Self-production in an upcycling online community: shared knowledge, collaborative ideas and creation of value

Abstract

Digital communication technologies have enlarged information and knowledge opportunities for consumers to self-produce objects in a number of different industries (electronics, fashion, cosmetics, etc.). The paper aims at analyzing how upcycling practices (i.e. self-production that reuses products in the end stages of consumption) are discussed and elaborated in online communities and how these practices are linked to the knowledge sharing, collaboration and co-creation among community members, thus generating self- and co-creation of value. Using a netnographic approach applied to an Italian online community, findings reveal that the upcycling represents a well-established practice driven by several different motivations (economical, environmental, social, etc.) that determine how these empowered consumers carry out these practices in concrete terms. By discussing about their self-production practices, community members share the same language, rituals and the use of specific tools to inform their behavior, thus developing communal ideas, principles and (environmental) pro-social values. Theoretically, the paper proposes a model of interaction between online communities and self-production that shows how upcycling practices, generally conceptualized as individualistic behaviors, are upgraded and become collective in online communities through knowledge sharing and creative collaboration. In terms of managerial implications, the paper develops insights about how different types of upcyclers can be marketed in different ways by addressing them with specific offerings.

Introduction

Self-production practices (Troye and Supphellen 2012) are widely spreading in different fields of activity, in addition to co-production and value co-creation processes (Xie et al. 2008; Payne et al. 2008; Cova et al. 2011). Through these practices, consumers are assuming an even more active role within the definition of brand products (Troye and Supphellen 2012; Cova et al. 2013).

The spread of the self-production phenomenon is demonstrated by both the growth of specialized platforms—like Etsy, an online marketplace designed to sell unique products (whose gross merchandise value is nearly 5 billion dollar in the 2019)—and the increasing popularity worldwide of Makers Faires, events specifically dedicated to self-producers and their inventions.

Thanks to new technologies and online communities, consumers have growing opportunities to find information on the Internet and use them to self-produce products in complete autonomy (Anderson 2013), thus using their creativity to produce customized, significant and high-quality products (Rullani 2014).

Among different self-production practices, upcycling (declared by Cambridge Dictionary as the 2019 Word of the Year) refers to reuse activities carried out by individuals that convert used products in something with a new function. More in general, these activities are of growing interest both for public policy makers, to develop circular economy, based on Reduce, Reuse and Recycle (3R) principles (Anderson et al. 2018), and for manufacturing companies (Janigo et al. 2017), to meet the needs of more empowered and/or environmentally conscious consumers. Consumer upcycling practices have indeed received very little attention in consumer behaviour and marketing research with scarce empirical studies (Wilson 2016; Bhatt et al. 2019), although upcycling is intrinsically environmentally friendly, and consumers are more and more becoming eco-conscious (Leonidou et al. 2010; Wilson 2016).

Understanding the way by which consumers acquire and exchange information in order to evaluate already existing products and create self-made alternatives is very challenging for companies that are required to rapidly rethink today their approach to ever-changing market.

The present work aims at giving a contribution, on both theoretical and managerial sides. First, the paper combines the lens of practice, co-creation and knowledge approaches, thus representing a first attempt to frame the self-production (and in particular consumer upcycling) as a complex phenomenon that transcends the individual dimension, favoured by the consumer empowerment accelerated with the participation to online communities of practice.

From a practical standpoint, the paper explores the ways by which the upcycling is promoted by online groups of consumers whose members share the same language, rituals and the use of specific tools to inform their behavior, thus developing communal ideas, principles and (environmental) pro-social values.

The remainder of the paper is as follows. The Sects. 2 and 3 present the conceptual background of the study. First, the focus is on conceptualizing upcycling as self-production, then, on consumption practices and knowledge flows in online communities. In the Sect. 4, the method (netnography) is outlined along with a description of the research approach, data collection and coding procedures. Findings and discussion are presented, respectively, in the Sects. 5 and 6, then summarized in a model of interaction between online communities and self-production. Lastly, theoretical and managerial implications are addressed (Sect. 7), along with potential avenues for future research (Sect. 8).

Enhancing consumption: upcycling as self-production

The possibility of being part of an online community built around shared activities or common interests, together with the development of enabling technologies such as digital fabrication (e.g. 3D printers), have favoured the tendency of consumers to self-produce (Rullani 2014), thus shifting production skills from manufacturers to prosumers (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010).

