Upcycling is a really cool thing for the environment and a great way to create useful things for really cheap. But can it make you money? Is it possible to turn a profit with upcycling?
Upcycling has been proven to be a very successful business model for small and large businesses. Whether you want to make a modest side income or create a thriving business, it’s possible to do with upcycling.
But how does that profitability work? What do you need to do in order to make money upcycling?
Examples of Profitable Upcycling Businesses
There are several profitable upcycling businesses that are well known. And there are TONS more successful upcycling businesses that aren’t well known.
A quick Google or Youtube search will probably bring up some of the better known upcycling companies, like TerraCycle or Hipcycle. But a further look will bring up smaller companies that are also making an impact, like Mariclaro.
In fact, you can probably find even more upcycle businesses on websites like Facebook Marketplace, eBay, or Craigslist. You might also have one in your home town.
The point is, there are profitable upcycling businesses all over the place, and some of them are making really, really good money doing it.
Whether you want to make a little bit of side cash, or you want to quit your full-time job and do upcycling as a career, there are opportunities to make money upcycling.
All of these businesses have things in common that make them successful. Let’s get into them so you have the right tools you need to run a profitable upcycling business yourself.
Pick a Niche
Every business (upcycling or not) needs to start with a niche. A niche is a gap in the market–a need that isn’t being filled currently. It’s where there are low supply and high demand.
Picking a niche can be tough because it’s easy to overthink it. And in the category of upcycling, there’s really not enough competition that you need to worry about it. Basically the way you should think about it is if it’s something you’d be interested in buying, someone else is also probably interested in buying it.
Niches can also evolve, so you don’t need to nail your niche right out the gate to be successful.
In other words, if you’ve upcycled old curtains into really awesome handbags before and you really enjoyed doing it–it’s probably a good niche! You can always change later if you decide you like upcycling something else more or there’s just not enough demand.
And demand does play a big part in choosing a niche. Just make sure that what you’re creating is good and useful (high quality and practical) and there will be a demand.
Important! Don’t Not Choose a Niche
Just a brief note on this, if you don’t choose a niche, customers won’t know what to expect from you and it will be really difficult to maintain good quality across all of your products.
Niches are really important to both delivering a good product and creating a strong brand.
Examples of What a Niche Is and What It Is Not
You may think that “upcycling” is a niche, but it’s really not. Virtually anything can be upcycled in one way or another, so just saying that you sell upcycled products isn’t specific enough to catch people’s eye.
Examples of niches are:
- Pillows made from old clothing
- Shelves made from wood pallets
- Backpacks made from car upholstery
- Kitchen decor made from scrap metal
Notice that in all of these, the niche was really the product + what you make it out of. Some can be a little bit broader, like the “kitchen decor” which is really a category of products, instead of one product.
But it does need to be specific so you can get really good at your one thing.
The Difference Between Refurbishing and Upcycling
This too needs a brief mention. There are a lot of refurbishing businesses out there who claim to be upcycling businesses, but there is a difference.
Refurbishing (or refinishing) entails taking an old product and fixing it so it works again. Upcycling is when you take materials from an old products and make a new, different product out of them.
Sanding down and painting a table is refurbishing or refinishing.
Taking an old door and turning it into a table is upcycling.
When doing research for your upcycling gig, “furniture flipping” and “upcycling furniture” comes up quite a bit. Flipping furniture is a way to make money, it’s just not exactly upcycling.
A true upcycling business involves taking old products and making something different out of them.
Make Sure You Have a Steady Trash Source
Depending on how big you want your upcycling business to be, it’s very important to have a source where you get trash consistently.
Most product-based companies have a manufacturer. A factory that makes the product they sell. The “made in China” tag on most of what you own goes to show that companies need a place where they can get product from consistently.
An upcycling business is the same way. The way you get the product is going to be different, but you still need a place to get materials on a regular basis.
If you make dressers out of cardboard boxes, for example, it would be very helpful for you to have an agreement with a local retail store where you get their old boxes that they were just going to get rid of anyway.
If you plan on upcycling as a full-time job one day, it’s really important that you have materials readily available. When you run out of materials, you run out of product, which means you can’t make any money selling upcycled goods.
This is known as a supply chain. It’s how you go from raw material to purchased products sent to your customers. If anywhere along that chain gets held up, money stops flowing to your business.
Buy Low, Sell High
One of the great benefits of doing an upcycling business is product cost. In order to make money, you need to be able to sell something for more than it cost you to make.
