Companies that develop new product ideas out of old materials are not just acting in a creative way, but are indeed ecologically exemplary. Upcycling is an alternative concept to the fast-moving, anonymous mass market – also in the promotional products industry.
It is actually an ancient principle. Before industrial mass production existed, but also far into the industrial era, it was a matter of course to repair objects as long as possible and continue to use them, until they fell apart. Parents‘ discarded clothes were used to make new clothes for the children and these were passed on from sibling to sibling, before becoming patchwork carpets or ending up as cleaning cloths, to finally be used as fuel. Torn jumpers were laboriously unravelled so the yarn could be reused, curtains were turned into sofa cushions, milk jugs became flower pots.
However, all of a sudden repaired, homemade or reused items were considered to be antiquated. A new product type arose with the triumphal march of plastic in the 1960s and 1970s at the latest: the disposable item.However, thanks to growing ecological awareness such disposable items have in the meantime also seen better days. Disposable products are questioned and more and more often dispelled, durability and longevity are moving into focus and many of the consumers are willing to pay the price accordingly. The good old habits of repairing, reusing and recycling items are making a comeback: Repair cafes, where the visitors swap views about soldering, screwing and assembling and outsmart manufacturers from the technology and electronic industry, who have been accused of building “predetermined breaking points” into their products for a long time. And things that are broken don’t end up on the waste dump, they are reborn: Upcycling turns old materials into new commodities. In the narrow sense of the word, the term waste recycling that presumably arose in the 1990s refers to a recycling process, that doesn’t lead to a material being turned into a product of inferior quality – as with downcycling – but indeed to an upgrade of the material. In the meantime, there are thousands of examples how this works. A glance at the Internet leads to dozens of suppliers for “new out of old” and numerous blogs, where the operators and users exchange their latest ideas – in the light of the large offer of potential materials, creativity knows no limits. Upcycling is a trend that was not born from necessity, it is the result of an increased ecological awareness, the aversion against anonymous mass-produced goods, the quest for an individual style and the desire to make things oneself.
“Making things oneself is no longer considered to be old-fashioned, it is hip,” said Joachim Leffler, Executive Director of the Berlin-based company Fahrer, which specialises in bicycle accessories made out of materials like truck canvas, boat covers and advertising banners. “Handicraft techniques are being rediscovered, own creations are sold on platforms like DaWanda. Our products also address customers, who like home-made products.“ “Upcycling is the opposite phenomenon to mass production, which hardly leaves any room for individuality,” stated Gabriela Kaiser, trend scout and consultant, whose customers include famous companies from the industry and trade, exhibition organisers and specialised publishing companies. “Many products have become totally interchangeable so that the only selling argument is the price. Upcycled products on the other hand are unique specimens, which have their own character and history.”
In contrast to recycled items of past ages, today’s upcycling products are on the pulse of time as far as style and design are concerned. Whether fashion, the furniture industry, product design or architecture: For many designers, especially the younger generation, materials with patina are at the moment state of the art. “Our views have changed: What we used to consider to be a flaw, has in the meantime its own aesthetic charm,” explained Kaiser. “Especially things that are not perfect, that show traces of processing and use lend the objects their uniqueness.“ “Mass-produced products don’t attract people with an individual flair,” added Leffler. “In many product areas there is a trend towards products that are not off-the-peg – i.e. even in the bicycle business. When we founded our company in the year 2003 we liked the idea of producing unique specimens – at the time the term upcycling didn’t even exist. The fact that we recycled products, was more or less a side-effect that has of course become one of our principles today.“
A new life
Because, of course, upcycling products convey a strong ecological message – materials that normally end up on the hazardous waste dump or would have to be elaborately recycled, are fed directly back into the market. This fundamental idea was also the motto when Globe Hope was founded in 2003. The Finnish company has in the meantime made an international name for itself with upcycling fashion and accessories. “Our CEO, Seija Lukkala, used to work in the textile industry, where large volumes of fabric were thrown away every day,” reported Miisa Asikainen, Globe Hope’s Marketing & Communications Manager. “Globe Hope arose from the idea that there had to be a different way of going about it. There are so many waste materials that are actually flawless – also in many other industries, such as the promotional products industry for instance.“ These materials are given a second life at Globe Hope. The company uses scouts to look for old uniforms, work clothes, sails, seat belts, left-over fabric from the textile industry, old curtains, discarded advertising banners, car tyres, vinyl records or computer parts. The result is stylish skirts made of army parkas, bags made of sails and seat belts or jewellery made of circuit boards and computer keys. “We start with the material and then we consider which products we can make out of them and in what form,” reported Asikainen. “The raw materials with their specific characteristics and patina are the biggest inspiration.“ Each finished product is accompanied by an inlay card that informs the recipient about its previous life. Globe Hope makes around 50% of its turnover on the promotional products market. For example, the company produced advertising and merchandising items out of old crew member uniforms for Finnair. The merchandising of the Finnish band, Pertti Kurikan Nimipaivat, which represented the country at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2015, was also designed by Globe Hope.
Fahrer’s clientele includes several Ministries as well as the Berlin daily newspaper, taz, for whom the company designed bicycle leg straps, key pendants and cosmetic bags out of their own advertising material. Fahrer has signed a framework agreement with Volkswagen and constantly holds advertising banners of the car manufacturers in stock. “We recently produced conference folders for a press conference at short notice,” reported Leffler.
Promotional products with long-term impact
As unique items, upcycling products always offer promoting companies a high degree of individuality, they are also very popular with a coveted target group: “The typical buyer of upcycling products lives in the city and places great value on sustainable consumption,” reported Leffler. “Furthermore, he has a certain income so that he can afford products that are not cheap, which means he also tends to be a bit older. Most of our customers are aged between 30 and 60.“ Since upcycled products are not mass-produced goods because of their price they are ruled out by many B2B customers.“ Sometimes we are asked, why the prices of our products are so high, even though they are recycled,” said Asikainen. “What a lot of people forget is that although our products are made out of old materials, they are still new and the materials used are not free – with the exception of discarded advertising banners, we pay for everything. And the manufacturing process is much more complicated than when using new raw materials and often requires twice the amount of work. Those however, who are prepared to pay a certain price, ultimately receive a promotional product that is not only individual and of high quality design, it is also durable. Many of our customers are delighted that their products can be used for longer and that they are appreciated by the recipient.“ “Many promoting companies have in the meantime recognised the fact that mass-produced items no longer motivate the consumers and are now buying according to budget instead of volume,” added Leffler. “Ultimately, they benefit more from 15,000 articles costing three Euros each than from 50,000 items costing one Euro each.”
As such upcycling products are not only sustainable promotional products because of their ecological balance sheet, but also because they enfold their advertising impact over a longer period of time and more intensely. Furthermore, many suppliers rely on local production out of conviction, but also in order to keep the routes short. For example, Globe Hope produces in Finland and Estonia, Fahrer works together with workshops for the disabled in Germany. The upcycling trend not only stands for the respect for resources and objects, but also for the esteem of human labour. Upcycling is the antithesis to the mentality “Buy, use, discard” – it calls upon people to establish a real relationship to a product. Since just because something can be easily replaced, one shouldn’t simply throw it away immediately.