Troye and Supphellen (2012) define self-production processes as creation of products by consumers in complete autonomy or even co-production using input-products, tools and devices supplied by companies. Also Cova et al. (2013) identify a range of modes of self-production, along a continuum based on the degree of control by firms over production. The individualistic aspect of self-production is captured by the expression “craft consumption” to indicate the centralization of all the phases of the process (from the conception of idea to the evaluation of the result) in a single individual (Campbell 2005).

Consumer upcycling is an example of self-production practice in the end stages of consumption (Anderson et al. 2018), especially at the product/object level (Sung et al. 2014). It consists of a creative modification of used materials to create an output-product of greater value than the input-components (Sung et al. 2014). It can be, in turn, entrepreneurial (e.g. FREITAG, a firm that uses old truck tarpaulins to produce bags), professional (e.g. artists or crafters), or individual (Sung et al. 2014). Hence, upcycling is reuse that consists in changing function of products or their parts, in the attribution to them of a different function (Nalewajek and Mącik 2013), not foreseen in advance (Wilson 2016).

In the 3R waste hierarchy, reuse is considered as one of the most virtuous recovery cycles. Upcycling is, indeed, assessed as a green technology, as it allows consumers to reduce their environmental footprint by extending a product’s life (Wilson 2016), thus reducing both consumption and waste production. Therefore, upcycling drives waste away from landfills or from recycling as long as possible. Compared to recycling, it has been found that upcycling requires less expenditure of energy, material, emissions, water and it can be done multiple times, by avoiding the degradation of the material into raw materials of lower value (downcycling), which occurs in most of the recycling activities (Wilson 2016).

The creative aspect linked to upcycling self-productive activity is intrinsic to the fact that consumers “adapt, modify or transform proprietary offerings” guided by their problem-solving skills (Berthon et al. 2007, 43). Upcycling has been associated with emancipated self-production and a high level of consumer empowerment (Coppola et al. 2019), in which consumers use products and materials already in their possession to support their own creativity (Cova et al. 2017). Emancipated self-producers act on their own initiative for themselves. However, they may even create value for firms, which in turn are inspired by these activities to develop new products/services. Unlike do-it-yourself (DIY), emancipated self-producers do not need a firm from which to obtain raw and semi-raw materials, or software and hardware components. Their skills and commitment in the activity are high, thus having to design and implement their own output by exploiting finished products and using them with a different function.

Self-production also corresponds to a value self-creation. Zainuddin et al. (2016) represent self-creation on the value creation continuum as separated phenomenon from value co-creation. In particular, here the responsibility is shared between the organization and the consumer (O’Hern and Rindfleisch 2009), whereas in the value self-creation consumer only assumes it. Zwass (2010) highlights the community dimension in the co-creation process and affirms that it does not exist exclusively in sponsored co-creation but also in autonomous co-creation, characterized by consumer communities that create together “marketable value” in an independent and spontaneous way.

If Wilson (2016) highlighted the self-productive aspect of upcycling, by using the terms “consumer upcycling” and “creative consumption”, thus emphasizing the close link between this activity and the creative consumer, Sonnenburg (2004) discusses about creative collaboration in product creation within a group, defining it as a communication system, also computer mediated, that takes place with a problem and finishes giving a new product or a new idea.

Online communities: consumption practices and knowledge flows

Social media and associated user-generated content have progressively determined the empowerment of the consumer role (Labrecque et al. 2013; Boyd et al. 2014) and the rise of different modes of consumer-to-consumer communication (C2C), which favoured the growth of independent sources of information with respect to traditional media/organizations (Prahalad and Ramaswamy 2004; Wu and Fang 2010; Vollero et al. 2019).

The typical digital environment of C2C communication are “online communities”, defined as virtual organizational forms based on engagement and expertise (Faraj et al. 2011). It has been generally acknowledged that online communities can constitute communities of practice (Zhang and Watts 2008; Silva et al. 2009; Faraj and Shimizu 2018).

