Designing for circular fashion: integrating upcycling into conventional garment manufacturing processes

Designing for circular fashion: integrating upcycling into conventional garment manufacturing processes

Reet Aus, Harri Moora, Markus Vihma, Reimo Unt, Marko Kiisa and Sneha Kapur have compiled a research paper summarizing the results of a more than 5-year practice-led study on the use of upcycling design and production methods in garment mass production. The efficiency of upcycling design approach is described by analysing the generation and potential use of various types of fabric leftovers from garment manufacturing.

The results of this research show that depending on the size of the factory the fabric leftovers and textile waste generated in garment production ranges from 25–40% of the total fabric used. Experiments show that 50% of that material can be upcycled into new garments and for some types of leftover—mainly spreading loss and excess fabric—it can even be up to 80%.

Implementing upcycling on the industrial level requires transparency to understand the waste created in garment production and create designs that suite the production system. It is important to consider that the upcycling design process differs from regular design—a garment is designed based on the parameters of the waste materials.


The fashion and textile industry is one of the world’s most polluting industries, mainly because its volume of production dwarfs most other industries. Textiles production requires a lot of land for crops and uses a lot of water, energy, chemicals and other resources leaving often untreated pollution behind and has a highly negative environmental, economic and social footprint (Fletcher, 2008; GFA & BCG, 2017; Hiller Connell & Kozar, 2017; Leal et al., 2019; Remy et al., 2016). Today’s conventional fashion and garment industry is linear by nature and in addition to the impact that raw material extraction for newly produced fibre production has, textile waste has become a major problem in the sector (Ellen MacArthur, 2013, 2017).

The amount of waste created is truly significant, as the European Union (EU) textile industry alone generates around 16 million tonnes of textile waste annually (European Commission, 2017). Much of this waste today still ends up in landfills or is incinerated. This represents a loss from a production effort which uses millions of tonnes of water and kilowatts of energy, and countless hours of human labour that could be salvaged (Leal et al., 2019).

While most debates and circular fashion approaches focus on the problem of used garments—so-called post-consumer waste (Fischer & Pascucci, 2017; Singh & Ordoñez, 2016), less attention is paid to the textile waste and leftovers from manufacturing garments (pre-consumer waste). Yet the environmental impact of garment production in the whole garment life cycle can be from 29 to 72% depending on the type of clothing (Steinberger et al., 2009).

Over the past 30 years, most garment production has shifted to developing countries, mainly in Asia, in search of cheaper labour. Global clothing supply chains are now complex involving several actors on many levels and regions making it difficult to have full oversight on them. This results in the waste generated in the production being less visible and less recognised by brands, designers as well as consumers (Govindan & Hasanagic, 2018).

However, awareness that the textile waste generated during garment production is a problem is starting to increase mainly of economic reasons. Fabric can make up to 80% of the total production cost of a garment, which has made manufacturers to seek ways to decrease the creation of waste as much as possible (Nayak et al., 2008). Recycling technologies for textile production waste and leftovers are also being sought and developed (Leal et al., 2019; Lewis et al., 2016). The problem of textile production waste is still mainly left for manufacturers to solve. The unofficial waste management system in those manufacturing countries is unpredictable and the availability of different recycling options is very limited. Therefore, most of the leftover material from garment manufacturing ends up dumped or burned.

The aim of this study was to analyse the amount and types of textile waste and fabric leftovers generated in the garment manufacturing process that are most suitable for what is called industrial upcycling so as to redirect the leftover material back into the production of new garments. In addition, a summary of innovative design methods and examples of garment designs for upcycling textile waste is presented. These methods and examples were developed and tested during this research, which also formed the foundation for the development of a new circular design business model, UPMADE. It is the first of its kind circular garment design and production approach based on the principles of upcycling and has proven to be applicable in mass production in several garment manufacturing factories in Asian countries (SEI, 2019).

The full research paper is available HERE.