Upcycling vs. Makeover: What’s the Difference & Why Does it Matter?

Upcycling vs. Makeovers:

What’s the difference & why does it matter?

By Devon Whalen 
November 15, 2020

Makeovers have been popular for a long time. The number of shows that involve makeovers of people, houses, cars, etc. over the last several decades proves just how much society loves a good “glow up.” It’s also super trendy right now to be sustainable—which works out for us, since it’s sort of our thing! But as someone who truly cares about the impact we’re making on our world, I am concerned about the way people are tossing the word “upcycle” around all willy-nilly, when they are giving a product a makeover.

Seriously, it’s making my eye twitch every time someone shares that they’ve upcycled a dollar store find. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE that people are being creative and finding ways to use inexpensive products to create their masterpieces, after all, financial sustainability is just as important as resource responsibility. But buying a brand-new item from the store and using it to create your work of art isn’t upcycling; it’s a makeover. They’re often AMAZING makeovers that involve real transformations.  But they’re missing some key features of an upcycling project.

Upcycling involves many of the same ideas of a makeover. You are still transforming an object, but upcycling has a much stronger tie to sustainable, green practices than a makeover. Upcycling involves repurposing or reusing discarded materials to create something new.

Many of us have grown up on the three Rs of sustainability- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle- as an entry point to learning to care for our environment and making more sustainable choices. These Rs are in this particular order to emphasize that the best option is to reduce our consumption and use of resources whenever possible.  When we can’t reduce our consumption, reusing something is the next best option.  Can you purchase something second hand? Can you repurpose something to meet your need? Recycling is the last of the sustainable Rs. Recycling is certainly better than sending everything to a landfill, but there are a number of issues with recycling including the limitations on what can be recycled and the energy it takes to complete the process of recycling material.

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce

                       Image from Pixy.org


You can see that upcycling or reusing items is a good option because it keeps things out of landfills AND avoids the recycling process. Not only is it repurposing materials as a part of resource responsibility, but it often saves you money over purchasing new items.  When you compare these ideas of upcycling to the phenomena of purchasing new items from a store and making them into something else, you can see that the latter is not quite hitting the mark from a sustainability perspective. By purchasing something from a store, you haven’t reduced consumption.  So even though it’s repurposed, it’s not really “reused” in the 3-Rs sense of the word. Check out the flow chart to help you determine which word to use.

When we refer to our makeover projects as upcycling, we’re cheapening the phrase and the very important philosophy behind it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy materials and find new, fun, and transformative ways to use them. I do, however, want to encourage you to be mindful of how you’re presenting what you’re doing. And whenever possible, choose to upcycle a discarded material. Our earth will thank you for it.


Flowchart to determine upcycling or makeover




2 thoughts on “Upcycling vs. Makeover: What’s the Difference & Why Does it Matter?”

  1. I love your site! Your blog, “Upcycling vs. Makeovers: What’s the difference & why does it matter?” was very informative and has energized me to do more than I am currently doing. Good luck, Green Whale! You are a beacon of hope in a world that is too quick to toss.

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