Upcycling in China: An old Tradition Becomes a Trending Topic (Beijing, China)

Originally published for Dispatches International

With so much economic growth in such a short amount of time, China is in constant cultural flux. In prior generations, people were impoverished; now, obesity is a problem. The effect of adding a middle class to Chinese society has shifted China’s stance to being not only the leading manufacturer of goods, but also the largest consumer in the world.

With the smog surrounding large Chinese cities due to coal burning, the environmental impact of this production and consumption becomes unfortunately clear. There are, however, forces to combat this impending environmental risk that are becoming trends for positive social change in China. These include participation in environmentalism and artistic design. A combination of these is called “upcycling.”

85-year-old Mrs. Lang crafts baby shoes from clothing that would otherwise go to waste. She has not heard of the term ‘upcycling’ but practices its tenets daily.

Suvi Rautio, who runs Upcycle Beijing, elaborates. “Upcycling moves materials back up the supply chain to be reused and re-purposed with higher value and without degradation to their latent value. By upcycling materials, people rethink the concept of waste and a product’s life cycle.”

The concept is simple. Upcycling goes beyond recycling: while recycling a wine bottle requires energy to be spent in collection, transportation, and transformation, upcycling a wine bottle requires less energy and will make that specific bottle something worth more than it was for its original purpose. An example of upcycling would be turning the wine bottle into a lantern or candle holder.

Rautio tells me what Upcycle Beijing is all about, “Currently we encourage individuals to upcycle on a daily basis through our social media network. Our next target is to motivate upcycling on a local level through swap events, workshops, talks, campaigns and competitions. Online we aim to sell upcycled products made in China through our bilingual e-commerce shop. We aim to be on the forefront in altering people’s consumption habits by pushing eco-conscious consumption and design in Beijing.”

In China, it is apparent that the more luxurious brands become the available standard, the more some people will want to stand out and be unique.

Rautio explains how this process is affecting Chinese consumption, “The Chinese citizens’ standard of living are improving rapidly and consumption is increasing. The fashion retail is affordable, and those who have the means to partake in it prefer buying new, unused products. Regardless, vintage style and second-hand consumption is becoming fashionable among certain crowds, particularly artistic and design-conscious circles.”

“Like vintage clothing, upcycled products have the advantage that, not only are they DIY [do it yourself] and one of a kind, they are also environmentally friendly and allow individuals to tap into their creative side.”

Nathan Zhang owns an eco-friendly clothing store in Beijing called Brand Nü, and weighs in on Beijing’s consumers, “There are lots of different types of consumers in China. Most of my customers are aware of environmental problems. A lot are young and designers. They buy things that are unique, for the product and brand, so they are not regular shoppers. They don’t go to department stores.”

“My consumer is really independent, thinking individually,” Zhang says. “They are not really typical Chinese. The typical Chinese consumer is making money, buy big house, buy big car. Same as Canadian. Everywhere the same, right? Big truck, big boat, big computer. Human beings are all the same. They can be really boring.”

A new type of consumer trend is being developed in China, one that wants something different, customized, local, and personal. Additionally, the awareness of environmental degradation and resistance to large corporations is causing consumers to think twice about buying brand new products. The attempt to find local, used clothing began before the concept of upcycling was fashionable.

“I didn’t plan to do upcycling, it just came naturally,” Zhang recalls. “I meet more designers, more artists, more organizations and they’re all from the grassroots level. People donate clothes to me and I give to the migrant worker community. Finally they wanted to build a room to do the sewing, so really naturally we all fit together. They have a lot of secondhand clothing they don’t need, so I could use that as a resource.”

Upcycling has a sense of immediacy and of community. With so many goods being wasted and dumped just outside the city, people have become aware that there is an alternative. This involves a network of people coming together to make positive changes in the community.

Zhang continues, “Opportunity just comes; no one can really make a goal. I just don’t believe in plans, not a certain plan. Can people copy my project? I tell them there is no copyright, but you can’t do it because it’s my personal project. It’s a close circle. Other people can do the project, but they are my connections. I’m not bragging. It’s not like we first do business – we start as friends. We’re connected first with family, we build trust, and if it comes up we can work together.”

Zhang isn’t the only one to use upcycling methods without realizing it. I also spoke with Mrs. Lang, who makes baby shoes from old materials.

“I don’t know what upcycling is,” she admits. “I make the baby shoes from old clothes from material neighbors would just throw away.”

She then sells her handmade products to people in her community for 30RMB ($4.75 USD) Mrs. Lang uses the money to support two students in the area. She pays each students’ tuition and cost of living from primary school to middle school for six years, which is approximately 800RMB (126.00USD) per student per year.

I ask why she focuses on making baby shoes. “It’s easier than making adult shoes,” she says. “Babies don’t have a choice in what they wear.”

Lyn Sun works for the social enterprise, ClearWorld Media, and runs the Sina Weibo accounts (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter) for Upcycling and Buy Nothing Day. Sun explains how the upcycling phenomenon has fared in China, “Everyone knows recycling, but there is no Chinese word for upcycling. It is relatively new. The official account name on Weibo is Turn Rubbish into Treasure.”

The concept of upcycling goes back generations; it is only the name that is new.

“In my father’s generation,” Sun continues, “everyone was poor so they did upcycling without knowing it. They didn’t know they were doing upcycling, or that it was good for the environment. But once strong economic growth happened they forgot it because they could buy what they wanted for cheap. But now upcycling is becoming a fashion trend.”

Upcycling is far from being mainstream, however. “The problem in Beijing and China is that even if they think the concept is good, the problem is buying unnecessary objects,” Sun explains. “The behavior of consumption is difficult to change.”

“If we keep telling people, if we repeat these concepts, it will begin to have influence on people. With the concept repeating in your mind, it can change how you act in the future.”

On Sun’s social media sites, she informs her audience not just about the latest fashions and DIY creative aspects of upcycling, but also its environmental impact.

“I try to explain how much water it takes to make your clothes, how much electricity, labor, natural resources are needed to provide your daily consumption and what kind of affect it has on the earth. In order to achieve sustainable development we have to buy less. The factories will produce less, which will save natural resources and it will be good for the environment.”

Mrs. Lang, who crafts baby shoes, is eighty-five years old and has witnessed how the environment has changed throughout generations. “When it comes to environment, the times are changing. The air is horrible in Beijing. When I was little the sky was blue with lovely white clouds. Now, the blue sky is only after rain or for ten days in a year.”

Her home is beside a busy street and exhaust from the cars annoys her. Mrs. Lang’s solution to clean up the air: “Everybody should bike instead of drive.”

But for Zhang, the boutique owner, the solution lies within the community, and this local network must be expanded.

“In China there are only a few people doing these things, it’s a small group. You know one person, you know others. My network is so many good friends. It’s not just doing business. We’re keen on creating charity, not traditionally, but creative. Environmentally friendly, migrant workers involved, local designers involved.”

“We’re all connected together.”

Upcycling is supposed to put goods and resources back into the consumer cycle so there’s no need to use up more resources and energy. It is about creating a better consumer today to make a cleaner future. As Ms Rautio sees it, “Upcycling moves materials back up the supply chain thus making today’s goods tomorrow’s resources.”

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