Upcycle Exchange - Swapping Green

Emily of Candy Calamity recently interviewed Autumn Wiggins of the Upcycle Exchange about her innovative new trashion project:


Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I've been a die-hard indie crafter since 2001! I started out developing a microbrand for my sewn goods called String Theory, and quickly got caught up in the momentum of the handmade movement. In 2005, I began organizing Strange Folk, a grass roots craft show in the burbs of St. Louis that has grown exponentially, drawing a crowd of over 10,000 attendees last year. I was interested in exploring the environmental impact of our growing genre, and began writing for Crafting a Green World in 2008. After compiling research on the subject, I presented my findings and ideas as a speaker at both Craft Con and Maker Faire 2008. Articles for Etsy's Storque Blog and Craft: Magazine followed. I propose that cottage industries can be an effective vehicle for upcycling; that by working together we can eliminate waste, reduce pollution, and curb overseas mass production. I'm confident this can be made a reality by the creative utilization of the internet, and after designing websites for 15 years, it's very exciting for me to be in the thick of developing user interfaces for this purpose.

What is an upcycle exchange?

It works just like a recycling program, except that it specifically addresses the relationship between buying and selling merchandise. The basic concept is that a seller requests items they use to make things, and the customer collects said items for the seller. The seller then offers incentives such as discounts on merchandise or free give-aways to customers that submit said items. The terms of the exchange are facilitated through the internet or the merchandise itself.
Now, that's a broad explanation with a lot of possibilities. It makes sense as a model for sustainability, but not in the current climate of industrialization. Companies that depend on countless middle-men and factories overseas are incapable of adopting the concept effectively. Due to society's varied tastes of consumption, what is really needed to make repurposing viable is equally varied creative interpretation. The handmade movement is not a passing art fad, but a renaissance of trash. It's up to us to maximize the usefulness of an overwhelming abundance of durable goods that the world has inherited from ignorant predecessors. In the long run, industry will need to adopt greener methods for producing raw materials, and maybe technologies that enable micro-manufacturing can trump the ugly trend of faceless labor.

How did you come up with the idea to organize this?

I got the idea while reading a book called Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Most crafters may not realize the term "Upcycling" was actually coined in this book. They talk a lot about futuristic concepts dealing with "material flows"; that everything man-made would be either 1. compostable 2. infinitely recyclable (which many things, like paper and most plastics, are not) OR 3. Upcycled in an orderly fashion. The first two are technologies on the horizon. The third seems very far-fetched to most people. in fact, many things certified as Cradle-to-Cradle are a combination of all three, most being products that are used long-term(like carpets, office chairs, even a concept car by Ford) and can be disassembled once their use has ceased. I thought, what about domestic goods? There are so many things that our modern lifestyle requires. The complexity is maddening, and the only way that everything can be sustainable is for everyone with enough imagination to make it so.
I'm reading this book, thinking the whole time they obviously aren't aware of the indie craft underground, which has since become a mainstream phenomena. I saw it as solving an equation for X, and had a strong feeling that I shouldn't keep it to myself. Though the solution was easy, writing the proof was difficult . Even though my ideas for facilitating upcycle exchanges in many forms have been met with enthusiasm, it seemed that I would have to take it further and formulate a workable platform. That's why I created "The Upcycle Exchange" specifically as a program for St. Louis. It's meant to be a model and a way to work out bugs in the system before we launch (short for Local Upcycling Coops) which will be an open-source type project to promote community driven upcycling efforts.

Having hosted your first upcycle exchange is there anything you would do differently?

I was actually floored at how well it went. The compiled list seemed to make sense to everyone. People were happy with the coupons, and were bringing in some really nice stuff. Many mentioned they would have not discarded these things otherwise, but were thrilled about the idea of their clutter being made into something new. There was some concern beforehand from vendors about requiring minimum quantities in order to get the discount. I was pretty adamant that NOT having minimums was a cornerstone of the concept. You just have to trust that most people would willingly donate a reasonable amount, and overwhelmingly, they did.
That said, I think it's important for volunteers to be familiar with the list and the vendors, as well as sorting from the get-go. Also, all participating vendors should lend you at least 2 decent sized tubs, boxes, or laundry baskets that are clearly labeled with their name. I found it helpful to tape individual vendor lists to their containers as well. The cool thing was that people would bring their stuff in all kinds of bags and boxes which allowed us to sort out things like fabric,buttons, ribbons, paper, and other practically universally requested items. In the end, there was such and abundance that even non-participating vendors were invited to take home some treasure. Only a few scraps remained.

Where can people go to learn more about organizing an exchange in their own area?

I think I have a pretty good system for collecting and compiling lists in place. Also, once you start collecting things, I found a really great way to both sort for individuals and create collections of commonly requested items for the vendors to choose from at the end of a show. I'm going to start working on publishing guides on how to do this on starting this summer. Until then, I'd be happy to go through the basics with anyone who would like to start their own program before then. Just e-mail me at Also, I'm releasing the "U" symbol on The Upcycle Exchange site under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use or remix, and will have high-res graphics available for download, but will be happy to serve them up via e-mail for now as well. I think the upcycling symbol should be as recognizable as the recycling symbol!

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

There are many other possibilities for this such as distributing "Upcycle Bins", having drop-off locations, and I'm sure many other avenues I'm not thinking of. Events seem like a good place to start though. Sure, the economy sucks, but we can pretty much do all this for free, and give consumers more incentive to buy handmade goods. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but I think we can actually save the planet by making things :)


Anonymous said...

This is a great idea! Thank you for your initiative. We are a company working on the otherside of the upcycling chain creating all of our clothing and gear from 100% pre-consumer waste. There is a tremendous amount of waste of perfectly good, never before used materials at the factories that ends up either going to a landfill or getting incinerated. Looptworks intercepts these materials and creates limited edition, hand numbered items from them while educating the factories and end users (we don't want to call them consumers anymore)about how to reduce excess and practice mindful consumption. Let us know if there are ways to work together to help reduce excess together. Thanks again for your efforts!

Ginny the Sock Monkey said...

I'm loving this. I hope that this idea does catch on because I think people, like you had said, are willing to contribute as long as we make it convenient and available. I'm looking forward to reading Cradle-to-Cradle, so thanks for the book suggestion. I may also be interested in starting a program like this once I settle down in a city. I'm such a roamer right now and wouldn't be able to maintain it, but will be coming back to this idea in the near future. Can't wait!

neko said...

Love your work! Keep up the good work. Wanted to share my blog too.

Cheers- Neko

Dana U said...

Wow! I've read Cradle-to-Cradle too and went to see McDonough speak about it at Harvard Business School - very inspiring! I have been saving things that don't get recycled easily with the intention of upcycling, but I'm afraid I'm short on time for such endeavors. Just did a Google search looking for a "trash exchange" and found you ;) I tried working with Terracycle, but the process is made more for people that can acquire high volume, like schools. Just looking for something for individuals who compulsively save potentially upcyclable materials ;)