I'm an Independent Fashion Designer and I Hate "Upcycling"

Using resources to their utmost potential and minimizing waste isn't awesome, offbeat or the "new hip thing to do." It's common sense and old wisdom.
Publish date:
October 7, 2015
recycling, ethical fashion, fashion designers, upcycling

"My mother and grandmother -- that's your great-great grandmother and your great-great-great-grandmother -- were famous in our village for never wasting a thing. If there's one skill I want to pass on to you it's that, dear little one. We should share what we have with our loved ones and those in need -- don't be greedy -- just be resourceful. That's how you survive hard times."

I was a small child sitting on my great-grandma's lap in a tiny apartment on a quiet Budapest side-street hearing this. (She didn't have to keep repeating great-great-great though, there are more convenient words for your elders in Hungarian). My memory is famously bad, but I remember this well, perhaps because it was often repeated. I also recall how most stories about family, village life and celebrations would trickle off with something like "and that may have been fun but then, ofcourse, came the bad times."

For me, it was mostly good times. Childhood in Scandinavia, even with very limited resources, was cushy. I was born in Sweden, a country that hasn't seen war for hundreds of years, so I guess most of my peers didn't grow up with a vague sense of doom and persecution being imminent. But war wounds take generations to heal, I did grow up scared and I tried to heed my elders' advice. I thrifted all my clothing and re-fashioned my dad's old t-shirts into dresses and skirts.

For my first prom, aged 14, I made the dress out of a bed sheet. I applied the same principles to decorating my room -- picked stuff straight out of the trash. I had moments of coveting (and sometimes buying) new stuff too. But it always left me feeling anxious, like that new shirt was a crime. It only slowly started dawning on me throughout my tween years that this wasn't considered 'normal'. I honestly still haven't fully grasped it, which brings me to why I'm here.I'm an independent fashion and jewellery designer (slash painter, illustrator and comic book artist if you like) for a living these days. I work with recycled textiles exclusively. Technically, of course, that is "upcycling." Super eco-friendly and ethical.

The reason I don't like terms like "upcycling" or "alternative fashion" is they make the products of ethical and independent designers seem like a fringe alternative, things hipsters, kooks and artsy urban women with too much time and money on their hands can enjoy. But the bad times are here -- maybe not exactly the way I imagined them as a child -- I'm not personally cowering in a bomb shelter -- but humans suffer and our climate suffers. Using resources to their utmost potential and minimizing waste isn't awesome, offbeat or the "new hip thing to do." It's common sense and old wisdom.

Common sense is exactly what capitalism would like us to forget all about, because it clearly tells us that we cannot consume the way we do and still have a planet to live on. Corporations would like us to forget what our grandmothers took for granted; mending clothes, darning socks.

They're sneaky too. Pick any giant clothing chain, they'll have a powerful PR machinery to conveniently greenwash at least part of their collections and win favour with even the most discerning consumers.

There are many hard facts to cite at a time like this. The production of one new t-shirt requires as much fresh water as one person drinks in three years (source: fashionrevolution.org). The average westerner discards 68 pounds of textile per year (source: Environmental Protection Agency). Workers in third world countries perish in burning garment factories.

I'm not here to expand on all of that -- first of all, you're probably already aware and second, there are people more intelligent, more educated, more engaged in this issue than I am and they'll argue all of it beautifully. Not that there is a case to argue, these are facts, facts are not to be debated. The question is what we do from here.

I'm just an illustrator who wanted to put her drawings on some shirts without compromising her standards. To my overwhelming surprise and gratitude, that took off, and these days I'm blessed to be making lots of different garments, accessories and jewels. Knowing that people around the world wear and enjoy my work is happiness, truly. But the same powers that spend $12 billion on a JP Morgan bailout while making affordable healthcare seem like socialist utopia for you poor Americans are trying to make me and fellow ethical designers seem wacky and special so that they can keep selling the idea that a three-year supply of fresh water plus ten US dollars is a fair price to pay for a t-shirt.

People are usually interested and maybe even impressed when I say I make clothes for a living. Then we get to talking and the fact that I recycle textile comes up. Sometimes that gets me a hearty pat on the back, which is awesome, but more often than not ... interest wanes; "Aw. I get it. So it's like ...Upcycling? Cute..."

I'll admit that bruises my ego a tiny bit, but years of rejection in the art and illustration world teaches you to shrug that right off. Much more importantly this attitude saddens me and leaves me dejected. The fact that I use existing textile (that I cut up completely and make into brand new things) apparently makes me a less of a designer and more of an adorable oddity. Which I'd be fine with on a personal level, but this isn't about me, and that's why I'm exasperated.

A lot of the choices we face as consumers are tricky. We have to eat, we have to get from A to B. How to do it without harming our health and our earth? Trying for perfection is boring and futile, not to mention so draining it will overwhelm you, burn you out and make your friends sick of you. But clothing is one of the areas where it's fairly easy to do the decent thing; decent - not perfect.

"So if you don't support fast fashion or buy new stuff ever what do you do for underwear and tights?" is one of the most frequent questions I get. I explain that me buying two pairs of socks a year from my local headquarters of fast fashion evil isn't going to make or break their business, thriftstores often carry once-expensive bras at bargain prices, and I enjoy sewing panties.

In other words, I don't spend much time or energy trying to save the world by being a perfect consumer. Just being realistic and employing a little bit of common sense to figure out how I can minimize the amount of harm I cause. Which I hope makes it more difficult to pigeonhole me and dismiss me as a fanatic -- the favourite tactic of those who put the so-called "economy," "free market" and "financial growth" before the well-being of ecosystems and the rights of humans (women and girls of colour mostly) who suffer in the garment industry.

Some don't believe consumer choices make any difference whatsoever. And I hear you, so loud, so clear. H&M opened 350 new stores last year, that's just one chain. Anything you do is a drop in the ocean, and perhaps lobbying, political work, activism is the way to go if you really want to effect change.

But speaking of ecosystems -- we need each other. We need me and my peers running ethical businesses and trying to do things in a good way, and you making a good consumer choice. These things give human rights advocates and environmentalists something to point to when they are inevitably faced with the old, "That's all fine in your idealistic world view, but where is the viable alternative?" argument.

Anything fashion-related will undoubtedly be swept aside as a "women's issue" in the grand scheme of things. Which is something I've found myself lamenting, but I'm starting to think I'm wrong -- maybe we can use it to our advantage in a quiet digital fashion revolution, doing something new by drawing from old ways of craftswomanship and thriftiness. I like to believe that a little bit of softness, a little bit of forethought and a little bit of remembering our grandmothers goes a long way.