goods are used and reused multiple times rather than getting discarded after one use.

Fashion and food most upcyclable

Analysing 2,743 English-language articles published in top-tier outlets between March 2020 – March 2022, we found that Fashion was the most often referred-to industry in the upcycling debate:

The fashion industry has been perceived as more self-conscious than others about its dire eco-credentials, with concerns over its unsustainable price tag growing. Critics have focused particularly on fast fashion, which involves increased numbers of new collections and quick turnarounds, encouraging overconsumption and the sale of clothes so cheap they are being treated disposably, contributing to water and air pollution.

The discussion around the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts so far has been dominated by a focus on sustainable materials, with brands building their business models on sustainable production and operation, making sustainability a major focus for long-term growth and communicating an eco-conscious attitude by showing transparency, emphasising local manufacturing and sustainable packaging, and collaborating with artisans.

However, many brands have started going beyond sustainable materials and are also finding ways to introduce upcycling into their production process. Some commentators have framed this solution as part of “circular fashion“, an off-shoot of the circular economy concept, which challenges fashion’s linear production line that ends with clothes being discarded in a landfill.

This means using materials that would otherwise go to waste, pattern cut-offs, deadstock garments and limited runs of fabrics crying out for a second lease of life. So while it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the fabrication of new clothes, it does mean that designers are creating collections whilst considering the life-cycle of their pieces.

The last few years have seen a growing public awareness of fast fashion’s environmental impact – journalists, scientists, academics and industry representatives regularly raise concerns. A growing number of stakeholders have started pointing out that a shift toward using sustainable materials alone is not going to cut it. Many experts have stressed that a penchant for upcycled clothes now feels urgent, necessary, and non-negotiable as it would curb peak production while still fulfilling the needs of a growing population that loves to shop.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Sustainable Fashion: Bringing Green into Vogue”.

Following fashion, the upcycling debate has also focused on Food, specifically on reducing food waste. This means using ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption. Some of this food is surplus, both on institutional and consumer levels, and some is atypical, otherwise known as “ugly” produce that doesn’t meet grocery store standards. It can also come in the form of by-products that are made when producing other foods.

Journalists noted that not only does upcycling help alleviate food insecurity—approximately $1 trillion of food is lost or wasted every year —and reversing this trend would preserve enough food to feed 2 billion people, more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe—but it also helps to promote the importance of reducing food waste across the entire food chain. For these reasons, some innovative companies in the plant-based food movement are embracing upcycling.

In the meantime, the discussion around the Electronics sector focused on e-waste – for instance, replacing an old laptop with a new one or buying a new smartphone every few years and discarding the old one. Commentators remarked that all too often these redundant electronics end up in landfills, potentially leaking harmful chemicals into the ground. In addition, e-waste that is burnt releases toxic ash and contaminates groundwater, streams, and rivers. On the other hand, upcycling provides a clean and viable solution to these environmentally-unfriendly e-waste disposal methods.

Thus, upcycling electronics was seen as an efficient and viable process that turns end-of-life products into new products without consuming energy in a manufacturing process. This regeneration may involve some value addition and prototyping to develop new products or, at its simplest level, it could just be finding a new use for parts of the old product.

A portion of the discussion also focused on Plastic packaging more generally, with media stories about fighting a tide of plastic the coronavirus pandemic has helped unleash. For example, green activists in South Korea used the bottle caps to make tube-squeezing devices, while Thailand upcycled bottles into protective clothing and PPE, either for hospitals or Buddhist temples, where monks have been cremating coronavirus victims.

Upcycling champions

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around upcycling.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

We found that while fashion brands dominated the discussion, it was actually an electronics brand that emerged as the most influential one:

During the 2021 CES kickoff press conference, Samsung outlined its new Galaxy Upcycling at Home program, which reimagines the lifecycle of an older Galaxy phone and offers consumers options on how they might be able to repurpose their device to create a variety of convenient IoT tools. Examples from the presser included a baby monitor, a pet care sensor for turning on lights remotely and a more abstract “digitally safe home” using Samsung Knox.

According to the company, the Galaxy Upcycling at Home focuses on its “Responsible Consumption and Production” goal. It aims to reduce waste and promote more sustainable production practices and consumer behaviours. “The Galaxy Upcycling at Home program provides enhanced sound and light-control features, by repurposing built-in sensors. Users can transform their old devices through SmartThings Labs, a feature within the SmartThings app,” Samsung said. Another initiative the company introduced was packaging that can be converted into household objects, transforming into cat houses, shelves and magazine racks.

