Detail shot of mountains stitched in colored embroidery thread.

Shape Shifters: How Upcycling Transforms Materials and Minds

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Twenty-one billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste per year makes its way to the landfill in the United States alone.

“Makes its way.” We say that as if the waste willed itself into creation and then one day decided to mosey on down to the landfill like it was a hotel breakfast buffet.

Of course, it didn’t. We put it there. That’s the funny thing about language though: it can shape the way we think and influence the actions we take. No one knows that better than Christina Johnson, co-founder of UpCycle It Now.

Created to help solve textile waste issues, Upcycle It Now partners with apparel companies to turn their post-consumer materials into new products. When a consumer returns a used item to a company due to wear and tear, Christina and her team step in to salvage as much of the original material as they can. Rain jackets could be remade into fanny packs. Fleeces become sunglass cases.  Fishing waders are given new life as tough, durable backpacks. All upcycled products are then returned to the company’s shelves or online stores and sold to new consumers.

We caught up with Christina to talk upcycling, the power of connotation, and how to respond to the naysayers.



How does upcycling differ from recycling?

When you’re talking upcycle vs recycle, it’s just about connotation. Decades ago, when we came into the age of recycling, everything you consumed was supposed to be new and shiny. The term “recycled” had the connotation of “less than.” So using the term “upcycle” has been a way to get people to reimagine the process of reusing materials, so they don’t think of it as “less than,” but “as equal to” or even “more than” it was before.


Which industries are more apt to adopt the upcycling practice?

Well, everyone has waste. Everyone has something they’re trying to get rid of. But we’ve focused in on the outdoor industry and post-consumer apparel. One of the main reasons for this is the quality of materials sourced from outdoor companies. The good quality lends itself well to becoming a new product, whereas if you’re working with a shirt that was already falling apart from the start, it’s very difficult to give it a second life. Then there’s also having the right audience, and the fact that outdoor brands truly care about their impact. The industry as a whole is breaking down and debunking a lot of the preconceived notions that to make money, you have to take shortcuts, or if you’re doing good then you must not be making very much money.  


Beyond the physical act of repurposing used product, what does upcycling do for the collective mindset of our society as it pertains to consumption?

It reaffirms our place and our part in a larger system. In the ‘50s, we started telling ourselves “I buy a product, I use it, and then I throw it away.” With upcycling, we’re able to say, “I bought this jacket, I’m going to return this jacket, and the brand is going to take responsibility for it,” which pulls us back into the system we are participating in. It moves us into a circular economy. Taking that moment to consider what will happen to your purchase when you’re done with it can create a huge shift in our mindset.


What are the most daunting forces you’re up against?

The misconception of “away.” This mentality of “Oh, I’ll just throw it away and it will magically be in this place where it’s taken care of.” It all seems very convenient and cheap, but ultimately it’s a short-term solution.


What keeps you moving forward?

Tackling little challenges. For example, jacket hoods are a funky shape to work with. For a while we didn’t know what to do with them, but eventually I started playing with different designs and ended up making a fanny pack out of them. Now, I can look back and see we’ve used almost 2,000 jacket hoods in the last three months.

What’s your vision for Upcycle it Now?

In five years, I’d love to see the majority of people in our sector view and utilize waste as a resource. Renewal Workshop, LooptWorks, Green Guru Gear, and others like us have all found a nice niche here and we’re working together as part of a bigger movement. The success we have helps other companies and the success they have helps us. My one and only competitor is the landfill —everyone else is my companion.


How do you respond to those who feel like upcycling and sustainability are mere trends that won’t last?

First and foremost, you should always be making a product that someone wants. Don’t rely on the story to sell your product. With all of my products, I want someone to go, “Oh, I love that.” Then, when they read the hangtag and learn about what we do, say, “Whoa, I really love that and don’t mind paying a little more for it.” If we take upcycling as a story trend, it won’t last. If we take it as a systemic change and a shift in the way we do things, then I believe it will stay.


To learn more about partnering with Upcycle It Now and where to shop for upcycled products, head to

Illustration by Latasha Dunston. Images courtesy of Fort Lonesome, a custom embroidery studio based out of Austin, Texas, that gives new life to garments through incredible maker-driven designs. 

XX Kalin Stewart