You can’t miss the mountains of scraps. Outside of textile factories around the world are the pieces that wind up on the cutting room floor, the ends of fabric rolls. They’re sold on the black market or left to rot, never to be used. Unless Reet Aus has anything to say about it.
Aus, 43, is an Estonian designer, instructor and activist whose showroom in Tallinn’s chic Telliskivi Creative City — a former industrial complex that now houses local makers and chefs — is filled with her current collection. Her philosophy: Upcycling, meaning all of Aus’ designs are made from factories’ leftover fabric (or, in the case of a line of sweaters, recycled jeans). That jibes with her patchwork aesthetic, which often includes whimsical shapes, like her signature arrow (pointing up, obviously), cut from discarded fabric and sewn onto her designs.
“Upcycling is the easiest way to reduce leftovers,” Aus explains. “And you can implement it on an everyday level.” In one factory she visited, Aus says, the leftovers from 140,000 pairs of jeans became an additional 930 denim skirts, reducing waste by 88 percent.
The more you know, the more you understand it’s not the nicest system.
Which brings us to the other pieces of Aus’ master plan: Software, which she and her team have created to help factories reduce waste; and an Upmade certification process once the facilities complete the necessary changes. So far, Aus and her team have certified four factories in Estonia, Bangladesh and India; they’re hoping that eventually consumers and brands will check for Upmade certification before making a purchase.
Aus began her career in fashion at age 12, when she started making her own clothes. Her mother was a textile artist, an obvious influence, but she also looked up to her grandfather, a sculptor. She shied away from the physical toll of sculpture, though, and gravitated toward what for her was the closest analogue: fashion design. She graduated with a degree in design and opened her first studio in 2002, but she made costumes for theater and film rather than focusing on her own clothing line, turned off by the brand focus and industry insider tips that had been drilled into her at school. “The more you know, the more you understand it’s not the nicest system,” Aus says. “When I graduated, I knew that wasn’t the way I would want to do it. But it took a few years for me to realize I could still use my design skills and make it ethical.”
It was after Aus returned to college for a doctorate that she found her focus. Her studies on recycling and upcycling in the fashion industry led her to map industrial leftovers across Estonia, Latvia and Finland — a project her students continue today — and into the then minuscule world of sustainable fashion. When Berlin Fashion Week opened its Greenshowroom in 2009, Aus was one of a handful of participating designers. Nine years later, it’s a massive showcase for designers, which this year saw 170 participants present sustainable collections.
A visit to Bangladesh in 2012 — specifically, the Beximco factory, which Aus says employs about 42,000 people — inspired the Upmade certification process. It was at Beximco that Aus saw the mountains of textile scraps and discarded ends of fabric rolls, with anywhere from 3 to 50 meters of fabric left unused. In all, 25 percent of the factory’s fabric was wasted.
Estonian shirt business Sangar got Upmade certification in 2016 and has since worked with Aus to create an upcycled collection. “To our pleasant surprise, we had many of the processes required for the certification already set in our daily habits, so the addition and change wasn’t that difficult,” says Lea Endrikson, Sangar’s sales and marketing director. “We can really see magic happening with fabrics long standing in the factory corner.”
Graphic designer Markko Karu collaborated with Aus on a T-shirt design last year after they sat next to each other at an event. While Karu is used to printed shirts, Aus’ process is more complex — the design, a representation of three lions in the colors of the Estonian flag, became a cluster of sewn-on patches. “Sometimes people wanted different colors, but we had to explain that we rely on leftovers of big factories, so we can’t just choose any color we like,” Karu explains. “But it’s a statement. People like the story.”
The average American throws out 70 pounds of textiles every year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. And even when it helps save money, factories may be slow to change — or to let outsiders in — and thus be resistant to Aus’ Upmade certification. After all, if consumers don’t look for it on the label, why should they worry?
For Upmade to become the next fair trade or certified organic label, consumers will have to buy in. For now, Aus is focused on producers and refining her waste-reduction software, currently in the testing phase at two factories. The pitch isn’t so much about saving the environment but speaking the bottom-line language everyone from a multinational to a scrappy startup can understand: Those extra bits add up.
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