The second most influential organisation in the debate was an NGO – the Upcycled Food Association, which works to prevent food waste by accelerating the upcycled economy. The Association launched a new Upcycled Certification Standard in 2021, defining upcycled foods as those that “use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” The Association hoped that an official definition may allow manufacturers to market to a target audience and encourage consumers and food processors to consider upcycled products, while a buzzy new name designed to appeal to consumers could help tackle food waste.

The most prominent fashion brand in our sample was Alexander McQueen, which has long been taking an eco-responsible approach by offering unused fabrics from the archives to fashion school graduates for their graduation collections. The British label is now committed to more environmentally friendly methods within its own collections. With a special focus on the protection of know-how and craftsmanship, Alexander McQueen, under the helm of Sarah Burton, presented a Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show featuring some of its silhouettes made from recycled materials.

And for Spring/Summer 2021, upcycling played a huge part in the narrative of the brand’s collection. Designed and constructed during Britain’s lockdown, Sarah Burton and her design team decided to test their creativity by using material they already had and transforming it into something new.

Denim label Levi’s followed Alexander McQueen in terms of media impact, as it tapped tennis star Naomi Osaka to create a collection of upcycled denim pieces, celebrating her heritage as well as emphasising sustainability. The collection included a denim kimono inspired by Naomi’s Japanese heritage, paired with a matching denim obi belt, as well as lace-up shorts made from an upcycled pair of men’s Levi’s jeans, crystal fringe shorts using vintage 501 shorts, and lastly a trucker jacket bustier crafted from reworked trucker hats. Inspired by DIY culture and extending the lives of pre-existing pieces, the collection reflected Naomi’s personal style.

The Danish brand Ganni gained media prominence as it teamed up with Levi’s to create an exclusive rental-only capsule collection, called “Love Letter”, a first for both brands. The collaboration featured three staple denim pieces, all made from upcycled vintage Levi’s jeans and repurposed denim. Shown at Copenhagen fashion week, the SS21 collection was meant to be an “ode to wearability, longevity and heritage of Levi’s” says a Ganni spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Italian high fashion women’s brand Miu Miu, a fully owned subsidiary of Prada, released its first upcycled collection, aptly named Upcycled by Miu Miu. The collection of 80 dresses is a selection of one-off designs, dating from the 30s to the 70s, which have been carefully sourced from vintage clothing stores and markets worldwide. Once found by the Miu Miu team, pieces were re-fashioned: cut, spliced, made longer or shorter and finished with signature MiuMiu embellishments including crystals, ribbons and bows.

Another well-known fashion house, Louis Vuitton, gained positive media coverage with its SS21 show, in which garments were made using deadstock textiles and previous seasons’ clothing. Out of the entire show, only two ensembles were made of new material, while 25 other looks featured recycled material and another 25 showcased items lifted from previous Vuitton shows, which were selected according to the design team’s favourite past looks.

Within the food industry, Hyundai Steel was mentioned as it worked towards upcycling 360 tons of coffee waste a year, saving up to 210 million in disposal costs while creating jobs. Another Hyundai subsidiary, Hyundai Department Store Co., also featured in the debate as it used old advertisement and promotional banners it displayed on the outer walls of the store for upcycling bags – a process that reduced 2.3 tons of carbon emissions.

The most influential food brand, the fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle, launched a line of upcycled, “responsibly sourced” clothing and accessories. The line, dubbed Chipotle Goods, consists of T-shirts, hoodies, jackets, leggings, hats, phone cases, gym bags, and baby blankets. Meanwhile, ingredient company Renewal Mill got media exposure for using the by-products of plant-based milk such as soybean pulp, oat pulp, and almond pulp to make premium, high fibre, gluten-free flours.

The most influential upcycling startup was Novoloop, which raised $11 in funding for pioneering the chemical transformation of plastic waste into high-performance chemicals and materials. The first product based on Novoloop‘s process is a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) for use in high-performance applications such as footwear, apparel, sporting goods, automotive and electronics.

Upcycled spokespeople

We also found that Emma Watson, the feminist campaigner and actress best known for her role in Harry Potter, was the most influential spokesperson in the upcycling debate.

Emma Watson was widely cited as she wore an upcycled wedding gown made from 10 dresses from Oxfam at The Earthshot Prize’s (awarded by the Royal Foundation to five winners each year for their contributions to environmentalism) ceremony last year. Presenting the “fix our climate” award, Watson said that she spent much of her working life acting in fictional, make-believe worlds where the impossible has been made possible, but now we need to do the same with climate change, here in the real world: “There have been many other times in history where it’s been said it couldn’t be done. And then, people believed in a better world and made it so. This time is no different.”

The second most influential person in the coverage wasn’t a superstar: Abbot Ottamasara, who runs the Thabarwa meditation centre, got media glory with his request for plastic containers as a substitute for bowls used by his monastery to feed thousands of people in need. Helped by dozens of volunteers, his team now receives several thousand used plastic bottles a day from the community, with some recycled as food containers and others incorporated into building materials used at the meditation centre.

