How Sustainable is the Upcycle Movement?

A primary goal of Letzi, like many other businesses selling recycled or upcycled products, is to reduce waste. We do this by turning single-use products like grocery bags and milk jugs into longer-term products like jewelry and art. But how sustainable are upcycled businesses, and the underlying upcycle movment?


Earlier this year, a group of scholars conducted a study addressing this very question. Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the study’s authors analyzed upcycled businesses in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Brazil to determine the sustainability of the underlying upcycling movement in the Global South.


The authors performed the socio-technical transitions framework in order to place the upcycled morevement into one of four phases:


  1. A local phase - a set of isolated projects

  2. An interlocal phase - a niche level emerges where projects share knowledge and experiences

  3. A trans-local phase - where actors play a role in the development of interest to manage external expectations and local knowledge is systematically fed to constitute the required aggregate learning at the niche level

  4. A global phase - where we see a greater institutionalization and standardization of practices in the field with niche standards that shape local practices, becoming a stable regime.


A movement becomes more sustainable as it moves down the list.


The movement has made substantial progress in recent years but has yet to transition into a “global phase”

The authors conclude that the upcycling movement in the countries analyzed fell within the trans-local phase. In other words, the movement has made substantial progress in recent years but has yet to transition into a "global phase" (i.e. a stable regime).


The study finds that many upcycling businesses struggle “with their financial sustainability, particularly with the current tensions and price competition” between the upcycled businesses and producers of single-use products. Still, the upcycling movement has made tremendous progress and can become sustainable as more people become “conscious consumers,” actively choosing upcycled products over single-use products.


If you are interested in supporting the sustainability of the upcycled movement, please visit TerraShops, a “global eco marketplace, uniting the largest community of sellers and buyers of sustainable and ethical products from all over the world.”


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