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A new consuming philosophy: Reuse, remake, refrain

Advocates of collective consumerism oppose waste and want you to share your goods or just buy less. On the retailers' end, they are getting creative.

June 29, 2013|By Tiffany Hsu

Liz Bordessa and her daughter, Christina Johnson, launched Upcycle It Now to give Bordessa's tailoring and alterations business a boost after the recession. The Long Beach company now partners with Patagonia to make yoga mat slings from old board shorts and dog jackets out of used rain gear and fleece outerwear.

Last summer, Topshop featured a small collection of clothing made from discarded materials. Looptworks of Portland, Ore., offers repurposed goods such as laptop sleeves built from scrap wet-suit neoprene.

This winter Dutch company Mud Jeans introduced a leasing program, in which customers rent denim for a monthly fee instead of buying new pants. Mud takes apart the jeans when they're returned and uses the material to create new fashions.

Venerable French fashion house Hermes has a project called Petit H, in which leftover scraps from products such as its silk scarves or its $100,000 Birkin handbags are reincarnated as hammocks, stools or toy sailboats.

But many companies are using an incomplete definition of upcycling, said William McDonough, a designer, architect and coauthor of the books "Cradle to Cradle" and "The Upcycle."

Often, he said, new products made from used clothing actually cause more toxic substances to be dumped into the environment. Even though there's less raw fabric being produced, dyes used to freshen worn scraps can seep into water supplies. Patching a torn garment for resale often involves metal zippers or buttons that can't be recycled down the line.

A shirt made from pieces of unidentifiable material shipped in from multiple locations isn't necessarily more sustainable than a similar garment constructed from locally sourced organic cotton that could someday be broken down into high-end rag paper, he said.

"What happens to these molecules when we're done with them?" McDonough said. "How do we design a textile that, once we tire of it, can power our technology or go back to biology and be put back to human use without poisoning our biosphere?"

Creating products capable of going full circle is an ephemeral and difficult task. A few companies now believe the solution is to eliminate apparel waste starting at the source, by urging consumers to shop less and take better care of their clothing.

Patagonia, as part of its Common Threads initiative, has helped customers repair more than 30,000 items since January 2012 and plans this fall to attach do-it-yourself repair guides to some products. And since the holiday shopping season, the brand has used a billboard in New York to urge customers to "don't buy what you don't need."

There's a similar philosophy of "fewer, better things" at San Francisco e-commerce company Cuyana, which asks consumers to carefully curate their closets with a few key pieces instead of buying on impulse.

Using a strategy that co-founder Shilpa Shah calls "the retail version of farm-to-table," Cuyana goes to a single country to source fabric and manufacture garments for each collection. The strategy helps lower transportation costs, enabling the brand to keep prices low while maintaining quality.

The company, which avoids wholesale brokers, also sells exclusively online to avoid bricks-and-mortar maintenance expenses and to better manage inventory levels.

"We've always believed in longevity, and we've always been anti-fast fashion," Shah said. "But we're not preaching minimalism. We just want our products to go further."

Twitter: @tiffhsulatimes

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