Ottamasara, who launched the upcycling drive after seeing waste piling up on the streets during daily walks to collect food donations, said that too much plastic waste was being dumped on the street during the pandemic.

The most prominent designer was Max McMurdo, who established the upcycling brand Reestore when he became uneasy at the consumption-focused ways of the traditional design world. He was quoted as saying that hat waste can be beautifully upcycled: “Just because an item can no longer fulfil its original purpose, doesn’t mean it can’t work really well as something else.” He also pointed out that just because you’re upcycling, doesn’t mean it should be any less beautiful in terms of design and aesthetic.

The most influential designer working for a big fashion house was the late Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton menswear Virgil Abloh, who upcycled clothes for his Louis Vuitton SS21 menswear show. He was cited as saying that rather than preaching about it, he hopes to lead by example and unlock the door for future generations: “It’s my desire to imbue the traditional codes of luxury with my own progressive values. Nuance, like sarcasm, can be difficult to understand.”

The most prominent CEO was Dan Kurzrock of upcycling firm ReGrained, who said that nearly 35% of the world’s food is lost or wasted, which generates 8% of greenhouse gas emissions and poorly uses our planet’s precious resources. He suggested that this issue can be compared by bringing tasty and nutritious upcycled foods to every aisle of the grocery store. A similar sentiment was expressed by Turner Wyatt of the Upcycled Food Association, who said that there are already more than 400 upcycled products on the market, but consumers don’t know which ones they are.

How can brands use upcycling in their sustainability campaigns?

Based on our analysis, here are a few suggestions PR and comms teams can use upcycling in their sustainability strategies:

  • Use upcycling as an ESG differentiation strategy. There are two complementary ESG strategies brands should consider: defensive and differentiation. Defensive is basically current industry best practice: What are companies already doing in my industry? What is becoming best practice? Differentiation sets a brand apart from the competition by looking for differentiating aspects of ESG thinking. PR and comms efforts are usually focused on what mainstream consumers are doing today – that’s the defensive shield strategy – but it’s important to also listen to leading-edge consumers and look at foresight: what will be important when it comes to sustainability tomorrow and how can you use that to differentiate. At a time when almost every major brand focuses its PR efforts on boasting sustainability credentials, using new trends like upcycling as a differentiation strategy could really make you stand out, especially when the concept is still new and fresh.
  • Focus on a “climate plus” model. Much corporate thinking around sustainability has been based on the Triple Bottom Line model devised by business adviser John Elkington back in 1994. In this, sustainability is defined as doing better for the planet, better for people, and better for profits. But in 2019 Elkington declared that the model was wrong: the “better for profits” line had given companies an excuse not to innovate in sustainable alternatives. In his new book, Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism, he argues for a different approach, one that restores and replenishes the natural resources that are being used up. It’s about more than just recycling, it’s also about giving something back to the Earth – the so-called “climate plus” model. According to a Wunderman Thompson study, 83% of consumers think businesses and brands should focus on a positive impact, rather than just doing less harm to the planet. A more specific action like upcycling rather than making just a pledge also goes a long way. 
  • Use upcycling to go beyond compliance and lead the way. Many sustainability messages could often sound reactive to new regulations or to the numerous research findings blaming corporations for climate change. Furthermore, there is now a consensus that brands must start to take the lead on the societal problems we face, not least among ordinary people. Those brands that don’t wait for regulators and go beyond compliance will build resilience, for society and themselves. Patagonia, for example, is often singled out for raising the bar. With the bold mission to “save our home planet”, the brand has lived its goals. From pioneering regenerative agriculture to shunning annual sales splurges like Black Friday the brand has been setting the pace for decades. Patagonia has not hesitated in taking a political stance, pledging to sue the Trump administration in 2018 for anti-environment policies, then encouraging customers to “vote the assholes out” via tags hidden in clothing items in 2020.
  • Upcycle across industries. Go beyond your own sector to showcase your commitment. For example, the convergence of food and beauty is nothing new, with food ingredients being used in beauty products for some time, owing to their skin health properties and natural associations. Natural is, however, not always synonymous with environmentally friendly, thus brands are increasingly looking at food waste as a beauty ingredient. The use of coffee waste has been common, for example by the brands UpCycle and Frank Body, while upcycled fruit seeds have been used by the skincare brand BYBI. The trend is also extending to new ingredients, such as the by-products of milk, but still remains relatively underdeveloped. Most brands repurposing food waste tend to play in the mass segment, often selling scrubs or serums which require only a small concentration of active ingredients. The challenge is to extend this to higher-margin product lines, such as anti-agers, which require more active ingredients and hence more waste material.

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