– Everything you need to know to dress greener and make a positive change
Written by Ryan Choong
“Waste not, want not” – a proverb from 1772.
Most people tend to go on and on about recycling, like it’s the end all be all of existence. In some ways, it might be. But what about upcycling?
The big question we all should be asking is:
Why recycle when you can reuse?
Unfortunately, with today’s technology and methods, recycling is severely limited. Most of us toss anything able to be recycled into the recycling bin and leave it at that. But less than 5% of those items can be remade into something of equal value. The rest are just wasted anyway.
Recycling is doing the bare minimum and we’re better than that.
We should be upcycling, instead.
Upcycling, as the name implies, is to reuse discarded objects or materials to create a product of equal or higher quality than the original. And this practice is a cornerstone of circular economy, where everything used is reused with the bare minimum of waste or no waste at all. This contrasts recycling which lowers the overall quality of the final product.
But to give the best example of upcycling possible, we need to turn to clothing. It is not only essential to basic human hygiene and survival, but also to personal tradition, culture, and self-expression.
Like food, clothing will always be a staple of human evolution and progress. By upcycling essentials, our needs as people can stay essential in the face of giant problems like pollution and climate change.
So, let’s start with arguably the most popular, versatile, and important material in the clothing industry, cotton – or more specifically, denim.
The History and Popularity of Denim and Jeans
Denim is cotton fabric made using a twill weave, with the weft (horizontal thread) passing under the warp (vertical thread), like lines overlapping vertically and horizontally in a square shape to form a patch of denim fabric. This unique weaving method increases the cotton fabric’s durability considerably while retaining comfort, making the popularity and demand for denim boom, especially in labour professions.
While debated, a commonly accepted view is that denim was created in Nimes, France and called “Serge de Nimes”, “Twill of Nimes”. The word “denim” is colloquialised English for “de Nimes”, meaning “of Nimes”.
The fabric weavers of Nimes had tried to replicate a hardier cotton fabric called “jeane” – named after the city of Genoa in Italy – but ended up with a unique, sturdier fabric unlike anything else, Serge de Nimes.
This truly became popular in 1853 during the American Gold Rush, when Jacob W. Davis, a tailor from Nevada, manufactured the first pair of jeans using denim fabric to make pants with large pockets for miners to store gold and reinforced the already sturdy pants with cloth and metal rivets. Davis’s jeans became so popular that, to meet demand, he had to partner with Levi Strauss, a wholesaler that owned Levi Strauss and Co. production facilities, importing denim and supplying metal rivets. They patented the jean design in 1873 and began to mass produce it.
In 1883, the chemist Adolf von Baeyer made synthetic indigo, something he had been working on since 1865. It was cheaper to produce and longer lasting than natural indigo. As the mass production of synthetic indigo began in 1897, so did denim jeans get the trademark colour of faded blue by combining synthetic indigo dye and natural cotton white.
It was only after the 19th century that competitors in the denim and jean markets appeared, spreading denim and jeans worldwide. And by the 20th century, denim had become a global standard, especially with miners, engineers, mechanics, farmers, military, and railway workers.
But how are denim products made, exactly? Read on to find out:
- Cotton is harvested from the fields and chemically treated and woven into cotton fibre, which is spun into yarns of cotton fabric
- The warp (vertical) yarn threads are dyed and the weft (horizontal) is normally left white, though the colours can vary in this day
- The yarns are woven on a loom.
- The woven product is sanforized (the process of stretching, shrinking, and fixing material before cutting to reduce the shrinkage that would occur after washing)
- After varying tweaks to fit buyer specifications, the finished product, usually jeans, are packaged, brought to shops, and sold
There are many types of denim with varying colours, durability, and make which are prevalent in the ever-evolving fashion industry of today. Even now, denim remains timeless. But the resources used in the production of it, the overproduction of it stemming from fast fashion, and what happens when it is discarded are problems that need to be focused on if we want the versatile, affordable denim to stay a relevant material in a world where consumers and producers strive for sustainability.
The Problem with Wasting Denim
For consumers, denim – and hence, cotton – is great. It’s versatile, fashionable, comfy, convenient, and generally inexpensive. And due to, or despite, all of that, we in the modern day take cotton for granted.
In 2018, there was 17 million tonnes of textile waste in landfills and if the prevalence of cotton clothing products is any indication, most of this waste would have been cotton. And this number is only going up as the population increases, leading to more demand, buying, and waste.
This is especially harmful, both to the environment and to the rising human population because it takes an astronomical amount of water, land, and chemicals to cultivate cotton plants and make cotton clothing.
Due to raw cotton being too waxy and soft, it is chemically treated and woven together to make cotton fibres which are suitable for clothing. It takes around 1000 to 2000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton. It also takes vast areas of land to house, and the pesticides used often pollute the environment, causing nearby health damage.
These resources are better used elsewhere, like for people in need, which increases with the rising population. The Circular Laboratory website states that in India: “water scarcity is already severe and the amount of water used for cotton production in 2013 could have supplied 85% of its population with 100 litres of water everyday for a year”.
But it doesn’t stop there. It also takes around 2 million tonnes of chemicals and 2500 litres of water for a factory to produce a single production line of trousers or jeans. After the industrial process, the leftover water is so difficult to treat and reuse due to the chemicals, that it is discarded, becoming environmental waste, affecting us and animals alike without our knowledge or any accountability.
And recycling doesn’t help much with this due to the expensive, ineffective, less than practical methods and technology we have today. This is especially true for cotton-based clothing like denim jeans.
Right now, the recycling process for jeans consists of shredding down the clothing, rending all of the delicate cotton fibres beyond use and making them into something inconsequential like a rug which will likely end up in a landfill later on anyway because it takes too much effort to continuously re-stitch or reconstitute shredded clothing material. And that’s assuming jeans can even be recycled properly because they often have metal parts that must be manually separated which recycling machines either cannot do or destroy the clothing in the process.
Which is why the best option – and honestly, it should be the first and only – we have to “dispose” of unwanted clothing is upcycling. Knowing how many resources that could be better utilised and the environmental consequences of cotton production, upcycling needs to be the future.
The Upcycling Process and the Future of Denim
There are many ways to upcycle cotton and denim. All of them require commitment, consistency, and drive. None are automatic like recycling and the most effective methods often require a person to do it manually.
Upcycling denim jeans is much harder than it sounds because they are usually comprised of three materials: denim, polyester threads, and metal parts. Denim can be effectively upcycled but the polyester threads must all be picked off and the metal removed by hand because they cannot be shredded or upcycled like cotton denim can.
To see how upcycling denim is done, and hopefully to learn to do it yourself, check out Conscious Studios’ social media.
And if you still cannot upcycle clothing at home, worry not. There are still much better options besides recycling or wasting them. You can just hand them down to family and friends or donate them to charities. You can also give them to dedicated upcycling businesses like us at Conscious Studios. We make useful everyday products by upcycling denim. We even make use of the discarded polyester by using it to make wadding. You can even send our products back to us where we will either repair or repurpose them to extend their lifetime and sustainability.
The main thing to take away from all of this is, upcycling essentials is essential. There are varying benefits to upcycling cheap and luxury clothing and other items, but the focus has and always will be, sustainability. And the best part is, we’re not alone. The upcycling movement has already begun, we just have to keep it going. So, contact friends, businesses, companies, organisations and whoever else will act – not listen, act – and together, we can truly be one world forever more.
To help you in this, I have compiled a list of sustainable businesses that you should be supporting as they ethically prioritise consumers, suppliers, workers, innovation, and the environment above all else.