From Trash to Treasure

Upcycling goes upmarket, as these entrepreneurs show.

Tay Suan Chiang
Published Thu, Jan 23, 2020 · 09:50 PM

WHEN YOU BUY a swimsuit from August Society, you're doing more than just covering yourself up at the pool or the beach. You've just played a part in keeping plastic waste from polluting the ocean.

Founded by Toni Chan, August Society's swimwear is made from recycled plastic waste such as fishnets and carpeting. The former management consultant didn't set out to build a sustainable business. "I just wanted to make nice swimsuits," she says. "But as time went by, I discovered more and more just how much damage the fashion industry is doing to our planet so I shifted my focus."

Her brand uses nylon made from ghost fishing nets that are released by fishing boats, or from temporary carpeting laid for a convention and then discarded. Ghost fishing nets are said to make up 10 per cent of the world's ocean plastic pollution and are incredibly harmful to marine life, which can get caught in or choke on them. Ms Chan also uses polyester from recycled plastic bottles.

The fabric made from recycled plastic comes from a mill in Italy, but the swimsuits are designed in Singapore and manufactured in Bali and China. It's more expensive than regular fabric for sure, but Ms Chan explains that it's also higher quality with UV protection and is longer-lasting.

August Society swimwear has been retailing for five years and "customers are definitely excited about the product and do care about its origins," she adds. "In the past couple of years there has been an increase in awareness about climate change and environmental issues, so people appreciate having this option."


Ms Chan joins a growing number of ecoconscious designers and entrepreneurs who are upcycling - turning unwanted materials into products of better quality and environmental value.

Rather than see leftover fabrics discarded as trash, fashion designer Adel Ng deconstructs and reconstructs them into tote bags and outfits under her brand Muta.wear. It comes from the word 'transmutation' as "the concept of mutation and upcycling is very similar," says Ms Ng, who makes the products herself. She uses everything - vintage fabrics, scraps, offcuts, second-hand clothing, discarded samples, deadstock and recycled pre-consumer textile waste.

She was spurred to upcycle not just for the environment but also her horror over the 2013 Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh which saw over 1000 people perish in the shoddily built garment factory. It brought to light the issue of unethical labour practices "that were going on in the industry I was part of," she says.

As an individual, she felt that "focusing on upcycling as a design practice was a way to cover a few issues such as getting out of the unethical labour system and tackling waste."

She wants to drive home the point that textile waste is too valuable to incinerate, which is what happens now. "When properly utilised, it is a valuable resource and not inferior in any way. The same valuable resources went into producing these materials as did any other material." says Ms Ng, who also customises accessories using recycled yarns, and revives second-hand garments to renew their lifespan.

Also on the same wavelength is Alicia Tsi of Esse, who is already known for using sustainable fabrics. She's branched out with Offcuts, a new line which recycles Esse's salvaged offcuts, which is her way of saving good fabrics and reducing waste. The textile scraps are joined together to make furoshiki - the traditional Japanese fabric used for giftwrapping. Ms Tsi collaborated with textile artist Agy Lee to create a special collection of furoshiki designs.


The potential to harness waste and upcycle them into quality products has spawned a new kind of creative entrepreneur in all industries. Flip flops by Indosole, for one, are made of repurposed rubber tyres. It was founded by Kyle Parsons, who happened to buy a pair of sandals with soles made from motorbike tyres in Bali and was appalled by the number of waste tyres that end up in landfills. In third world countries, they are a cheap alternative to fuel, but burning them releases toxic oils and fumes into the air.

Indosole collects tyres from all over Indonesia, grinds the rubber into a fine powder and melts it into rubber soles for its flip flops and slides. According to Jennifer Gregory, Indosole's Singapore general manager, over 80,000 tyres have been repurposed to make 220,000 pairs of Indosoles since the brand started in 2009.

Meanwhile, former fashion designer JJ Chuan makes fabric from an unlikely source - cassette tapes. After discovering boxes of old tapes at home after returning from New York a few years ago, Ms Chuan and her mother hit on a way to weave the spools of tape into what she calls MusicCloth, which can be used to make bags, clutches, bow ties and posters. She started a new label called rehyphen and also collects cassette tapes from local and overseas communities.