The practice theory perspective to analyze communities has been used recently also in marketing and knowledge management literature (Vargo and Lusch 2016; Faraj and Shimizu 2018) for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is because these types of online community are motivated by a joint enterprise (Wenger 1998), that is, the presence of aggregate members interested in similar practices. This facilitates them to become aware of their common interests, thus raising their sense of belonging and redefining their identity in relation to the practice (Tseng and Kuo 2014). Secondly, community of practices (CoPs) are characterized by mutual engagement (Wenger 1998) and engagement with brands (Brodie et al. 2013). In the context of virtual brand communities, Hollebeek et al. (2017) built a typology of engagement practices, while Kozinets (2010) identified the two main elements that determine online community formation and participation in them: identification with a shared consumption activity and strength of social ties. In general, scholars highlighted web 2.0 technologies enabled complex forms of interactions thus facilitating social processes (Faraj and Shimizu 2018). This occurs not only in explicit forms, through information storage and retrieval, but also by means of tacit knowledge flows (Panahi et al. 2013; Faraj et al. 2016; Hollebeek et al. 2017). In addition, the rising attention on online CoPs is due to their ability not only to exchange information but also to cultivate culture (Kozinets 2010; Gannon and Prothero 2018). Thus, the third factor characterizing CoPs is a shared repertoire (Wenger 1998), that is, meanings that the community has produced and aimed at guiding group behavior. These meanings are built through reification, which indicates “giving form to member experience by producing objects” (Wenger 1998, 55), forming the fourth factor. From this point of view, Faraj and Shimizu define online CoPs as “collective spaces of knowledge flows” (2018, 3), since they are space for knowledge collaboration, intended as both sharing and co-creation of knowledge (Faraj et al. 2011).

Methodology

The literature review addressed in the conceptual background sheds lights that previous studies focused on self-creation or on co-creation, conceived as adjacent but distinct phenomena. Thus, the paper aims at exploring the social experience of self-producers in online communities, investigating the possible overlapping between value self-creation and value co-creation. The paper’s research questions are related to the identification in upcycling online communities of main features of communities of practice (namely joint enterprise, mutual engagement, shared repertoire and reification), and to the analysis of the interplay between this practice and the co-creative dimension of self-production in a communal form.

In order to answer to paper’s research questions, by exploring the online social interactions and cultural practices while they take place (Kozinets 2010), a netnographic approach, a method originally developed in consumer and marketing research (Kozinets and Handelman 1998; Catterall and Maclaran 2002; Kozinets 2002), has been used. In particular, a netnography allows researchers to experience “community life” from the perspective of the members of the group studied, in order to restore their original meanings.

Research approach

A codified procedure was followed to identify the online communities corresponding to the research aims. Queries were carried out using specific keywords or keyphrases for different online environments (forums, social networks, blogs) and UnIdeaNelleMani. Ricicla Riusa Riadatta Ricrea Reinventa (unideanellemani.itOneIdeaInTheHands. Recycle Reuse Readapt Recreate Reinvent) was chosen. The blog was ranked fifth on the Google SERP (search engine report pages), the other communities in the first SERP do not deal exclusively with upcycling but they only present a specific section or subsection. Unlike others, UnIdeaNelleMani focuses on upcycling, and only later it has been evolving in dealing with other related practices (DIY). In addition, the community was selected because it was the only one that met all the netnographic criteria indicated by Kozinets (2010), namely, relevance (related to research topic), interactivity (continuous flow of bidirectional communications between participants), activity (i.e. regular postings, different active users), heterogeneity (popularity in the web), data-richness (detailed data, length of comments), experiential satisfaction (members seem to live a meaningful and engaging experience). The community interactions have been observed for a very long period (over 9 years).

Data collection and coding procedures

The data-richness and the public setting enabled a covert field site access. Although the research focus does not concern particularly sensitive issues, this strategy was chosen because the risk of field disruption was possible which would otherwise have limited the possibility to investigate the phenomenon in its natural development (Hewer and Brownlie 2007). The methodological benefits of a covert access were considered superior to the ethical implications (risk of harm) resulting from lack of “honesty” (Kozinets 2010) towards the community that is subject of study. For the same reasons, non-participant observation was chosen as the collection technique.

Observations allowed to follow the posting in real time and to read previously posted messages, understand techniques and absorb meanings. Subsequently, data collection concerned all the online interactions of the dedicated blog section consisting of 134 postings and 2968 comments, for a total of 3149 messages, posted from May 2010 to October 2019.

These were downloaded with a text capture software and subjected to a coding procedure. The codes were built through an iterative process of comparison of concepts (Goulding 2005), in order to depict the features and processes identified as research aims. The final step was the data analysis, which was essentially a hermeneutic interpretation of the data (Kozinets 2010).

