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The Next Big Thing? - Upcycling Shakes Up Its Image

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'The Next Big Thing?' is a series of blogs that will focus on small businesses and startup brands in the U.K. Whether they are quirky, practical, pioneering or downright bizarre, this blog will shine the spotlight on what could be the next big thing...

Pretty much everyone has heard of upcycling. Most people would say they actually knew what it was. But would many people say it was a sexy concept? Is having upcycled products in our wardrobes, homes and everyday lives become something to aspire to?

Just so we're all clear, upcycling is a process whereby something that would otherwise be wasted is used to make something that is of equal or greater use / value (so it's one half of the recycling process, its sister being downcycling, where something becomes worth less).

Eco-living communities around the world have embraced the trend, as reusing unwanted items and turning them into new products (meaning less use of raw materials and the energy used in the production of raw materials) helps the planet become more sustainable.

Upcycling has also become a buzz word for sustainable business. US-based company TerraCycle brought upcycling into the mainstream by setting up 'brigades' of environmentally-friendly consumers, who earn money for charities and their schools by upcycling the product packaging of major brands such J&J, Kraft Foods, BIC, and Aveeno, into new items. Aquafresh pen holder anyone?

Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, saw the number of products tagged with the word "upcycled" increase from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year later - an increase of 275%. As of October 2011, that number stood at nearly 167,000, an additional increase of 450%.

It seems the number of people selling these products has increased dramatically. So the demand is there. But have these products become a must-have?

Many small businesses and start-ups are betting that the answer is yes. "We are seeing a significant increase in the number of people starting niche businesses and upcycling fits perfectly into this category," explains Emma Jones, founder of small business support company, Enterprise Nation, and co-founder of StartUp Britain. "These tend to be businesses you can start in your spare time (whilst keeping hold of the day job) and from the comfort of a home office so start-up costs remain low. Upcycling is something that appeals to people's consciences and sense of purpose, and turning purpose into profit is becoming very popular!"

One such business is Sir Plus, a start-up set-up by university graduate Henry Hales. He struck on the idea of selling a range of original menswear in the UK, using off-cuts and surplus fabrics, or 'cabbage' as he likes to call it.

In this case, 'cabbage' refers to the industry term used to describe fabric that's left over after an order has been made up. "Sir Plus formed contacts with many of the major factories and fabric dealers across England, which gave us access to the finest quality fabrics; ranging from Sea Island cotton with an incredibly high thread count, to the softest Italian silk on the market" explains Hales.

"Our first line was boxer shorts, made out of excess shirting from some of the best tailors Savile Row and Jermyn Street have to offer. The quality and story behind the product have gone down really well with our customers".

From the success he has been having with his initial range of bow ties, Panama hats and boxer shorts, Hales is now planning on producing upcycled waistcoats to the same high standard.

It seems upcycling isn't just becoming mainstream; it's becoming fashionable.

Alex Perry works at consumer PR and brand marketing agency be more.... If you think your product, brand, idea or invention could be the next big thing, email thenextbigthing@bm.com