At the end of a long Wednesday, settling in on the sofa with the kids tucked up in bed, BBC1 on the telly and #theapprentice twitterfeed scrolling next to me has become the pinnacle of “Mummy time” at our house. And when I heard the word “upcycle” bandied about during last Wednesday’s task, I was almost giddy with excitement. Here was a chance to see dedicated entrepreneurs turning their hand to something in my field! And with well over 6 million viewers, perhaps upcycling would receive enough exposure that I wouldn’t have to explain it every time I hand someone a leaflet… or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. Episode 4, “Junk Shops” delivered its usual hour of team frictions, unfortunate soundbites, and pursed lips from Nick Hewer. But in terms of shedding any real light on upcycling, I’m doubtful.
On the one hand, we have Team Phoenix, with a well-controlled budget, searching auctions, boot sales, and indeed tips for quality items at a bargain price. The items were then transported to a shop on Brick Lane… and sold for a great deal of profit. That’s it. It’s that easy. But as Make it and Mend It (a lobby organization for sustainability and recycling) tweeted:
There is a reason we aren’t all trolling car boot sales and litter picking for items to sell on. By the time a shop on Brick Lane pays its overheads, and divides the profit amongst at least 6 people, £1,000 wont leave them with enough to survive for long. People can and do make a living through finding and re-selling vintage items– when they have knowledge of the products and fashion trends of previous decades and the ability to fuse those styles with modern culture. When done with skill, finding and trading in second-hand goods is admirable and keeps great items in circulation. But it’s re-selling, and not upcycling. The items being traded have started and finished as the same items in the same condition. No value has been added, it’s just that their true value is now appreciable because of their presentation in a new setting.
Next up, we have Team Sterling, with a more creative approach. Their strategy was to buy masses of cheap stuff from house clearances and second-hand shops, before “enhancing” the items with paint, wheels, legs, fabric and other embellishments. A tricky strategy, which they found out to their cost. Laura Taylor from Decor Angels tweeted:
While Union Jacks and vintage suitcases are indeed, bang-on trend, a quick stab with a paint-brush and a staple-gun won’t necessarily do the job. That’s why the style is called “shabby chic” and not just “shabby”. Not only does the process require costly materials which cut the profit margin (the reason Team Sterling lost this week), it requires time, effort, and a certain amount of know-how. And, while restoring second-hand items can add a great deal of value, it is not (necessarily) upcycling. If you take a used chair and restore, repaint, re-upholster, refurbish and otherwise make it pretty–it is (hopefully) a more valuable chair, but still a chair. If you take a suitcase, stick some legs on it and paint a Union Jack on the top, it’s a… less practical suitcase? Perhaps a table? I’m not sure what it was, really. But it started out as a useable item and it ended up as a… differently used item. But when you take a useable item and change it’s purpose, that’s called: re-purposing. (Surprise!)
According to Wikipedia, “Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.”
The problem with the use of the term on The Apprentice this week, is that none of the items for sale were waste in the first place! They were used goods, certainly, and maybe old as well. Perhaps they didn’t match the items available on the high street this week. But the idea that their age or second-hand status should render perfectly useable items worthless or class them as rubbish illustrates just how little our society values it’s possessions.
Upcycling is working with real, actual rubbish. Not stuff that’s for sale in a charity shop, auction, or boot sale–stuff that’s probably already in your bin. To upcycle, is to work with the things that the charity shops don’t want. When you give me a rag, and I turn it into a nice scarf: that’s upcycling. When you give me a crisp packet and I hand you back a bracelet: also upcycling. When you give me a broken inner-tube and I make you a wine-holder for your bike: Well, that’s just flippin’ awesome!
So while I’m pleased that upcycling has entered popular consciousness enough to be talked about on The Apprentice, I’m not sure that the process is any more clear. But at least (maybe) people will catch on that it isn’t about bikes.