Forget fast fashion. This challenge encourages upcycling and mending old clothes to create new trends

Each fashion season brings the latest trends from the runways to the masses. Now, The Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ont., and The Guelph Tool Library are encouraging a greener approach to dressing, as a new study indicates Canadians throw out 500 million kilograms of fabric that could be reused and recycled.

Canadians throw out a lot of clothes and most of it isn't garbage, according to a new Ontario study

Workers at a textile recycling facility in British Columbia sort through unwanted clothing to see what can be recycled or shipped abroad for reuse. A new study has found Canadians throw out 500 million kilograms of fabric a year that likely could be reused and recycled. (Shawn Foss/CBC News)

Here's an environmentally stylish twist on the fast fashion approach to dressing: Take those old clothes and instead of tossing them in the garbage, try making them new again.

That's what two groups — the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ont., and The Guelph Tool Library — have in mind as they encourage people to reuse clothing that otherwise would end up in landfills.

And that approach, it appears, may go a long way in helping reduce the amount of garment materials that end up in landfills, which according to a new study is in the hundreds of millions of kilograms a year.

For its part, the Fashion History Museum is challenging people to repurpose clothing to create daring new outfits.

Anyone who sews can join the museum's upcycling challenge, and the finished garments and accessories will be featured at an event this spring.

"Upcycling is something I think we're going to see more of in fashion," Jonathan Walford, director and curator of the Fashion History Museum, told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition

"I think that's the wave of the future."

Turning 'unloved fabrics' into much-loved pieces

Upcycling involves taking old clothes and transforming them into something new. It's one way to reuse textiles that may have otherwise ended up in the trash. 

Reusing fabric from old clothing is not new, Walford said. In the 18th century, the most expensive part of any outfit was the fabric. Women would keep the dresses in a trunk for their daughters and granddaughters to take them apart, and repurpose the material, he explained. 

A man wearing glasses and a pink shirt sits inside a CBC Kitchener-Waterloo radio booth.
Jonathan Walford is the director and curator of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ont. He says the upcycle challenge is a way for people to make something new from 'old and unloved fabrics and materials.' (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

"There are opportunities of taking old and unloved fabrics and materials, and using them up for today and making them relevant for today's audience," Walford said.

The clothing industry has had its share of criticism when it comes to its environmental impact. Of particular concern is fast fashion — clothing that's made inexpensively and rapidly in response to the latest trends. These mass-marketed garments aren't designed to last long, thus ending up in landfills quicker than garments of higher quality and cost. 

According to a study by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Seneca College in Toronto, Canadians throw out 500 million kilograms of fabric that could be reused and recycled.

The study analyzes how much fabric is ending up in Canada's landfills and outlines a new grading system to help divert textile waste from the trash. 

Study co-author Olaf Weber, a University of Waterloo professor in the school of environment, enterprise and development, said 85 per cent of clothing that's thrown out "shouldn't be there."

"Only 15 per cent that we found is really waste — cannot be recycled, can't be reused, can't be resold," Weber said.

Researchers evaluated a sample of about 10,000 items collected from municipalities across Ontario between 2019 and 2020. Weber said it was surprising to see how much textile waste was like new. 

Canada doesn't have a standardized system for sorting textiles, but the researchers developed a new method to evaluate an item's quality, on a scale of A to F, to determine whether it can be resold, recycled or thrown out. For example, a pair of ripped and stained jeans might be flagged for repair instead of heading into the trash. 

Weber said the study's goal was to determine the quality and quantity of textile waste, and the next step is to encourage consumers to divert textile from landfills. 

LISTEN | Canadians throw out a lot of clothes, according to a new study:

New research shows just how much clothes and textile end up in the trash in Canada and the number is staggering. Olaf Weber is a professor at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the study.

Making garment fabric uses a lot of energy and water, Weber said. And when clothing ends up in the landfill, it produces greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Education and marketing about social responsibility, new regulations, even community clothing swaps can make a difference and divert some items, Weber added. 

Trend to mend

Mending clothes to make them last is popular, as are opportunities to learn how to do it.

That's where The Guelph Tool Library comes in. It hosts repair cafés where people can bring in clothes, as well as broken appliances and tools, to be fixed. The non-profit also comes up with creative new ways to make household items last. 

Prof. Olaf Weber of the University of Waterloo says 85 per cent of clothing waste isn't actually garbage and could be recycled, reused or resold. (Shutterstock / infiksjurnal)

Its newest initiative is the Circular Store, a thrift store and mini-recycling centre that's set to open later this month. 

The Guelph Tool Library is partnering with Terracycle to collect common household items that cannot be recycled through municipal recycling services, such as razor blades and toothbrushes. 

If donated clothing doesn't sell at the thrift store, it will get passed on to community organizations  that can use them, said Megan Clarke, co-ordinator of the Circular Store. 

"If they don't want it, then we look at it and see if we can take the clothing apart and source it for materials that can be used in something else," she added. 

"Our goals are purely sustainability minded. We will do everything we can to prevent their items from going into landfills."

Textiles are difficult to recycle, Clarke said, which is why she believes buying second-hand clothing is a sustainable and economical way to think about one's wardrobe. 

"People will have to shift their consumption to a more circular way of shopping," Clarke said. 

The Guelph Tool Library also accepts donations of items to sell at the Circular Store. 

LISTEN | Upcycling challenge, white sale kick off new year at Fashion History Museum in Cambridge:

The Fashion History Museum in Cambridge is planning a busy year - from Cher-themed exhibits to an upcycling challenge and later this week - a white sale. Director and curator Jonathan Walford explains what 2023 will look like at the museum.


Anam Latif


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