‘Waste isn’t waste until we waste it’.
Encapsulating a profound essence of sustainability, these timeless words of WILL.I.AM forms one of the most popular “sustainability” quotes. The sentiment resonates deeply, inviting us to reshape our perceptions of waste. Taglines like “Made from waste” captivate eco-conscious consumers, echoing a collective aspiration for conscious consumption. However, despite the rise of environmental awareness in individuals, only a few genuinely comprehend, without feeling overwhelmed, the actionable steps that can be taken.
A cultural tradition of repurposing thrives in India, particularly in middle-class households. While there might be unfamiliarity with the precise meaning of “upcycling,” families have likely been practising it for ages due to our ingrained value of not discarding items that can be easily repurposed, cherished, and transformed.
So, what exactly is upcycling?
Upcycling means giving new life to old, unused, or discarded things in creative ways, making them useful again instead of throwing them away. It’s not just about reusing; it involves innovatively repurposing discarded or old materials, products, or items into new, higher-value creations, often with improved functionality or aesthetics.
How is upcycling different from recycling?
One of the critical distinctions between upcycling & recycling lies in the methods and results of transforming the materials.
Recycling is a process where materials are turned into new products of similar or lesser value, while upcycling turns those materials into products of higher value or use. An old wooden table transformed into a beautiful bookshelf or an old jar into a fancy candle holder are examples of upcycling, as these are creative ways to breathe new life into old, unused, or discarded items rather than simply throwing them away.
Both upcycling and recycling are great ways to create a circular economy and reduce waste, but they have different approaches and outcomes. Upcycling enhances the quality and value of the original material, while recycling often results in a downgraded product.
Energy consumption is another key differentiator between the two circular processes. Recycling typically needs much more energy and resources to break down and reprocess materials, while upcycling consumes fewer resources by repurposing items with minimal processing. For example, recycling plastic bottles is much more energy-consuming to melt down and create new recycled plastic products than compared to upcycling worn-out jeans into bags.
To sum it up, while upcycling and recycling contribute to reducing waste and conserving resources, upcycling has a more immediate and positive impact on the environment by giving existing items a new life and repurposing waste materials into higher-value products.
Cultural heritage of upcycling in India
Upcycling is a term that might sound novel but is deeply ingrained in cultural practices worldwide. Across the globe, repurposing has been practised for generations, stemming from a profound understanding of resourcefulness.
India is a testament to the enduring appeal of upcycling, fostering an inherent knack for repurposing materials. From transforming old saris into vibrant quilts to crafting functional household items from discarded packaging, upcycling is a way of life for many, especially in middle-class households, proving that while the term may be new, the concept has been woven into the fabric of society for ages.
As the world grapples with the consequences of excessive waste, India’s cultural heritage of repurposing serves as both inspiration and a blueprint for sustainable business models.
The business of upcycling waste into value
The core business values have recently shifted towards promoting sustainability, being environmentally friendly, and embracing a circular economy. As a result, upcycling has emerged as a strategic business move.
Entrepreneurs have started recognising the potential of discarded materials and are reimagining waste as a resource. From crafting stylish clothing and accessories using discarded fabrics and materials to designing unique pieces of furniture from reclaimed wood and repurposed materials, blending functionality and artistry, India has seen many new startups and small businesses adopting the ‘made from waste’ model. These businesses aim to create desirable, functional, and eco-friendly products. The acceptance of these products also relies a lot on the stories they tell — a narrative of turning waste into beauty and value.
Transforming mindsets with upcycling
Upcycling is gaining momentum and is not just limited to tangible products. Upcycling is about changing mindsets, and it requires understanding sustainable practices, incorporating them into everyday life, and accepting upcycled products and brands. However, despite the growing number of eco-conscious individuals, there is still a gap between these concepts, and many people still need to figure out how to adopt them into their daily lives.
Businesses that champion upcycling have a crucial role to play in bringing about a shift towards responsible consumption and production. By embracing upcycling as a core principle, these businesses can offer unique, eco-friendly products and, at the same time, educate consumers about the significance of reducing waste through creativity and innovation. They can influence and empower consumers to become conscious decision-makers through educational initiatives and partnerships, catalyzing a much-needed shift toward sustainable living.
An Ideal Path Forward
Upcycling emerges as a beacon of hope in a world grappling with environmental challenges. It transcends mere waste management, evolving into a sustainable business approach that holds the potential to transform industries and consumer mindsets alike.
As the upcycling movement gains momentum, it is essential to recognize that collaboration and innovation are key ingredients for its continued success. Businesses, governments, and communities must collaborate to create an ecosystem supporting upcycling initiatives. This collaboration could involve developing incentives for businesses to use upcycled materials, funding research into innovative upcycling techniques, and fostering a culture of creativity and resourcefulness. By taking these steps, we can transform mindsets and embrace a sustainable future.
Questions to be addressed
The cultural heritage of repurposing and the appeal of ‘made from waste’ concepts highlight the intrinsic value of the upcycling approach. However, it’s essential to ask whether businesses capitalise on the lucrative opportunities upcycling presents. Are customers embracing upcycled products, and can waste be transformed into a catalyst for positive change?
The answer to these queries will be crucial in determining how sustainable business practices develop in the future.
Ultimately, it’s up to us as entrepreneurs and customers to choose whether to waste or create value from waste.
Finally, a key point of interest is how many people in India support brands that follow upcycling practices. It’s a pertinent question, given India’s rich cultural heritage of repurposing and recycling. Understanding the level of support for upcycling practices will help businesses better gauge this approach’s viability in the Indian market.
This article is authored by Namrata Gohain, a sustainable fashion & crafts professional with 10+ years of experience. An advocate of SDG 12 – Responsible Production & Consumption, she runs a conscious craft-based business called Kaizen, the label. This brand works with artisan communities of mainly Northeast and East India.
She works with other organizations with a similar ethos in multiple domains, including managerial duties for merchandising, operations, creative content and brand building. An avid reader with many questions, she loves research and has a knack for continuous learning. She aims to get Indian artisanal crafts and underdog sustainable natural textiles a better market and bring the dignity of labour to the artisans of India.