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Upcycling and Repurposing: The Design Trend That's Not Going Anywhere

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With A Little Creative Genius, Designers Have The Power To Turn Our Throw-Away Culture On Its Head: Upcycling and Repurposing

When you hear the word "upcycling," it's likely that images of poorly executed (and even unattractive) DIY projects flash through your mind. However, designers across all industries are proving it possible to tell Mother Earth, "We got your back, girl," while serving serious design-led style. What's even better? Clients increasingly request innovative and sustainable design that doesn't compromise function or aesthetics.

First, let's make this clear: upcycling and repurposing aren’t just about slapping paint on an old chair and calling it vintage. It's taking something cast aside and giving it a new lease on life or transforming it into something completely different and fabulously functional.

Let's Talk Sustainability In Design

Sustainable design creates long-term solutions and helps societies ensure the well-being of their people and harmony with the environment for generations to come (Interaction Design Foundation, 2023). Designers, as the creative geniuses we are, can do this by making recyclable, compostable, and even better - endlessly reusable products.

A truly sustainable design is optimized for reuse (Interaction Design Foundation, 2023). This adds a new challenge for designers because we are responsible for designing the product to function and how the product can be reused and reborn. 

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Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings consume 25% less energy and 11% less water than non-sustainably designed buildings. 

HP came up with a sustainable packaging solution that ended up decreasing packaging materials by 29% which in turn decreased carbon dioxide emissions by 5,000 metric tons, drastically reducing HP’s carbon footprint each year.

Two ways that designers can keep materials out of landfills are through upcycling and repurposing. Upcycle can be defined as: reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. To repurpose means: adapt for use in a different purpose. It seems simple enough, but we understand that in order to successfully and sustainably upcycle and repurpose, you must think beyond the limitations that you might normally work within. Creativity is key!

Implementing Upcycling and Repurposing In Design

So, let's talk implementation… 

More and more fashion designers are turning to upcycling due to the high waste production from fashion and textile companies. However, not just fashion designers can implement upcycling and repurposing into their design practices. We'd say that all designers can, in some capacity, design with sustainability in mind.

Several companies have gained recognition for effectively implementing upcycling and repurposing strategies, turning waste materials into valuable products. Here are some notable examples…

Patagonia's Worn Wear program stands out for its commitment to sustainability. They repair, reuse, and recycle clothing and gear, extending the life of their products and reducing waste.

TerraCycle specializes in recycling hard-to-recycle materials. They upcycle and repurpose a wide range of waste materials into new products, from playgrounds made from oral care waste to backpacks made from chip bags.

Known for its messenger bags made from upcycled truck tarps, Freitag has set a high standard in the upcycling world. Their products also include wallets and laptop sleeves, all made from repurposed materials.

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All Designers Can Design With Sustainability In Mind

Architects can use reclaimed wood from old buildings to reduce the need for new timber. This helps protect forests and preserve wildlife habitats (The Power of Upcycled Materials in Architecture, Medium). Architects can upcycle old, abandoned buildings and give them new life instead of building a completely new one.

Interior designers can upcycle and repurpose all kinds of things! One example is using large plastic bottles from water dispensers as light fixtures, thus removing the need for a "new" light fixture and keeping those plastic bottles out of landfills.

Graphic designers can design reusable templates and assets to minimize waste and encourage sustainable practices. They can also design for longevity and avoid trendy designs, which will likely become outdated or require reprints.

Designers of digital products might think that the concern of creating waste doesn’t apply to them. We beg to differ. They can develop energy-efficient apps that work on older devices to reduce energy consumption and slow the obsolescence of older devices, which causes more waste (Interaction Design Foundation, 2023).

Some designers have taken things a step further and now design from the beginning with repurposing in mind. This is called Design for Repurposing, a new strategy for incorporating the concept of repurposing in product design, which aims to extend the longevity of products by intentionally designing features or details that facilitate repurposing (Aguirre, D. 2001). 

Companies like IKEA, Patagonia, and Herman Miller utilize the Design for Repurposing strategy by designing their products to be repaired, repurposed, or easily reused. Patagonia even encourages customers to return used items to them to recycle appropriately or for resale.

These are just a few examples of how upcycling and repurposing in design isn't just good for the earth; it's a statement of style, a testament to creativity, and a rebellion against the single-use culture that is so prevalent in our society. Opportunities abound for designers to reframe their design process through an eco-conscious lens. At the end of the day, when it comes to sustainable design, the only limit is your imagination.

Want more on Sustainable Design? Download our Eco-Friendly Design Handbook for quick reference as you incorporate eco-friendly principles into your design process.

Author: Hannah Heine

Art: Olivia Hepner

Editor: Jennifer Hart

Associate Editor: Kate Frabbiele


Article Sources:

  1. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF. (2023, March 16). What is Sustainable Design? Article Here

  2. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. Article Here

  3. The Power of Upcycled Materials in Architecture. Kreatr on Medium, 2023, July 3. Article Here

  4. Aguirre, D. Design for Repurposing: A Sustainable Design Strategy for Product Life and Beyond. Article Here

Our planet-hugging mood was inspired by

Episode 3 of The Artist 10 Podcast, “Trash Art and Do What You Love with HeyMaker founder Ashley Zabarte.”  Listen now on Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you feed your brain the good stuff.

black and whit image of ashley zabarte with The artist ten podcast Logo

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