What is "upcycled"? Meaning and how it's different from recycled

It's a staple of sustainable fashion, but what is "upcycled" meaning and definition?

upcycled meaning - two female teenager friends standing inside in the shop, holding and looking at dress
(Image credit: Getty)

We see it in product descriptions in stores and on social media: upcycled. Meaning what, exactly? It seems to be a bit of a buzzword right now, with the tag #upcycling currently boasting nearly 3 million posts on Instagram.

We're all trying to be more conscious and thoughtful about the brands and products we purchase, to make sure that they're ethically made and environmentally thoughtful. Thankfully, carbon-conscious clothing, accessory and beauty companies all offer plenty of stylish, eco-friendly items with which to fill our closets and vanities.

But beyond buying from the best sustainable fashion brands and the best sustainable jewelry brands that already have the planet on the brain, there's another layer of sustainable shopping available for the carbon-conscious shopper to explore: thrifting, recycling, and, yes, upcycling. 

Let's take a deep dive into all things upcycled: meaning, definition, and how to add the "creative reuse" ethos to your own shopping habits.

Upcycled: meaning and definition

Upcycling is the process of taking something used—fashion, furniture, anything really—and using it to create another good of higher quality or value than the original piece. The adage "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is incredibly applicable in the world of upcycling; often upcycled materials are salvaged on their way to the dump!

Second-hand things like wood pallets can become furniture or decor pieces, jeans get torn up and turned into rugs, an old ladder is transformed into a bookshelf—you simply take something that is no longer in use and gives it an entirely new purpose.

Upcycled meaning- A portrait of young creative woman indoors making old clothes new and trendy

(Image credit: Getty)

Upcycling vs recycling: how are they different?

You're probably thinking: "Wait, isn't that just recycling?" While there's definite overlap between upcycling (also known as "creative repurposing") and recycling, there are key differences. 

Whereas upcycling takes existing products and materials in their original forms and gives them a new life, recycling involves sorting, processing, and altering those materials—melting metal cans, crushing old glass, breaking down wood—to turn it into the same product or a new product, with no regard to the materials' original form.

Because recycling often includes industrial production, an item can actually require less water, energy, and raw materials when it is upcycled—meaning, you can think of upcycling less as a recycling and more as a reworking.

What are the benefits of upcycling? 

1. Support craftsmanship and artisanal work 

You aren't going to find any huge companies that use upcycled materials to create their goods, because upcycling cannot be manufactured. Each piece is as unique as the materials it is made of, which is a tall order for industrial machines.

For artisans with small businesses or sustainable indie companies, like these cool upcycled fashion brands, however, it not only gives each of their products a unique touch, but it saves them a lot of money on the cost of materials. Salvaged materials are free materials, and that will boost their product margins significantly. 

When you purchase a product using upcycled materials, you are guaranteed to be supporting a small business owner.

2. Minimize use of natural resources 

No matter what the old, unused item is made of—wood, rubber, metal, etcetera—its components can be traced back to natural resources, something that we need to be careful stewards of.

When an object is made entirely from upcycled materials, no natural resources are used up. When we re-use those materials as part of sustainable living efforts, we are giving Mother Nature a much-needed break. 

3. Reduce manufacturing costs 

As mentioned above, materials that are not being used are often offered for minimal (if any) cost. Getting second-hand materials drastically lowers the cost of production for upcycled products, and cuts out that manufacturing middle man who processes those materials into usable forms. 

4. Reduce landfill waste 

Oftentimes, materials used in upcycling products are rescued from dumpsters or landfill piles. We know that landfills are growing steadily, and everything we can do to mitigate that growth is important. If we can take items that can be upcycled out of the landfills, we will drastically improve the situation. 

5. Help Mother Nature out 

Much like recycling, upcycling old items takes a huge strain off of our earth and its resources. Arguably, upcycling is a great way to decrease your carbon footprint because of how little resources are used in the process of upcycling. Upcycling is not usually done on a big scale and is usually kept local, so the energy and water consumption are kept to a minimum. 

upcycled meaning - woman carefully stitching some fabric

(Image credit: Getty)

What are some ways I can get involved in upcycling? 

1. Seek out local businesses who use upcycling

As you know, many small, environmentally aware artisan shops use upcycling to create a lot of their products. Ask or look around your city to find some businesses near you that employ this technique to create their goods. When you buy from them, not only will you be doing our environment a favor, but you will be supporting a small business that appreciates your patronage. 

2. Try your hand at upcycling 

If you want to pick up a hands-on hobby and help out our earth, upcycling is perfect for you! Here are a few ways you can start: 

  • Check on Pinterest
    Pinterest has no shortage of ideas when it comes to creative pursuits, and upcycling is no different. A simple search of "upcycling project" will return dozens upon dozens of pictures for inspiration, as well as blog posts on how to get the project done.
  • Visit garage sales and estate sales
    A lot of upcycling depends on what kinds of materials you can find. If you opt for something simple, like pallets or reclaimed wood, those will be easy enough to find. However, some require more niche materials. Look around local thrift stores, garage sales, and estate sales to get an idea of what kinds of materials you could draw from. While this requires some creativity and know-how, it can be very exciting to look for a piece that you know will be a great upcycling project.

Once you have your project and upcycling piece picked out, all that's left is to get your remaining materials and get to work! Sometimes, the costs of things like paints or stains and other materials will be more than the purchase of the item itself, but you can cut costs even more by asking around for some second-hand materials. 

Now that you know about all things upcycled—meaning and definition, differences from recycling, how to upcycle in your own home—go wild and try creative reusing for yourself!