Findings

History and evolution of the community

The community is formed within an individual blog, run by a mother who also plays the role of moderator. Community members, bloggers and simple readers, are above all women and mothers between 25 and 70 years dedicated to women’s hobbies. In particular, the community deals with upcycling ideas both starting from the object to upcycle and from the desired outcome.

The community was born in 2010 with a post entitled “I mean, like… nothing gets thrown away!”, which explains the reason for the opening of the blog, it is to upcycle products no longer usable in the original function to foster an ecological awareness:

[…] I can no longer see the things we throw away as waste, but they have become a source of inspiration for me. So before I get rid of any old object or garment, the question that arises is: “What can I do?”

My Blog starts here.

The thing that is most important to me, in fact, is not so much to show what I do, as to stimulate in the people an ecological awareness that unfortunately many still do not have. […]

Since 2016, the subsection on upcycling is becoming less active due to a change, marked by a reflection by the blogger, as detailed in the post “Upcycling: is it always all well and good?”. It represents the transition to a more mature attitude towards upcycling, reaching the conclusion that not all outputs obtained are environmentally sustainable, but it is necessary to combine creativity with the ethics:

No, […] I don’t even regret my love for upcycling - […] - I am just growing in […] Will I stop upcycling? No, I just started asking myself lots of questions […]

In many years spent on the web, in terms of upcycling I have seen everything and more: from real works of art made from waste to the smart recovery of old objects, from things reused in a brilliant way […] But I also saw things that had very little to do with upcycling, […] And I’m not referring to the aesthetic result, as to the practical and ethical one. […]

From 2016, therefore, the blogger’s posts propose ideas that mainly produce a benefit for the environment. This also involves a change in the type of projects illustrated.

Shared rules

The production of knowledge within the community are governed by the regulations in the “Copyright” section. Users are invited to propose constructive comments, respect the intellectual property of texts, photos and contents, ask permission for inclusion in aggregators and for any commercial use of the blog content. Active users seem very respectful of these rules.

Accomplished rites and collaborative activities

A recurring interaction pattern, a sort of “generation of ideas” ritual, has been identified: the blogger presents the upcycling design to the members of the community, who, in turn, respond by making changes, in order to improve the aesthetics or functionality of the output, to offer alternatives in its use occurrences, but, above all, to suggest other ways of upcycling the same object.

Through this ritual, members’ involvement increases, and the collaborative activity of the community takes place: bloggers and users produce ideas, solutions together. Some posts can be defined as collections, dedicated to a certain product, in which the blogger draws up a list of ideas known by her, to reuse a certain item, expressly asking the readers to expand it with their own suggestions.

The process of generating ideas remains open, that is, it is not possible to select the best upcycling design for the object in question. The post “Put the socks on the balls: an idea to upcycle the broken stockings” produces 17 alternatives, becoming a post-collection:

V.: […] I don’t throw away the stockings too, I wash them waiting for a use […] But when I pick them up a bit I roll them all up and do some balls with which the cats have fun very. They are also useful for putting in soap scraps and forming bags to use exactly like a bar of soap. Another useful use is to utilize them to polish silver […]

[…]

N.: I also discovered the use of socks as a bag for soap flakes: they are great!

And in addition I make perfumed sachets putting in cloves and lavender…

L.: […] my mother cut them into strips, made them little balls for crochet and go of carpets for kitchen and bathroom […]

M.: I also keep mountains of stretched pantyhose […] Up until now I have used them as elastic for the tail (when I had long hair), as padding for cushions […] for collecting dust from the floor etc. […]

Used language

Community members use a community-specific language dependent on the do-it-yourself techniques used to implement upcycling. On the other hand, the sign of a community-specific jargon is the term “struziante”, with which the members define themselves. “Struziante” is called “the person who arranges to do things by herself and with what she has, who tries to repair, who rackets her brains until she has done what she wants, who uses her hands, head and heart to do things (not interested in what, not interested in how)”.

Key values

The jargon, the rites and the rules practiced reflect the key value of the community, which is creativity. The “struzianti” are inventive people that consider creativity as a “common” skill, especially linked with manual skill that gives value to things:

D.: Personally, I have no difficulty in defining the woman who tries to repair an umbrella with scraps from an old awning as ‘creative’, or her grandmother who sews naive aprons using old shirts. […]

R.: I believe that the future belongs to those who appreciate the value of things and always work to “do with their own hands”

Creativity is thus defined as the ability to combine rationality and fantasy, but always finalized to solve a problem.

