“What is Upcycling?” – Eco Definitions



Eco Definitions for Greener Understanding. 


We see our position within the green movement to be advocates as well as educators. This is particularly important to us with regards to product design and manufacturing. The recent public demand for sustainable solutions has established a whole new vocabulary for describing current trends. We realize it can be confusing when using words that describe methods and practices many people are eager to implement, yet were only recently introduced to. For example, it's not uncommon for us to be asked, "what is upcycling?". In response, we’ve created this list to help you better understand some of the commonly used terms associated with sustainability that we use on this site and that you may hear in related discussion.


What is Recycling?At this point, recycling has become a household phrase. But in order to distinguish from upcycling, take this into account: To recycle material means to set it through a cycle or process that allows for continued use. A recycled product is composed of material that is processed back into its original form with little or no alteration.  


Ex: Glass bottles can be recycled and processed back into glass for the purpose of creating more glass bottles.


What is Upcycling? Upcycling is the process of reusing existing materials to create something that is characteristically and functionally different than what it began as. Similar to recycling, however different in that it emphasizes the change in form and function of a particular material. Whereas recycling is a process of reuse with little to no alteration of material.


Ex: A vinyl billboard advertisement once used to promote a product is upcycled into a functional new messenger bag.


What is Renewable? Something able to be renewed or reused and therefore offering the opportunity to be used again. Within the framework of sustainability, renewable resources are vital to creating a system that doesn’t rely on virgin materials and therefor cause unnecessary expenditure of limited resources.  


Ex: A renewable resource, such as solar power, is produced naturally by the sun and can be absorbed by solar panels to power individual houses, and potentially entire cities.


What is Repurposing? The desire or intention to give new purpose to something that already exists. Repurposing is synonymous with upcycling in that both take an existing material or set of materials that compose an existing product and give them new purpose by altering their form or turning them into an entirely different product altogether.


Ex: Taking old deflated bike tubes and repurposing the materials into inspiring new backpacks & wallets.


What is Sustainable and Sustainability?A way of describing a system or method allowing for reductions in environmental impact. Often with the benefit of continual reuse without the constant need for new resources to support it.    


Ex: A company is more sustainable in its practices, when it chooses to reuse materials, reduce energy consumption, and encourage local manufacturing.  


What is Triple Bottom Line? An inspiring new approach to defining a company's goals and mission to include consideration for people and planet in addition to profit. A triple bottom line approach asserts the desire for a company to conduct business in a way that reduces the negative impact its actions have on people and their communities, as well as the environment and its resources. Ultimately, it implies that as a business, profit is considered equal in importance to reducing specific negative impacts a business creates while conducting its affairs.


Ex: As a B-Corp certified company, Ecologic Designs employs a triple bottom line approach in its business model. By doing so, we apply equal consideration to socio-environmental impacts as well as the acquisition of sustained profits.


What is Corporate Sustainability? Corporate sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term consumer and employee value by creating a "green" strategy in regards to the natural environment and taking into consideration every dimension of how a business operates in terms of social, cultural, and economic impact. (wikipedia)


Ex: Manufacturing products with post-consumer recycled materials is one method for asserting a company's emphasis on corporate sustainability.


What is an Annual Sustainability Report (ASR)? It’s not unlikely that if you’re here visiting this site you're familiar with what an annual sustainability report is. In essence it’s a report seeking to inform shareholders, as well as customers, of the ways in which a company has made efforts to be more sustainable. The ways in which any particular company does this varies, however it should be noted that there is an increasing demand for material sustainability in modern manufacturing.


Ex: By repurposing old tent fabric, or unsellable backpack material and upcycling it into new totes or duffel bags, your company can include on its annual sustainability report that you reduced material waste.    


What is Ecological Design?Defined by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan as "any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes."


Ex: Designing products built from repurposed materials reduces destructive environmental impacts and integrates itself within a framework for a more sustainable future.


What is Life cycle analysis (LCA)?The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) describes life cycle analysis as a tool for the systematic evaluation of the environmental aspects of a product or service system through all stages of its life-cycle. The need for businesses to adapt a thorough life cycle analysis is becoming increasingly important. Consumer demand for sustainably designed and manufactured products is on the rise and will only increase as our desire to manufacture on a large scale is confronted with the reality of dwindling resources and environmental degradation. For more info regarding global awareness for life cycle analysis, visit the United Nations Environment Program page on sustainability.


Ex: When doing a thorough life cycle analysis, it was determined that our products are produced, from start to finish, with the utmost attention to reducing environmental impact.  


What is Design for Environment (DfE)?Design for the Environment Program (DfE) is a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program that works to prevent pollution and the risk pollution presents to humans and the environment. As it pertains to design and manufacturing, it works to encourage sustainable manufacturing practices in an effort to reduce the negative impacts manufacturing can have on air, land and water.


What is Zero Waste?Zero waste is founded on the desire to someday redesign resource life cycles so that all products are reusable. As a result, there would be no need for landfills as nothing would be designed to be thrown away.


What is Fair Trade? The mission behind the fair trade movement is to improve trading conditions for producers in developing countries. In addition, by increasing opportunities within these communities to trade and benefit fairly, the goal is also to help promote sustainable methods that will allow for healthy relationships with the earth and market on into the future.


Ex: Fair trade coffee certifies that the relationship between producer and seller is both fair and equitable for both sides.