The fact that upcycling involves turning trash into a usable product means that you’re either getting your materials for free, or they are extremely cheap because they’re garbage to people.
This is another reason why it’s important to pick a niche. In order to know what you should be paying for materials, you need to know what people are willing to pay for products.
For example, it would probably be a bad idea to buy old curtains for $20, when you can only sell a bag made from those curtains for $15. But if you can buy a curtain for $5 and sell the bag for $50, you have a pretty nice profit margin.
It helps if you’re looking for things that other people consider trash. I know that might seem obvious. But there’s a difference between buying a beat-up antique and buying garbage. One might still have monetary value to people while the other doesn’t.
Getting Good at Your Craft
This is true for businesses outside of upcycling, but it’s especially true for upcycling companies. You need to be good at what you do.
For most upcyclers, they make something good enough for their own liking. Maybe you make a shelf out of leftover baseboard wood and it’s not pretty but it works.
Well, that might work for you as the creator, but it’s usually not good enough to sell. There’s usually a pretty big gap between what we make do with ourselves and what others are willing to pay for.
In order to be successful, you need to be good enough at making your products that other people want to buy them, and that might take some time.
So for the first little bit, make some for yourself, your family, your friends, and give them away until you get good enough. Then once you get really good at making your products, it’s time to start selling.
Where to Start Selling
There are really two different ways to sell, in existing marketplaces or on your own platform. You can definitely do both, but one might be easier than the other.
These would be places like Craigslist, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, local classifieds, Etsy, Amazon Handmade, etc. The benefit to these marketplaces is that they already have people visiting the websites. This means you already have an audience to sell to.
Another benefit to selling online locally is that you usually don’t need to worry about shipping. You can just have the customer come and pick the product up.
The downside to these marketplaces is they usually cost more money if you’re doing them at volume. Amazon, eBay, and Etsy all charge money to sell products on their website, so you need to say goodbye to some of your profits to sell there.
But then again, one of the benefits of upcycling is that to make the products, you usually don’t need very much money to start.
Building Your Own Platform
The other route is to create your own platform. This would usually involve either setting up a store in your local community or (more commonly) creating a website to sell your products on.
The main benefit to having your own store is that you get to control things. You get to decide how things work, what things look like, what the checkout process is, etc. If you want to change something, you can do that.
Most other marketplaces have policies that limit how much you can say about your products and how you can sell them.
The downside to creating your own website is that you need to find a way to generate the traffic coming to you. this usually involves some sort of advertising, which can be very costly.
Once you have some brand recognition, though, selling on your own website can be a lot more profitable because you don’t have any fees and you control the user experience.
So there are definitely trade-offs regarding how to sell your product, but you also don’t need to just pick one.
You could really post a product on all of the websites at the same time, and whichever platform sells the product first wins. There are a lot of ways to go about it.
Is It Worth Your Time?
This is really the question I would have you ask from the get-go. Because we know it’s true you can make money doing it, but is it worth your time?
Generally speaking, your startup costs are going to be low, so answering the time question is really all you need to do.
Sometimes it can be really difficult to start a business from scratch, and it takes time for things to really get off the ground. So even though it seems appealing, it might not be the right fit.
A good way to tell if starting an upcycling business is worth your time is to figure out how passionate you are about upcycling. Is it something you feel a lot of purpose in doing? Is it a passing hobby you like spending weekends doing?
This is a big factor determining if you should go full-time with it or not. Because at some point in time, it’s going to be hard. And maybe you would rather be doing something else.
There’s also nothing wrong with doing it on the side. There are plenty of people that make a good chunk of change turning their hobby into a side job.
Why You Should Start an Upcycling Business
Upcycling is a really cool gig. Most businesses exist to create waste, upcycling exists to eliminate it.
While most companies are creating products that will probably never be reused or recycled, upcycling combines both reusing and recycling in one.
There’s also a really cool story that comes along with having your niche in upcycling. By giving old products a new life, you’re creating a unique story with everything you sell.
There are a bunch of monetary reasons too. Your startup and product costs are low, your profit margins can be high, and you’re marketing to a group of people who love helping the planet and buying unique items.
And finally, there’s just a big need for it. Even though there are a lot of companies that do upcycling for their business, we still obviously produce more waste than we use. So there’s plenty of room for other upcycling business owners to help others get quality products without damaging the environment.