Upcycling - a form of creative CSR

Today, the path from a new product to garbage is short. Much shorter than it used to be, actually.  Consumerism, free access to products, and less and less respect for possessed things mean that the trash often mixes up with items that should not be there at all. Because who is mending socks or patches of pants today? Hardly anyone. But there are those who give leaky pants a second life and make them a decorative basket, bag, or sophisticated pillow. Are you one of them? Hands up! Because there will be a few words about UPcycling.

Is it a symptom of thrift and savings? Or maybe this is how common concern for the environment and the future of our planet is manifested - why waste something that might still be useful? The reason is irrelevant. The trend of reusing owned items is growing. And while it's not mainstream yet and doesn't apply to everyone, upcycling is steadily gaining in popularity.

What is this upcycling?

The concept of upcycling was first described in 1999 by the German scientist Riemann Verlag. It gained greater popularity a few years later, after the publication of William McDonough and Michael Braungart titled “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”. What was it about? It is nothing more than a form of waste processing for seemingly useless things. Thanks to innovation, fantasy, and the will to do something from scratch, those things can get a second life, and the newly created products are paradoxically worth more than the raw materials themselves, even before the transformation. So, colloquially speaking, it is the creation of useful items from potentially old and unnecessary things, such as a bag of torn jeans. Upcycling, or creative reuse, has one main effect: it reduces the use of raw materials. And as you know, this in turn translates into a number of other benefits, such as reduction of energy consumption, air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. As one can see - pure advantages.

What is the difference between recycling and up-cycling?

Both are useful trends. Both recycling and upcycling are all about getting the most out of your waste. The difference is in the process itself. To put it bluntly: during recycling, the raw material must first be broken down into its first parts, in order to make something useful out of it later. The glass is first broken and the paper is separated into cellulose fibers so they can be reused. Downcyckling, i.e. the destruction and lowering of the value of the base material, is a key stage in the entire recycling process. Upcycling, on the other hand, is a more creative process in which waste and rubbish are treated in terms of resources or raw materials. The basis of upcycling is the processing of the base material in such a way that the newly created product presents a greater value than the raw material itself. Objects are used in a clever way, thanks to which they gain a second life and often have a completely different function, such as bags made of car covers or tables made of pallets.

A paradise for artists, handypersons and DIY enthusiasts

Upcycling gives you a lot of space to show your skills off. As they say - sky is the limit. A pendant lamp made of a globe, a box of chips as a container for cotton pads, a clock made of domino blocks, a tire seat, a kitchen knife stand made of books or an atmospheric lantern from a milk box? For some it all sounds strange, for others, it is just a good enough reason to let your imagination run wild and find a new application for things that seemingly have already fulfilled their roles. Original designs are included. The use of seemingly useless objects among artists is nothing new, but taking up the challenge by a mere Kowalski and the desire to create something out of nothing is a trend that is worth encouraging. In the virtual world, there is a multitude of blogs and interior design pages with DIY tabs (do it yourself). For a long time, for example, furniture made of pallets or fruit crates has been very popular. Seemingly useless items entered the big world (literally and figuratively). And that's what upcycling is all about. You really don't need much to prove - in the era of digitization and overwhelming automation - that people have hands not only to write text messages and e-mails but also to do something themselves.

How to make upcycling your own?

You don't need to have a full-length workshop or woodshed in your garage right away to take on the upcycling challenge. You really don't need much to complete an interesting project. The main thing is to have an idea and a will. From my experience home upcycling can be approached in two ways. Before the item goes to the trash, it is worth considering whether something can be made of it, e.g. jars will be perfect as lanterns or lamps. The second way is to look for creative solutions to current needs. Are you looking for a garden hose holder? Why not use an old car rim for this purpose? Both approaches get into your system surprisingly quickly.

Not only for money …

The purpose of secondary raw materials and their re-use should not only refer to high-flown commercial assumptions since they are easy to implement in every home. Creativity and a non-standard look at the purpose of items may turn out to be a source of measurable financial savings, but money is not everything. Upcycling can bring something much more valuable: satisfaction and fun, and can also help you discover new passions or hidden craft talents.

Is upcycling your ally?

Social commitment in the context of waste management becomes a necessity. You don't have to look far - upcycling is a great idea to enter into a valuable interaction with your customers. How? It is enough to build an interesting educational campaign and combine it with a competition or upcycling challenge. Something like "surprise us and create something out of nothing". Promoting innovative ideas and fueling positive trends is a smart way to implement a socially engaged policy. A policy that benefits both sides. Such business CSR in practice. It couldn't be easier. In the past, socks were mended, broken shoes were brought to a shoemaker, and a purse was repaired by a leatherworker. Today the consumption model is binary. Good - I use it, broken - I throw it away. The 'I repair' stage no longer exists.

We want to have… prettier, newer, more fashionable. It doesn't matter if it's a TV set, a jacket or shoes. Sometimes we take the news that something broke as a relief. "FINALLY! Broken. What a pity ... You have to buy new ones! 

Hola, hola ... How about try to fix it? Make an attempt, reflect, and look for a solution. Throwing away broken things and buying new ones is the hallmark of our time. Such a model of consumption not only hits us in the pockets but above all contributes to environmental pollution. Well, because somewhere these broken appliances and clothes must go; someone has to take care of them…

Upcycling and responsible consumption

As it turns out, upcycling is a specific DNA of sustainable development and does not only apply to large organizations. It is also not only a subject of debate at UN summits. It really begins at home: mine, yours, and our neighbors. A daily approach to the consumption of the goods we have is of great importance. When thinking about sustainable development, the point is not to reduce it at all costs, but to make it more conscious and rational.

What do the Swedes say?

The Swedish government seems to have found an interesting way to tackle this topic. In his budget proposal for next year, they plan to reduce the tax on the repair of such things as bicycles, clothes, leather goods, and shoes. The project also includes tax breaks for companies that repair slightly more expensive equipment, such as washing machines, dishwashers, or refrigerators. However, tax breaks are one tool, and the so-called 'Chemical tax' is the latter. It is also to be imposed on new household appliances and computers, and its purpose is to cover the costs of recycling harmful, non-biodegradable substances that are used in their production. In addition to the proposed tax changes, the Swedish government proposes a whole range of other solutions aimed at supporting conscious consumption. Education in schools, taking care to put appropriate information on products, promoting the sharing economy, or fighting against unfair ecological declarations of companies - are just some examples of activities. More info can be found on the government websites of the Ministry of Finance of the Kingdom of Sweden.

Can you do it? And why wouldn’t you?

The vast majority of today's environmental problems are related to our private consumption understood as our daily choices. In order to reduce its negative impact on the climate and the environment, we must at least try to change what and how we use it. Therefore, the next time your jacket button falls off, sew it on and don't buy a new piece of clothing right away, and if you want a kebab, you don't have to go to Berlin right away, generating kilograms of unnecessary carbon dioxide. It's just that simple.

Łukasz Smolarek


Łukasz Smolarek

I help my clients to face the challenges of the changing world and also discover the potential of holistic view on human needs as well as our planet’s possibilities.

Łukasz Smolarek
Responsible business strategist and values ​​leadership mentor
Together we can more
Łukasz Smolarek

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