Our Experiments: Upcycling in Theatre

Concerned by the wastefulness of the fashion industry, Estonian costume and set designer Reet Aus decided to never work with 'new' materials again. Here's what she learned by adapting and 'upcycling' costumes and fabrics from the 1960s.

Christy Romer 15 January 2021

Reet Aus has spent her career in fashion and theatre committed to sustainability, where she’s learned from the world’s most efficient designer: nature.

Everything began at the Von Krahl theatre in Estonia, after completing her MA studies in fashion in the early 2000s. Concerned by the wastefulness of the industry, Reet started to test new ways of working—making costumes by only using existing materials, or sourcing materials from local recycling centres.

This commitment to ‘upcycling’ in costume design eventually grew into sustainable set design, and then roles embedding sustainability across the heart of organisations. She's since worked with almost every major theatre in Estonia, and has been involved as a costume designer on around 60 performances.

Upcycle definition

Reet’s love for ‘upcycling’, is distinct from two other commonly used terms, ‘recycling’ and ‘reusing’.

The most sustainable thing you can do is simply use something again (reuse). The next step is to take something that already exists, or multiple things that exist, and rework them or combine them together to make something new (upcycling). At the bottom of the pyramid is recycling, which is to have the material completely pulled apart before it enters the product cycle again, to be made as something new.

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For more videos of Reet Aus speaking, follow this link (ETC Members only).


Artistic support

Reet said that the actors she works with have always been very supportive of the concept that things are being reused.

“There was no resistance (on the artistic side). I have been extremely lucky, working with people who share the same ideas, in Estonia, Russia and Finland. That’s exactly the point: you present the idea [of upcycling] through a visual concept, and if people like it, they go with it. They don’t care where the materials come from.


"My worry in the beginning was that some actors would maybe not like to wear old clothes. But not at all. Of course we redesigned them, and they didn’t even remember what they used to be, but I think like everywhere in theatre it’s important to explain your ideas in a way that people come with you.”

She adds that the having upcycled costumes is actually beneficial for actors, as the clothes already have a history, which helps with the performance.

How easy is it to convince people to work in this way?

Short answer: it depends.

When working on project-based theatres, as opposed to the big state-funded bodies, Aus had to source the material for costumes from recycling centres, factories, or other sources. On one project they upcycled old uniforms from the Estonian police.

“You think, what do you need, and then you try to find the partner that can offer that material.”

But it’s not always successful.

“With the Estonian army, for example, we had one very nice cooperation years ago. We have been trying to cooperate since, not very successfully. It’s always one-to-one communication. If you get through to the person, then it’s good. If the person doesn’t get why this is important, you can’t change it because it’s not in their policy. They don’t have to do it."

It’s the same story inside organisations.

“If you want to implement sustainability from the top-down, or the other way around, you really have to work closely with organisations. It’s mostly about relationships. You can’t make change without cooperating with people who understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Von Krahl Theatre & Nargen Opera: Eesti Naiste Laulud (Songs of Estonian Women). Costumes by Reet Aus

Challenges based on different infrastructures

While working at the Tallinn City Theatre, Reet also strove to integrate sustainability into the institution’s everyday activity.

One of the first challenges was that the theatre is not actually one space—it’s more like five buildings, each of which may be as old as medieval times.

“They’re extremely beautiful buildings, and all of them are under protection. It means that you can’t do anything without a lot of permission, and that makes it difficult to have theatre in the buildings like this. When we started to implement the green certification, we went through all the different buildings. Even the water was different! In some uildings near to the street, the pipes were longer, and in others the pipes were so old and leaking that the quality of the water was so bad….


“These kinds of small things—so many came up. Even the heating is different in every building. Some buildings were maybe renovated 20 years ago, but the other buildings were renovated in the 70s. It was quite a lot of work.”

In this role she helped to calculate how much energy the theatre consumes, of which the biggest part usually comes from lighting.

“Every night, not just one or two stages go on, but maybe four or five with full lights and everything. We understood very fast that that’s the biggest weakness to having theatre like this. It’s very nice and intimate, but you bring in the same amount of people that one big hall can take, while lighting up and maintaining four or five different stages. Not efficient at all, but the feeling is nice. There were lots of things like this to think about strategically—what should change, what should be done differently.”

What about advice for theatres that are looking to have more sustainable activity?

“The best way to do it is to get people involved. And then have medium management start to implement it. That might be very difficult, because the older generation are not willing to change. People are not so keen to make extra effort. You really have to motivate them somehow. I can’t come to a department and say ‘You have to do it like this.’ They would hate me. It doesn’t work that way. This is the key thing. If you are able to cooperate, and give the message to people, and get them involved, you are successful. If not, you are someone who gets the response, ‘What is she talking about?’”

