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[Weekender] Industry jumps on upcycling bandwagon

In October 2012, actress Moon So-ri faced a bank of flashing cameras as she walked the opening red carpet at the Busan International Film Festival, clad in a white dress. But this time, what made the headlines the next morning was not her looks or acting skills, but her costume that was made of old dress shirts and parachutes.

The maker of Moon’s dress, Kolon Industries, is one of the rising number of businesses that have in recent years been jumping on the green bandwagon here, transforming waste materials into products that are affordable, stylish and easy to use. 

Kolon redesigns and reforms unsold fasion items for its upcycle fashion brand Re;Code. (Re;Code)
Kolon redesigns and reforms unsold fasion items for its upcycle fashion brand Re;Code. (Re;Code)

Corporate cost-cutting efforts, consumers’ calls for unique, cool yet less polluting goods and a global drive to curb ecological footprints have come together to give rise to the upcycling industry.

While large fashion houses are joining the trend as a strategy to diversify their product lineups and help clear inventories, small and midsize firms and start-ups are betting on novel ideas to entice eco-conscious shoppers.

Re;Code is Kolon’s upcycled fashion line launched in March 2012. It was born out of the Seoul-based firm’s struggle with inventory, company officials say. Brand new clothes are usually transferred to outlets and discount stores after the season ends, and then incinerated if not sold after three years. Kolon burns 4 billion won ($3.6 million) worth of never-worn items every year. 

The brand uses not just out-of-date clothing but also unwanted military uniforms, tents and other equipment, as well as industrial materials like automobile air bags, seats and linings. All products are handmade, and no more than five items are available in the same design.

To boost its social responsibility activities and harness more out-of-the-box ideas, Kolon works with Goodwill Industries, a social enterprise run by disabled people, in disassembling clothing, while cooperating with independent designers.

“Re;Code puts top priority in our fashionwide social participation and has meaning in that the company actively embraces the capabilities of independent promising designers through collaboration with them,” says Han Kyung-ae, a managing director of Kolon FnC, the subsidiary in charge of the project.

“Given the growing need for ethical consumption among customers, we’re hoping to contribute to their valuable buying.”

In Samcheong-dong at the center of Seoul, Cheil Industries, a textile affiliate of Samsung Group, introduced what it says is the country’s first-of-its-kind fashion corporate social responsibility store called the Heartist House in September 2014, marking the 60th anniversary of its clothing business.

The shop sells not only products donated by Bean Pole, Rogatis, Galaxy, Kuho and other Cheil brands, but also upcycled items and eco-friendly objects crafted by up-and-coming designers. Customers can also donate their items.

With the area being a tourist hotspot, about 30 percent of the visitors are from overseas, largely Chinese and then Americans and Japanese.

Transformed from a warehouse in the 1940s, the five-story structure was built with old bricks and other components and 50 percent of the interior items are from the firm’s inventory. Workers reuse water from air conditioners and rain for the flowers and plants on display on each floor.

Cheil also runs a contemporary multishop named Beaker in Hannam-dong, which boasts a collection of upcycled furniture and other articles and allows visitors to donate old clothes, bottles and other things and receive a cosmetics sample or coffee coupon in return.

All the proceeds from the two stores are spent to help children with disabilities and other underprivileged people, the company says.

Smaller companies, too, are turning upcycling into a lucrative business.

Some old banners and car seat belts become chic yet durable clothes and purses, while outdated denim, buckles and hooks are put together to build “it” bags. Used coffee grounds, which would otherwise get dumped in the trash, are transformed into mushroom compost, mugs and even lamp shades.

Ecojun Company’s “original green cup” smells like coffee. Made of biodegradable cornstarch and used coffee grounds, it is lighter than porcelain mugs or glasses.

It releases no hormones even when filled with hot water, and emits no noxious gases when it is incinerated after use, the firm says.

CEO Lee Jun-seo claims his brainchild marks the first coffee grounds cup in Korea, which imports more than 120,000 tons of coffee beans and uses some 12 billion paper cups every year.

“While used coffee grounds (usually) just get thrown away, this cup contains 100 percent biodegradable corn plastic and helps lessen waste while smelling so good,” he said in an interview with the Korea Green Foundation.

Zenny Closet is one of the high-flying upcycling labels, offering purses and accessories chiefly made of discarded denim. Its sophisticated designs lured young female consumers, pushing its revenues to surge tenfold six months after launch.

In addition to an online mall, the company now operates seven stores across Seoul and one in Daejeon.

Other eco-design products similarly showcase their beauty and eco-friendliness. They include Touch4Good’s dishmats made of computer components, placards turned into bags and blankets with PET bottle ingredients, as well as construction materials produced from seashells and other marine debris by YNG Tech, a Seoul-based heavy equipment parts manufacturer.

To help the small businesses and start-ups expand their sales channels, promote networking and establish related infrastructure, some front-runners established an association in 2013, called the Korea Upcycle Design. Its members often join hands to purchase rare materials such as waste parachutes or military gear.

In Korea, upcycling was brought on to the scene in 2007 by some designers and kicked into high gear in 2013, with around 100 teams now working in the sector that face more challenges, the organization said.

“Even after a firm comes up with good products, there are no or very few sales outlets. And many people still think of upcycled goods as things made with unique ingredients, rather than a brand,” it said on its website.

The central and local governments, meanwhile, also seek to act as a catalyst to the budding industry.

The Environment Ministry provides financial support for local upcycling facilities such as in Gyeonggi Province, while holding idea contests and public exhibitions.

In April, Seoul City broke ground for the country’s first-ever upcycling center, to open in 2017. Sitting on a 16,500-square-meter area, the five-story building will house workspaces for related social enterprises and artists, a marketplace for upcycled goods, processed waste materials and secondhand items, an exhibition hall and experience center.

The city is seeking to jack up the number of recycling companies from the existing 30 to 1,000 and generate some 20,000 new jobs by 2017 including positions for upcycling material planners and eco-designers.

By Shin Hyon-hee (