“Upcycling” features on the Apprentice… But does it really?

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.

The Apprentice 2012 Azhar and Jade, Photo BBC

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.

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6 thoughts on ““Upcycling” features on the Apprentice… But does it really?

  1. It’s definitely nice to see more things being bought from charity shops and thrift stores, but I agree. Repurposing and reselling is not upcycling.

    My definition of upcycling is slightly broader, since I also include things that would likely end up in the trash if I didn’t take them and use them for something else. Magazines can still be reread, after all, but there comes a point where you reach do-or-die – do something with them, or throw them out. If I take what would get thrown away and turn it into something that wouldn’t, I still consider that a form of upcycling. Preventative upcycling, maybe? I don’t really know what you’d call it. 🙂

  2. I can see where you are going with this. I do have to say, though, that even many “useable” items are trashed daily. We usually get the clothes that are days away from being thrown away, often due to their having stains, tears, broken zippers, etc. and make kids clothes or ladies accessories from them. They have been picked over for months and are simply not wanted. That prevents them from being thrown into landfills. (I could keep going, but I won’t :)) I guess I agree with Ria (above) on that part. Maybe it’s re-purposing, maybe it’s “preventative up-cycling,” maybe something else. The point is that whatever is made, either clothing from old clothing or a bracelet from a crisp packet, it is still something that will bring enjoyment to someone new, no matter where it came from. I enjoy reading what your group is doing! Keep up the good articles.

    • Oh, I agree with you and Ria that upcycling is broad enough to include using items like magazines and old clothes that perhaps could still be used in their original incarnation but realistically would heading for landfills in the near future. I guess (to me) what makes upcycling different from say restoring/refurbishing is that the original item is now being used as a “raw material” to create something entirely different. (instead of taking a worn out thing and repairing / improving it)

      But all of them (re-selling, repairing, restoring, repurposing, and upcycling) are equally valuable skills, and vitally important for making the best use of our resources!

      • “But all of them (re-selling, repairing, restoring, repurposing, and upcycling) are equally valuable skills, and vitally important for making the best use of our resources!”

        I definitely agree with you! I don’t consider it up-cycling to mend something or to fix something, but to take something that has served it’s purpose or is “messed up” somehow and make something out of the materials it gives (such as fabric, zippers, buttons, etc.) to make something(s) totally different. Then, it can have a new life and be appreciated again.

        I am glad that you brought this idea to my attention. I had thought a lot about how to up-cycle and the purpose of it, and it means a lot to our family, but I hadn’t ever thought about the bare bones definition and origin of the word and meaning. I know that I will now be more conscious about what is and is not true up-cycling in the future. Thanks! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Excited About Up-Coming Up-Cycling/Re-Purposing Post! |

  4. The problem with these terms ‘upcycling,’ ‘repurposing’, etc is that everyone has their own definition of what they mean. It is pointless to try and stick a label on what is an obvious thing to do, as well as being an ancient tradition. In the 16th and 17th centuries coffers, chests etc, were made from old pieces of timber for different pieces of redundant furniture. You find carvings on the interiors of chests, etc. sometimes revealing their former use. So are these pieces upcycled? No. The idea that we think it is a trend to use and old materials to make a new items is as sad reflection on our culture.

    I ‘upcycle,’ for lack of a better word, but I don’t use junk. I find stunningly designed early 20th century machines and turn them into lit cabinets that you would want in your home. You saw them in the background of the Apprentice show. They filmed the table scene in my space in The Old Cinema and there was one of my cigarette machine cabinets in the background.

    I think the semantic debate is pointless. The real point is the design and purpose of the newly made object and, sometimes, how it’s history and origins give it what used to be considered ‘provenance.’ It appears we are now looking for some sort of historical value in our choices. Of course some are just interested in recycling, but this should be a given, and not the focus.

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