Upcycling in D.C.: Transforming a Culture of Consumption
April 9, 2021 @ 10:00am
Many of us face the same issue when we open our closets and see the same clothes: We’re bored. We live in a culture of consumption, replacing the not-that-old with the brand new. As D.C. focuses more on sustainability, its next issue to tackle is textile waste. We throw away 70 pounds of clothing each year in the U.S., and even if the clothes are donated, they often still end up in landfills. Because D.C. doesn’t have its own landfill and donation centers are filled to the brim, the city spends more than $200,000 every year to haul clothing waste out of the city.
D.C. is working to implement its ReThread program, which can help “create a culture of recovery and reuse in the District,” according to D.C.’s Department of Energy & Environment. Meanwhile, these four organizations and individuals are helping create a culture of recycling and upcycling: Swatchroom Common Thread, a hospitality design firm with a space for sustainable makers and other services; Our Restore, a clothing swap business that sends customers curated clothing collections; Caroline Luella Bond of The Cozy Experience, an environmentalist who downcycles clothing to make rugs; and Sarah Forman of Sarah the Upcyclist, a teacher who upcycles her own clothing by sewing and showing others how to do the same.
Swatchroom Common Thread
Swatchroom saw an opportunity for hybridized retail and created a space where different businesses could operate out of one building. Their pop-up space in the Union Market District features vintage clothing, local upcycled art, home goods and cocktails on the weekends. Even before sustainability was trending, Swatchroom Cofounder Maggie O’Neill says she saw its potential to benefit the environment.
“Most of [these businesses] are curating things they want to put back into circulation,” she says. “These objects and pieces of clothing have awesome stories and narratives. Why shouldn’t they be celebrated, rather than disposed of?”
Cofounder Warren Weixler agrees, noting that he and O’Neill believe “anything vintage has character and soul.”
O’Neill and Weixler know that providing an experience is great, but there is more to their business model.
“Humans just need to help each other out,” Weixler says. “2020 made people ask themselves, ‘What do you value?’”
Outside of the store sit large clothing donation bins, which, once full, will be donated to organizations like Women Giving Back.
Visit www.swatchroom.com/commonthread and follow @commonthreaddc on Instagram.
Founder Leohana Carrera grew up in Guatemala within a culture of sustainability, as her mother and grandmother often mended ripped pants and sewed dresses instead of buying new. Carrera hadn’t heard the term sustainability until coming to America, where she realized what she’d grown up doing was unheard of in American culture. When she went back to Guatemala, she noticed all the second-hand clothing from America that had been dumped in her home country.
“We are always asking, ‘What does it mean to help developing countries be modernized?’” Carrera says. “But it’s ironic because you look at Western countries that are very developed and how they are basically unsustainable compared to undeveloped countries.”
She looked around at the fast-fashion culture and decided to start Our Restore, which began as a clothing swap. During the pandemic, Our Restore has supplied customers with clothing from the swap that they can try and buy.
“We generate seven items and people can wear them [and] feel them out for a whole month. If they want to keep them, they swap whatever they’re not currently using in their closet.”
If customers do want to buy one of the generated articles of clothing, they simply pay $5 to Our Restore.
As a truly sustainable company, if Our Restore receives an article of clothing that’s not quite fresh enough to send out, a team of women upcycle those pieces into something better. And if an item is truly unsalvageable, they donate the clothing to Bond at The Cozy Experience, who recycles it into creative projects.
Visit www.ourrestore.com and www.fb.com/our.restore, and follow @our.restore on Instagram.
The Cozy Experience
Bond’s interest in sustainability grew after she became overwhelmed by “a general feeling of hopelessness.” After researching textile waste in D.C., she figured out what she could do: make rugs out of donated clothing.
“I found a way to repurpose, or elongate, the lives of things,” Bond says. “It’s a good way to put your feelings into something you can hold when you’re done with it.”
In 2020, The Cozy Experience diverted 250 pounds of clothing waste and sent another 70 pounds to coat drives. But Bond didn’t do it alone. Pre-pandemic, she taught others how to create their own rugs.
“What I do isn’t hard. Every time I sit someone down to teach them, they are usually successful.”
When she first started, she was inspired by natural disasters. Some of her rugs reflected fires, hurricanes, algae blooms and oil spills. While she’s created her own style, Bond stresses that these little ways of being more sustainable are available to everyone if they just try. She even admits she isn’t very creative herself, but says she finds the motivation to weave these rugs because she’s stubborn and doesn’t quit.
While I’d say her designs negate her claim of lacking creativity, the point is clear: Stick to an idea for more sustainability long enough, and you can make a difference.
Shop The Cozy Experience products at www.etsy.com/shop/cozyfloorcoverz and follow @thecozyexperience on Instagram.
Sarah the Upcyclist
For Sarah Forman, 2020 made her reevaluate all the stuff around her living space. As a teacher, she used her sewing skills to create costumes for school plays by upcycling fabric from donation centers. When school went virtual, she looked around her apartment and decided to upcycle her own clothing as well.
“The sustainability aspect didn’t really come into play until I started doing my research and connecting with other makers,” Forman says. “I learned more about the horrid fast fashion industry and the impact on women across the world — not only garment workers, but young women trying to fit into ideals.”
Forman connected with D.C. favorite Femme Fatale, a collaborative for womxn and non-binary creatives, entrepreneurs and organizers, and taught others how to upcycle their own clothing. She wants others to know that upcycling isn’t limited to clothing.
“Anybody can do it. Upcycling could be as simple as taking a jar of baby food and reusing that as a planter.”
Forman recommends picking a room, looking at objects you’d normally throw out and thinking about how they could be used differently.
“I made it fun for myself,” she says.
And now, after not buying a new piece of clothing for 13 years, she walks into an H&M and doesn’t feel the need to buy anything at all. After the pandemic, Forman plans on hosting more sewing classes with Femme Fatale.
“Find your unique way you can start doing this.”
Whether you support these makers and businesses or start an upcycling project of your own, the future is bright for diverting textile waste in D.C.
Visit Sarah the Upcyclist on YouTube and follow her on Instagram at @sewsewzoso_upcycle.
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