Motivations to participation

There are several motivations that lead readers to participate in the life of the group, ranging from the request for technical advice on the practice to clear explanations of the designs to be implemented:

Hi, I would like to learn how to make bags by upcycling jersey or lycra tapes or used sheets. How many centimetres can the upcycled strips be? […]

Another motivation for participating in the community is the recreational aspect, which is often associated with the sense of belonging to an upcycler community:

[…] I would die laughing by reading the comments of the “crazy” upcycler-friends!!! Thank you D. to remind us that we are not alone in the UPCYCLING WORLD!

Again, the motivation may consist in strengthening an identity as a creative person. In this case, participation is about corroborating members’ ability:

I know that D. and I are 2 volcanoes of ideas. When they ask, I explain, I show how it’s made, with nothing in return and even if they copy, it doesn’t matter: I have so many ideas in my mind for more than 30 years of creativity.

Methods of implementation of the practice

The methods of implementation of the practice change according to the type of motivation for upcycling.

One of the product categories that bonds the upcycling activity of UnIdeaNelleMani members is “games and toys”. The practice is considered useful for making these products by all upcycler-mothers: it is a way to save money, an educational tool for children and a means to reduce waste production. In fact, this category is considered not “environmentally friendly”, as the toys have a short life cycle (given the rapid obsolescence due to the growth of the child). Moreover, for ecologists the pedagogical utility of the practice is such as to justify “improper” assembly methods, such as gluing for an output that will have a short life:

J.: […] using recovery materials for children’s chores is also good, because let’s face it, buying new materials and then throwing them back is not exactly ethical […]

D.: […] In the case of chores it is normal to reuse, paste, mess. In this way not only you can save money, but the children’s imagination and manual skills are set in motion. […]

More generally, the analysis reveals two ways of starting the practice, depending on the element of focus of the self-productive process: the input (the objects to be upcycled) and the output (the result to be obtained). The focus on the output prevails, although from 2016 there is a greater attention to the choice of inputs. In fact, textile and clothing items are privileged materials, reflecting the turning point in terms of sustainability, given the possibility of more effective assembly techniques in this sense (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure1

Categories of upcycled items (outputs vs. inputs)

Extrinsic motivations to practice, based on an external benefit to the practice, focus on the way in which to obtain a certain output. The intrinsic motivations, being relative to a benefit inherent in the practice itself, instead tend to focus on the way in which to upcycle a certain item-input.

The opposition between two approaches is discussed in the opinions of the readers themselves:

For me the “art attacks” don’t have a great value, I usually need something and I think about how to make it happen, if I can reuse and upcycle it is better…

The object must then serve, it should not be the typical “good for nothing” item that you used to make a new post. On my blog I write a post about upcycling when I needed to create a certain thing… my outputs come from a need… […] I identify a need and create a solution.

It seems clear that users motivated by extrinsic benefits are guided by rules in the implementation of the practice, while users driven by intrinsic benefits do not have them, being focused on the pleasure of producing in themselves.

More specifically, depending on the underlying extrinsic motivation, the rules change. For example, those who are thrifty exclude upcycling those objects that are still useful in their original function or that can return to it through other forms of reuse. Creative expression is then subordinate to thrift. Thus, the blogger, usually, dislikes the user with an intrinsic motivation (because she is fascinated by the idea of using a certain type of objects as input). In the next excerpt, she recommends avoiding upcycling a jacket, if it can be repaired:

B.: [I upcycle] the jacket of my Little Monster, [so that] I avoid fixing it (it has to be sewn in some places), that so much next year will be small too!

D.: But if it is to be sewn up I would do it. Just to tear it to pieces you’re always on time. No?

Similarly, those who approach the practice to save money exclude buying new products for the mere purpose of transforming them:

V.: Really cute and your daughter is always more beautiful if I find a special offer of a shirt I will do it!

D.: Do you have men’s old shirts to upcycle?

