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Behind UpWest and ReCircled’s Upcycling ‘Home Run’

Strategizing and establishing upcycling, recycling and re-commerce programs should not be a solo or siloed endeavor. During a panel discussion at Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit: The Road to 2030, speakers said companies need to consider the retail viability of circular creations, while also finding the right partners to execute.

Apparel brand UpWest has leaned in to collaboration to drive its own circularity efforts. To reach its goal of commercialized upcycling, UpWest worked with takeback solutions provider ReCircled and labeling and functional materials provider Avery Dennison. After considering a number of possible products to make, UpWest and ReCircled chose to remake sweater inventory into a dog sweater, mittens and a blanket.

Part of what worked in this alliance, according to Rob Smith, director, production and sourcing at UpWest, was that each partner focused on its own unique capabilities, rather than trying to do everything. ReCircled’s technology helps facilitate take backs, while Avery Dennison’s work in digitizing garments supports visibility. “Independently, all of us can do good things, but when we came together, we did something great,” Smith said about the partnership’s “synergy.”

Commercialization may have been the impetus behind this project, but it was also the failing point in an earlier UpWest initiative centered on zero waste. Once the product development reached the point of purchase order, Rob said they couldn’t achieve the right price point. The more recent endeavor leveraged these learnings and also considered merchandise that was a fit for UpWest’s consumer base to make it more marketable.

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Speaking in general about ReCircled’s partnerships, the company’s CEO Scott Kuhlman noted that it’s just the beginning, but circularity is “maturing fast,” and he is hopeful after seeing successful pilot programs.

Technology can also help to scale up circularity. For ReCircled, working with digitized garments has efficiency benefits. Currently, it costs ReCircled $2 to assess each garment, which Kuhlman noted is “not sustainable.” Solutions like RFID can reduce the labor involved in sorting while supplying the detailed care and content information that recycling requires. From a resale perspective, placing product information—including photos and descriptions—on a QR code or RFID tag would also streamline the process.

Giving products a digital ID could also simplify the entire take back process. In a hypothetical, Kuhlman said a consumer who wanted to recycle a shoe could scan a QR code on the footwear to automatically initiate a pickup. This code would also provide the required material composition details to recyclers so that the footwear can be processed.

QR codes are just one digital trigger option. Michael Colarossi, vice president, product line management, innovation and sustainability at Avery Dennison, noted companies should first look at the use case for a trigger to decide what to use. RFID requires more capital investment for special scanners, but these tags can be read automatically, whereas QR codes require manual scanning but can be deployed as consumer-facing solutions since most phones can read them.

With a digital ID, brands and retailers can share specific information about their supply chains and sustainability stories. “From the engagement perspective, the world is your oyster. Once you put a digital ID on a garment, use your imagination,” Colarossi said.

The technology to power circularity and digitize garments is available today, but the hurdle is keeping companies from taking the plunge. While there is interest, Colarossi said adoption isn’t scaling fast enough. “The biggest roadblock is…courage to try something, put yourself out there and possibly risk failing. And that’s scary for a lot of large organizations,” he said. In his experience, big firms are also less effective at collaborating with other large companies due to bureaucracy.

To ease firms into digitalization, Colarossi suggested starting with pilots and tests on a smaller scale, such as one or two product lines, and grow from there. “Everything we need exists today; it’s just implementing it, cobbling it together, using it starting with one item, and then giving us the ability not only to tell the story on new product, but then all the way through the life cycle of it from the take back,” Kuhlman said.

Colarossi pointed out that Rob and UpWest had “courage.” Although UpWest is part of Express, Inc., the brand—founded in 2019—functions similarly to a startup. Everyone—from design to marketing and e-commerce teams—got on board with the technology and was willing to test with one use case rather than trying to “boil the ocean.”

“In R&D, sometimes everybody wants to hit the home run. It’s amazing, it makes you feel so good to hit the home run, but sometimes it’s about getting on first base,” Smith said. This project was a successful hit for UpWest, but he added, “There’s been times that we swung that we missed, but we’re not afraid to take that shot.”