How the Girlfriend Collective Upcycling Program Works

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It was an offer that seemed too good to be true: Free high quality compressive leggings made from recycled water bottles. Just pay $20 in shipping! It was 2016 and everyone I knew and their mother, and sister, and best friend, was taking advantage of the promotion.

That was how the now-household name that is athleisure brand Girlfriend Collective launched onto the scene over six years ago. To this day, I still wear the high-rise black pair I got in the mail, and frequently peruse the brand’s website for new launches and to see when old standbys get restocked.

The leggings have certainly stood the test of time in terms of their quality. The seams are sturdy, the fabric is not pilly like some other older leggings I own, there are no holes, and I can do the deepest of lunges in them. However, I’m not exactly the same size I was when I got them six years ago, so they’re not as comfortable as they once were, and there’s a dullness to the black that’s set in recently. So I have considered taking advantage of the Girlfriend Collective’s upcycling program, ReGirlfriend, which says to “send us your old Girlfriend and we’ll turn it into new Girlfriend”—especially since doing so gets you $15 in store credit.

I’m not alone. Girlfriend Collective co-founder Quang Dinh recently told the Well+Good podcast that more and more people are taking advantage of the Girlfriend Collective upcycling program, and they’re seeing a lot of leggings that they think came from the 2016 promotion starting to come in.

“We’ve had circularity in mind from the very beginning,” Dinh says. ReGirlfriend is different from other upcycling programs in that it doesn’t just stitch the fabric into new garments, it’s actually attempting to make new yarn from the fabric, and then weaving entirely new pieces.

A smiling man against a neon green abstract background.
Girlfriend Collective Co-Founder Quang Dinh
Photo: W+G Creative

That’s what makes turning old Girlfriend into new Girlfriend not quite as simple as it sounds. Dinh says that right now they are collecting and sorting, and working with their mill in Taiwan to figure out how to make the process of color removal eco-friendly.

“The next important step is to try to strip out as much of the color as possible in a sustainable manner,” Dinh says. “We have to use chemicals. You have to do this. What’s the impact there? Can we remove the color safely?”

That’s the current hurdle. Next, Dinh thinks the process of recycling the yarn will be similar to the way that water bottles get recycled into small chips that then become yarn. But then comes more experimentation: Will the yarn recycled from clothes made from recycled water bottles behave in the same way as the original recycled yarn?

“Now it’s like, okay, we have this yarn that’s not from water bottles. What does it do?” Dinh says. “We’ve gotta figure that out. So it’s in stages and it’s a long game, it’s a long road. But as a brand, if we wanna do this, we’ve gotta do it right.”

Listen to Dinh’s interview with the Well+Good podcast to learn about how he and his wife built the now iconic and trend-setting sustainable brand, how brands like Girlfriend are trying to combat fast fashion, and how our shopping choices really can and do matter.