Instead, those who are motivated by the environmental benefits of upcycling assess the expected length of the second life cycle and, based on this, establish the characteristics and techniques of assembly of the inputs. More specifically, upcycling must have the purpose of actually extending the life of the reused products. If the output is only useful in the short term, or does not have an utility, the practice should not be undertaken, because it has no environmental benefits, on the contrary, it would cause damage due to the production of an output destined to a non-recyclable waste status, once its short life cycle has ended. From this perspective, those who upcycle ignoring these prescriptions are accused of having artistic motivations:

to recycle something to make a creation of doubtful utility and use it for two days - if I really use, maybe done by gluing the plastic to the fabric, or the fabric to the cardboard or to the glass… is it upcycling? […] Nulla quaestio if I upcycle something destined to have a second and long life cycle […]

Thus, if the final output is only useful in the short term, or does not have a utility, the assembled items should at least be detachable or composed of a single type of material, in order to recycle the components. For the same reasons, sewing is always a better option than gluing as it is more environmentally friendly. However, if the final output is useful in the long term, the assembly of recyclable and/or non-recyclable materials of different types is “allowed”, as justified by the possibility of extending the life cycle of the materials.

Discussion

Although the community has developed into a blog, apparently based on a hierarchical relationship in which the blogger assumes the role of authority, it is characterized by a friendly atmosphere. From the analysis of motivations to participation it follows that the interaction within the community is oriented both to consumption activity and to social relationships. Interaction patterns are based on the exchange of detailed information regarding upcycling. However, fun moments are also created, in which communal ties are developed. For this reason, community is thus halfway between a geeking (weak ties and high centrality of the shared activity) and a building community (strong ties and high centrality of the activity) (Kozinets 2010).

In line with Zhang and Watts (2008), UnIdeaNelleMani can be defined as a community of practice, firstly because members are linked by interest towards a joint enterprise, around which they create their identity as upcyclers (Wenger 1998). Second, they have built a shared repertoire: rites, language, meanings, rules. In fact, the value of creativity that bond the members and determines their identity is inscribed in their jargon, namely in the meaning of the name that they have given themselves (“struzianti”). In line with previous studies on CoPs (Iverson and McPhee 2002; Smith et al. 2017), the community is characterized by both engagement and reification: the members’ experience is embodied in a collaborative productive activity. This dynamic is more evident in the main interaction pattern in which the mutual engagement between the members is expressed, the ritual of generation of ideas, which represents the way in which the members co-create knowledge. The value of creativity explains its meaning. In fact, it is the moment in which each member exercises her/his creativity, shares it with others, reifying it in the collections, thus showing the group’s learning process as the result of the “creaplex” (Sonnenburg 2004), that is of “creating in collaboration”. Each member, especially newcomers and beginner upcyclers, achieves an individual upgrade on the practice by learning from these moments, as well as by other ways of interaction (such as requesting technical advice). Through learning, the practice is also upgraded (Brown and Duguid 2001).

In line with Zhang and Watts (2008), community members negotiate new practices. In its evolution, the methods of implementation of the practice show that not all approaches to upcycling are environmentally friendly, but only those that actually extend the life of the product or produce detachable/mono-material outputs. Consequently, a “2.0 practice” is outlined for eco-upcyclers that does not start from a focus on input or output but from a balance of both needs.

The results show the existence of an interaction between online communities and upcycling self-production activity (Fig. 2), through which the different levels of consumer empowerment are realized (information sharing, co-creation and self-production) according to a circular process.

Fig. 2
figure2

Model of interaction between online communities and self-production

When online communities are, in fact, focused on a practice (Faraj and Shimizu 2018), this constitutes a determinant of the development of value self-creation phenomena, as they are a knowledge sharing environment. This leads to an individual learning on the practice, favouring its implementation. Thus, value self-creation is realized through self-production. In the case of upcycling, the self-production is achieved through creative consumption (Berthon et al. 2007). In fact, creativity, intended as problem solving skill, is applied to modify or transform proprietary offering, and to manage how to convert discarded items. On the other hand, self-producers/upcyclers do not only devote themselves to creative consumption practices. They also determine value co-creation phenomena thanks to creative collaboration between users within the online communities (Sonnenburg 2004; Ind et al. 2013). Favoured by participation, engagement and social relationship, individual problem-solving skill convey in a collective reification experience. In this way, online communities become a knowledge creation environment. This resonates with Andreeva and Ikhilchik (2011) that maintain social settings facilitate creation of new knowledge.

Socializing represents the aspect that allows sharing knowledge but also combining it in an unusual way because individuals can put forward their ideas and views (Csikszentmihalyi and Sawyer 2014). Thus, creativity is defined both individually (in terms of creative consumption) and collectively (Romero and Barberà 2012). Ideas and views translate in new solutions, changes in a domain, co-constructed and accepted by the group. Collaboration, in fact, leads to collective learning process and, consequently, to an upgrade of the practice itself.

