‘Upcycled by Phoebe’; starting a small business during lockdown

No one needs reminding of the havoc COVID-19 created within our lives. At the end of May, when my university exams were over, my work was still closed for the foreseeable future, and I could NOT properly see my friends. One of the only significant things that happened daily for me was Boris’ daily announcement. So, to fill my time, I began to experiment with sewing (a hobby I had toyed with in the past), and my small business ‘Upcycled by Phoebe’ grew thereafter.

I began to realise how important the environmental impact of my personal fast fashion consumption.

The fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, has been something I have reflected on recently, but it was only until now that I decided to do something about it. Whilst shopping for clothes two years ago, I managed to find a pair of jeans in the sales at a prominent high street retailer for only £3.99; at first, I was thrilled with my bargain, until I actually thought abut the impossibility of these jeans being produced sustainably for less than £5. Not only was the exploitation of garment makers clear from the price tag – in 2020, Fashion Checker found that 93% of the brands they surveyed were not paying fashion workers a living wage – but the environmental impact of this one pair of jeans was revealed with very little research. Greenpeace published the horrifying fact in 2015 that one pair of jeans takes 7000 litres of water to produce (the amount of water drunk by one person in 5-6 years). Furthermore, when I considered that the 1 Million Women movement found out 80 billion pieces of clothing were being consumed globally every year, I began to realise how important the environmental impact of my personal fast fashion consumption.

My small business venture initially began with me making my own clothes; I would take clothes that my family and I didn’t wear anymore, and experimentally upcycle them into garments I’d actually wear and get use of out. As I became gradually better at sewing (less messy guesswork, more planning and experience), my family and friends encouraged me to sell some of the things I was making.

This idea certainly solved the frustration lockdown brought of not being able to return to my lifeguarding job in the summer, as previously planned, to make some extra money. I was, however, running low on reusable materials (it became a running joke in my family that ‘no clothes were safe around Phoebe’). I turned to my local charity shops where I could buy second hand clothes for often less than £1.

I opened an Instagram account (@phoebemakesthings_), and then started listing items on my Depop shop (‘Upcycled by Phoebe’ @phxebevxckery). Denim crop tops, cut from old jeans, have become a somewhat ‘signature’ piece on my shop due to their popularity.

However, my small business can only progress at a speed which the rest of my life dictates.

Understandably, I do recognise that my shop is not perfect, in terms of size inclusivity (which is something I aim to work on) and that there has been debate online on the ‘exploitation’ of charity shops and thrift stores by our generation, who strip the shops of their best pieces, only to resell them on apps such as Depop at higher prices, robbing deprived people the ability to access them.

The dilemma behind this situation is clear to me. Yet, my items sell at a fraction of the price of similar pieces in less sustainable high street shops. And whilst charity shops are wonderful, as 1 Million Women published, only 10% of donations to these shops actually get sold, whilst the other 90% end up being shipped abroad or dumped in landfill.

I have plans to continue producing and selling clothes, whilst also making clothing for myself and my friends.  

I aim to grow my shop, including smaller and larger size ranges. However, my small business can only progress at a speed which the rest of my life dictates.

Now back at work and soon to return to university, I do not have the freedom to grow my shop to its fullest potential. But I definitely will not be abandoning this small business venture when I return to full-time education. I have plans to continue producing and selling clothes, whilst also making clothing for myself and my friends. Sewing has become an activity I take pleasure in, and if I can continue to make a small profit off it, I will certainly want to keep it up.

By Phoebe Vickery

Image: by Phoebe Vickery

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