Cooking enthusiasts who might have been gifted a handsome wooden cutting board by the label Arthur Zaaro may not realise that they're holding a locally-made product. But American Aaron Foeste says that the wood is completely Singaporean. His furniture label makes dining tables out of locally grown trees such as the African mahogany, commonly planted along roads.

Mr Foeste explains that the trees were felled for safety reasons or for new developments or roads. He buys them from contractors and turns them into usable products such as dining tables, as well as a range of cutting boards.

"We are saving the trees from being ground up into fertilizer, disposed, or shipped to China for low quality production of "mixed hardwood" items," he says. "African mahogany is one of the world's finest hardwoods from which we produce premium world-class products."

The production is done in a workshop in Eunos, with a group of entirely Singaporean staff.

Arthur Zaaro isn't the only one who utilises salvaged local wood. Smoke by Shou Sugi Ban Gallery has a collection of furniture that uses felled suar wood or rain tree, which it retails under its brand.

The Singapore company with over 20 years experience in woodworking buys suar wood from local tree cutting contractors, who would otherwise dispose of them. The brand specialises in creating organic shaped tables, where the natural edge of the wood is part of its design.


While upcycling comes with good intentions and better products, are Singaporeans actually buying products literally made from waste?

August Society's Ms Chan says that one of the challenges she faced initially was explaining to customers that a recycled product is the same as one made from "new" materials. "It takes a bit of education, but most of our customers understand that the swimwear is actually the same because the plastic has been purified in its raw state and returned to the mill good as new. We have customers who seek us out, as well as repeat customers who say they love the product and appreciate the sustainability element."

Ms Ng from Muta.wear says that post-consumer textile waste can be very painful to process once mould or mildew sets in, especially in Singapore's hot and humid climate. Mystery stains, particles and funky smells are also challenging.

"Quality control on my end prevents the product from looking overly junky or old," she says. "Customers who have bought our stuff say it does contribute to a feelgood factor."

According to Indosole's Ms Gregory, "There is a growing awareness in all sectors of where things come from, who makes them and how their production affects the environment, and the people behind them. Customers are more willing to seek out and hear the story behind brands and products, more than ever before to have a connection with them."

She adds that first time customers often show surprise and admiration that someone has turned waste into something so useful and accessible. "We believe environmentalism isn't for the elite. We've taken the universal appeal of the flip flop and made it easy on the environment, without the usual cost prohibitions," she says.

Smoke's general manager Ong Meng Hong says that his customers aren't bothered where the suar wood comes from. "They value it for its wood grain which they can admire on their dining tables."

Similarly, Mr Foeste says customers appreciate African mahogany for its hardness and the wood grain which looks like flames, as well as the customised options.

In addition, customers like how each board is made from a single piece of wood, rather than strips which have been glued together, which sometimes can be toxic.

"They appreciate that the wood doesn't come from a plantation, and because the trees and workshop are in Singapore, the production cycle requires little transportation. They know they are getting premium products from wood which would have otherwise been incinerated or used for other furniture that would not maximise the wood's full potential," says Mr Foeste.


The business owners declined to give sales figures but say they there is a demand for upcycled products.

Ms Chan says that as customers become more savvy to the damage that fast fashion is doing to our planet, "sustainable fashion will (hopefully) become more mainstream. In the future, shifting tastes will lead customers to demand and seek out more companies like ours - so a sustainable element won't only be a "nice to have" anymore."

Ms Ng candidly reveals that Muta.wear is not yet profitable, but points out that sustainability-focused values in a business can create long-term benefits for people in general. "So if profits are measured in terms of social benefits, quality of life, happiness index, improvement of environment, then yes, a sustainably-focused business can be profitable."

She feels that, "we need systemic change to create a circular economy and foresight from political, social, and industry leaders to pursue innovation/development towards this end. The triple bottom line of purpose, people and profit will always be a tough challenge but humanity needs to make these changes and quickly. Without such willpower, business-as-usual spells certain doom."

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