Although focused from the peculiar perspective of informal and spontaneous organizations, this process of dynamic knowledge creation in highly creative contexts presents analogies with the spiral process at the level of companies, systematized through the SECI model (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995). Similarly, it begins with socialization, continues with externalization and combination and ends with internalization of knowledge. Self-production can be thus evaluated not only as an individualistic phenomenon, because online communities can be considered the space where the co-creative dimension of self-production expresses and develops in a collective context.

Theoretical and managerial implications

This study provides theoretical and managerial implications. From a theoretical perspective, by combining the lens of practice, co-creation and knowledge approaches, the paper proposes a model of interaction between online communities and self-production. It represents a first attempt to conceptualize such type of practice as collaborative (and not only individual), through knowledge sharing and creative collaboration in a communal space.

Moreover, the existence of different methods of implementation of upcycling, related to different motivations to the practice, opens up a number of managerial implications. Different authors identified the possible roles of firms in relation to creative consumers thus conjecturing a possible enabling role, like that of content provider (Berthon et al. 2007; Siano et al. 2014). Some implications for decision making and further research in relation to this specific category of self-producers can thus be provided.

First, companies could provide relevant content such as upcycling ideas, by collaborating with the online community moderator. In this perspective, firms do not act as a product provider but as a service provider and value facilitator, promoting servitization (Grönroos 2008). This shift of production from the firm to the consumer implies positive ecological effects. In fact, self-production, such as upcycling, has a lower environmental impact, for example, by avoiding pollution due to reduced product transportation, than company manufacturing (Szaky 2014). Equally interesting would be to explore opportunities for companies to integrate consumer upcycling in the life cycle of product through a modular design (such as to foresee its alternative uses). This resonates with recommendations proposed in Wilson (2016) and Bridgens et al. (2018).

Customer initiation of co-creation with other customers should also be facilitated by firms by means of different types of incentives (Gruen et al. 2007). As Chen et al. (2018) highlighted, even if these initiatives are not firm-driven, the firm’s enabling role in online communities could however facilitate to firm-desired outcomes at least in terms of consumer insights. This could be achieved by understanding the motivations and the consequent upcycling approach in order to anticipate upcyclers’ needs. For example, ecologists would be interested only in proposals for content or modular products that exalt being eco-friendly, that is, those that take into account both the type of input and output. As the study proved empirically, they should involve mono-material outputs or environmentally friendly assembly methods and stretching the life span of discarded materials. On the contrary, for intrinsic motivated upcyclers these aspects are not relevant. Also, the identified categories of products could offer useful insights. Ecologists would be more interested in upcycling textile and clothing items, whereas who focuses on children learning would appreciate proposals related to games and toys.

Future research

Future research could investigate the perceptions of the different categories of upcyclers (ecologists, intrinsically motivated, children learning focused, save money focused, and thrift upcyclers) toward firms that encourage upcycling, as well as the benefits of communicating alternative uses of products.

It would be also interesting to shed light on how different generational cohorts (baby boomers, generation X and Y) relate to upcycling, as well as to gain more insight into the role played by facilitators, such as bloggers. In the present study, blogger plays an important role in eliciting engagement and in stimulating collective learning that leads to an evolution of practice. Thus, how the role of an online community leader (or other type of digital influencer) sustains knowledge sharing and creative collaboration could be a further fruitful research avenue.

Lastly, upcycling raises the question of intellectual property. In fact, creative consumption involves the difficulty of determining the owner of the rights to the outputs, being these produced from the offerings of firms (Berthon et al. 2015). Moreover, as confirmed by the attempt of the community investigated to set regulations in the “Copyright” section, knowledge sharing and knowledge creation through creative collaboration entail the risk of theft and imitation among users. In upcycling context, this paper echoes Bauer et al. (2016) in identifying the need for future research that investigates when and how user-organized norms are formed and evolved over time in online communities.

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Coppola, C., Vollero, A., Conte, F. et al. Self-production in an upcycling online community: shared knowledge, collaborative ideas and creation of value. Ital. J. Mark. 2020, 231–248 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43039-020-00010-9

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Keywords

  • Upcycling
  • Self-production
  • Online communities of practice
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Creative collaboration
  • Netnography