Her advice continued: get the core team involved.

“You need some core team, depending on how big the organisation is, five or six people from the different departments who understand the need, and of course the top management has to support it. If there’s the will from the top management in place then they just have to find a really good team that understands what has to be done. Because the one thing I know from working every day with organisations and different people is that the understanding about sustainability is so different. Mostly people think sustainability is just about the environment.


“People think it’s about ‘going green’. No— it’s not about going green. It’s about really making all the processes more transparent, more efficient, coming closer to the people...sustainability is also a lot about the people. And working conditions, etcetera. Quality of life is so much better if you follow these principles. I think that’s also one very big obstacle: People think they are very different fields, but you can’t have the discussion like this.”

Leftover materials leaving a clothing factory in Bangladesh. Photo by Reet Aus


Reet Aus’ work extends beyond theatre and into fashion, where her label (also called Reet Aus) is strongly associated with sustainability.

Part of this is UPMADE, a certification and production system that enables brands and manufacturers to implement industrial upcycling, turning excess materials into garments which present savings in water, CO2 and energy usage.

Reet explained that while UPMADE is designed for the textile and fashion industry, there are elements that theatres could use.

“UPMADE goes to the factory, to the producer, and starts with waste analysis. This is something you can do, it doesn’t matter if it’s a factory or a theatre. We did it with the police, with the army, and with students for Tallinn City Theatre. You can use the same methodology in every organisation. You map out what phases you have the waste, what type of waste, what happens with it, what you can bring back within the organisation and upcycle, what you or can recycle for your own purposes somewhere else, and what has to go to waste management. There are a lot of similarities because the knowledge is the same, you use the same tool.”

"We Heroes” at Tallinn City Theatre, Estonia. Photo: Siim Vahur. Costumes: Reet Aus

Would a green certification process be useful for theatres?

“I think so because universities for example have strong rankings on how they implement the Sustainable Development Goals into their curriculum, etcetera. It will become more and more important—particularly in Europe, because I think the EU will introduce a CO2 tax very soon. To measure your CO2 you have to do proper waste and environmental analysis in the organisation. If you know exactly how much CO2 you produce you can build up a system next to it how to reduce it or balance it. I think even for the finance department it starts to be good because you have to pay less tax because you are CO2 neutral.”

Reet adds that she understood from conversations with people working in the environment at the governmental level that the first sector in which the tax will take hold is buildings.

“The most difficult part is to start. To understand what has to be done, and how to do it. But once it’s figured out, and all the procedures and criteria are in place, then it’s easy to implement. UPMADE was developed over three years, and now it takes just 10 days to implement it in the next factory. The processes are the same.


“Every theatre works more or less in the same way. We have lights, we have electricity, we have water, we have costumes, we have a set, we have people in there. It’s all the same.”

Radical transparency in theatre

“One thing I would really like to know is the real price of one production. All the costs: environmental, social, where the products are coming from... Complete transparency. Then you could see how much the ticket is, and whether it is really equal or not. I hardly believe it is, actually. I think if we calculate everything into the production, it would be so much more expensive than actually what theatre gets back through the tickets."

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Permaculture in theatre

Reet has worked closely with ecovillages, and studied the concepts of ‘permaculture’ and ‘pure design’—ideas traditionally focused on the environment, but which may be applicable to the theatre space.

“For me [permaculture] is just a design method, how you design processes and the environment around you. Basically, it's where you start from zero, from the centre. It’s a lot about circularity and copying nature, which is the perfect system. There’s no waste in nature. And how to become independent. How can you solve the problems inside organisations / land / villages.


“That’s what UPMADE is about. You go into a factory and you solve the problem in the place, rather than dragging the problem elsewhere. Let’s say you have a city with a theatre and some different organisations. If we are not able to solve a waste problem in the theatre, we start to see who would play with us, or cooperate. You go to the next level. In industry it’s called industrial symbiosis, you find the partners who could help you to solve your problem—in the way that our problem will be useful for the partner.”

Is the secret to a theatre becoming sustainable for it to just go ahead and start making changes?

She agreed wholeheartedly, because “there are people with the knowledge out there” and “it’s easy to get help if you know you want to do something.”

“Just take the decision and try to find the few good people who would lead you through the process. It has to happen that way, not with some people coming in and telling you what to do. Yes some people come in, and they give the knowledge to staff, but they implement it together—so that when the people leave, the sustainability work doesn’t just collapse, it stays alive.


“That’s why it’s so important to get these medium level people really involved in a really practical way—so they understand how they can put all this knowledge into their practical work, in the costume department, or wherever it is they have input.”

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