7 Upcycling Companies That Are Transforming the Fashion Industry

Nearly three years ago, I made a commitment to buy nothing new. What started as a practical challenge to stop over-consuming and over-spending became a more philosophical one. I began to ask more questions about where my clothing came from, what it was made of, and who made it. 

I did what I know how to do best: research and analyze data on the issue, and then make decisions and tell stories based on that data. In my research on the global garment industry, supply chains, and sustainability trends, I began hearing more about this curious concept of upcycling. 

Upcycling is the process of creating something new and better from old items. 

In contrast to reusing or recycling, upcycling uses existing materials to improve upon the original ones. The process requires a considerable amount of creativity and vision, as well as a foundation of thriftiness and environmental consciousness. The end result is typically a product or item that is one-of-a-kind, handmade, and sustainable. For instance, reusing or recycling worn T-shirts could mean that you use them as cleaning rags; upcycling could mean that you recreate the shirts into a handmade, unique braided rug. 

Upcycling is one of the most innovative ways to transform the fashion industry for three reasons:

  1. It’s sustainable. Upcycling reduces clothing and textile waste by reusing deadstock or gently used fabric to create new garments and products. Making a single cotton T-shirt requires over 700 gallons of water, whereas using a pre-existing T-shirt to make something new requires nearly no water. In addition, upcycling can divert some of the 85% of textile waste that ends up in landfills.
  2. It’s cost-effective. Similar to reducing waste, upcycling can be less expensive since used or pre-existing materials are typically a fraction of the cost of newly-made materials and textiles. 
  3. It’s creative. Upcycling requires creativity to envision the potential of existing materials to create something new and beautiful. 

Below are a few innovative, socially- and environmentally-responsible upcycled fashion and accessories companies that are transforming the industry stitch by stitch. By using deadstock or leftover materials and/or employing undeserved workers, they are truly fashioning a better world. 


Kallio

Kallio is a consciously-created kidswear brand based in Brooklyn, New York that “makes old clothes young again." Founded by Karina Kallio, a fashion industry veteran with an entrepreneurial flair, the brand repurposes men’s dress shirts into stylish, modern classics for kids, ages infant to 8-years-old. 

Kallio is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund its first flagship store and workshop place in Brooklyn. They plan for the space to be multi-functional and modular, allowing for growth and collaboration with other designers and makers. Check out their Kickstarter video here.


Sword & Plough

Sword & Plough is a “quadruple bottom line” company that works with veterans to repurpose military surplus fabric into stylish purses and bags. Through this social enterprise, founders, sisters, and veterans themselves Emily and Betsy Nunez strive to empower veterans with dignifying employment, reduce textile waste, and foster greater connection and understanding between the civilian and military communities. Since the bags are made from military fabric, they are build to last and are “rugged, refined, and relevant.” 


Reformation 

Reformation is a L.A.-based fashion company that uses new sustainable textiles, repurposed vintage clothing, and rescued deadstock fabric from fashion houses that over-ordered to create sexy, sleek styles. Since they design, manufacture, photograph, and sell their products all from the same warehouse and factory, they are better able to track the quality and transparency of their operations and garments. In addition, Reformation incorporates sustainable solutions in their entire business operations. From using recycled paper to non-toxic cleaning supplies to energy-efficient lighting, Reformation is committed to sustainability from the inside-out.


TRMTAB

TRMTAB utilizes leather scraps from factories around the world to create limited edition, refined leather goods for tech devices. Founded by grad school friends Mansi and Cassandra, TRMTAB is named after their favorite systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller, who famously said, “Call me trimtab.” The trimtab is a small surface on the end of a rudder than can completely change the direction of the ship. Mansi and Cassandra adopted this metaphor as their business mantra: "An individual can be a trimtab by making small changes that lead to a big impact,” they wrote in their Kickstarter page. 

Each production cycle at a leather factory produces 4,000 pounds of waste, which is typically downgraded to use in lower-end products or discarded into a landfill. TRMTAB was created to intervene in this cycle of waste by recovering the scraps and using them to create intricate, beautifully designed products to encase phones, tablets, or laptops. 


LOOPTWORKS

Looptworks is a social enterprise and B-corp that rescues high-quality, unused material and turns it into limited edition, hand-numbered goods. It was founded by Scott Hamlin and Gary Peck, who have decades of experience with Nike, Adidas, and Royal Robbins and who saw firsthand the waste created in the industry. Contemplating the 40 billion pounds of unused material that manufacturing creates each year, the founders thought that there must be a better way and launched Looptworks.

Looptworks’ original products used preexisting neoprene to create sleeves and cases for tech products such as tablets and laptops. Since launching in 2009, they’ve expanded their product line to backpacks and women’s and men’s apparel, as well as developed a partnership and services offering for other companies to co-brand products or revamp the sustainability of their own supply chains. For example, Looptworks is one of the partners for Southwest Airlines' Luv Seat: Repurpose with Purpose project, which upcycles the 80,000 leather seat covers leftover from old airline interiors into new products such as special edition bags that use 4,000 gallons less water than new leather and reduce CO2 emissions by 82%. 


Seamly.co is a sustainable fashion social enterprise that is exclusively made in the USA and uses deadstock fabric for many of its designs, especially its most popular style–the Versalette. The co-founders of the Versalette and parent brand {r}evolution apparel, Kristin Glenn and Shannon Whitehead (of Factory45), wanted to create a versatile, sustainably made garment for modern, adventurous women. The Kickstarter for the Versalette was the highest funded fashion campaign of its time, amassing more than 3 times what they originally asked for. 

Since then, Kristin has launched another sustainable fashion brand called Seamly.co, an "little bitty company" based in Denver, Colorado that strives to reinvigorate U.S. textile and clothing manufacturing, one item at a time. As Kristin says, "Sewing is like engineering with creativity," and it's time that "people understand where clothes come from, and are encouraged to get curious about how things are made." I completely agree and am saving up for my favorite new item: a convertible, super soft pantsuit (check it out here!).


Reclaimed 

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Earlier this year, I followed the challenge of “do something that scares you every day” and launched a small-scale social enterprise to showcase my upcycling creations. For the last couple of years, I have been upcycling vintage dresses and other items I purchased from the thrift store into one-of-a-kind garments and sharing the before-and-after photos on social media. People began asking me where they could buy the items or if I could create something unique for them. After selling ad hoc for some time, I decided to create a one-stop-shop (literally) for the upscaled dresses—it's called Reclaimed. 

Reclaimed is an eco-friendly, made in the USA social enterprise that creates one-of-a-kind upcycled dresses from vintage and gently worn clothing. Founded in 2014, Reclaimed curates high-quality dresses for stylish, socially-conscious fashionistas and supports nonprofits that educate and empower women and girls worldwide.

It’s not perfect and it’s often not updated given that I upcycle in my (increasingly limited) spare time, but in the last few months of opening the shop I’ve sold out of all of the dresses I’ve upcycled so far. I also found that Poshmark has been better for sales than Etsy, also likely due to Etsy’s recent changes in its merchandising policy. Stay tuned for some updates to the stop coming this fall! 


What other upcycled fashion companies have caught your eye? Have you tried upcycling clothes in your closet before? Share in the comments!