Sustainability: Focusing on Fashion Waste and Our Planet

In this article, we discuss fashion waste and how to achieve the zero-waste model through sustainable sourcing in the fashion industry.

The textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, generating about 10% of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and 20% of wastewater. Nearly 5% of the waste in landfills are textile waste, and approximately 35% of all oceanic primary microplastic pollution is caused by the fashion industry operations. Lagos, a city in Nigeria with over 23 million inhabitants, generates over 13,000 metric tonnes daily. Effective waste management in Lagos is necessary to prevent environmental crisis and maintain a cleaner city. All these pollution statistics can be noted as a causal effect of the “Fast Fashion” movement and unsustainable business models. The planet is affected by human activities and fashion waste has become an important aspect to note.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a current phenomenon where fashion trends change rapidly and the operators in the industry must mass-produce these items concurrently. To put this in context, let us visualize this scenario. Design A was developed in January, and by February, another design, Design B, became a trend, so the market demand changes to Design B. This goes on and on for the rest of the year. A Norwegian study highlights that the average fashion life expectancy is a little over five years, with an estimated four years of actual usage. The fast fashion phenomenon allows this rate to go down to just a few months. Consumers move on to the next trend, and a behavioural study highlight that these fashion pieces might never be worn again after the introduction of a new trend.

Waste generated due to fast fashion operations is analyzed from the producer’s point of view to the consumer’s point. Mass-producing items concurrently with the pressure to meet current market demands implies excess waste generated during the production process. Due to the pressure, the production process will not account for other means to utilize scrap material but will commit a great deal of time to meet up with the demand. The volume of waste generated is not the only aspect to note; there is also the risk of producing low-quality pieces. This equates to a reduced life expectancy for that fashion piece.

Fashion consumers are pressured to buy trendy pieces which often fall below standard quality requirements, and results in a reduced product lifespan. Defective fashion pieces imply more waste in our landfill! Typically, a consumer’s behaviour toward trends could manifest in the sense that previously purchased items might never be used again until it is donated, thrifted, or disposed of.

Operators in fashion have a tough time meeting up with fashion trends and running sustainable business models. For instance, to meet up with market demand and trends, extreme labour hours are needed; this could potentially affect how fashion workers are treated and the work environment in general. This fast-paced industry produces all kinds of waste harmful to the environment and people.

What happens to waste clothes?

Fabric waste exists due to pressure to produce without much consideration for how unutilized materials can be creatively channelled into producing another fashion item, resulting in a large volume of waste. Furthermore, the majority of fabrics and materials are woven from plastic threads such as acrylic, nylon, polyester, fleece, and rayon - all nonbiodegradable pollutants; this means they do not naturally dissolve or disintegrate through natural agents and remain on earth for years without natural degradation. Therefore, the threat caused by them is critical as they are the leading cause of air, water, and soil pollution with a high chance of terminal diseases like cancer.

In recent times, waste management has become a major environmental issue due to the increased environmental costs on society for its collection, treatment, and disposal. Fabric wastes become heaps in landfills and deplete the ozone layer when disposed of through incineration.

Increased production levels will lead to increased wastewater and pollution due to harsh chemicals from dye or the very water-intensive production process. This wastewater could potentially go back into waterbodies untreated, contaminating the habitat of aquatic plants and animals. This continuous activity has led to the release of microplastics into the oceans, which poses a threat to wildlife and humans.

What can we do?

Shop Sustainably

In a bid to reduce these negative impacts on the environment, we should not focus on buying clothes to stay trendy. As responsible consumers, it is our job to ensure that every purchase decision is absolutely necessary and not informed by rapidly changing trends. The habit of researching brands before buying gives us an avenue to review the sustainable efforts of that brand and would further influence our purchasing decisions. Encouraging and promoting truly green brands will boost their competitive advantage.

Sustainable Sourcing

Operators in the industry should imbibe responsible sourcing. Responsible sourcing can be implemented through patronizing certified natural fabrics and ensuring compliance with quality standards. Verifying the entire supply chain system is also a responsible sourcing activity as operations rely on a fast, flexible, and cost-efficient supply chain. Having a sustainable sourcing model will further prioritize green practices, hence, revamping current sourcing practices is achievable.

Buy Less

Avoid impulse purchases and buying based on trends as trends are bound to change. Trend-based purchasing equals constant purchasing even when the pieces are not needed. Instead of buying new fashion items, proper styling can make any fashion piece versatile and wearable in countless ways. A plain white shirt could be elevated with the right accessories and creative styling. So do not follow fashion trends. Find your identity in your current wardrobe and get creative.

Thrifting, donations, and swapping

Keeping a minimalist wardrobe – a wardrobe filled with essentials – is another sustainable way to fashion. Avoid hoarding and donate/share the pieces that you do not wear to charities. When shopping previously owned items, thrifting should be your first point as it reduces fashion waste. Swapping is also a fun and sustainable way of increasing the lifespan of fashion pieces and diversifying our wardrobe. The swap would get rid of items no longer in use and give us a chance to acquire new pieces.

Zero-waste model

The zero-waste model considers the entire creative process and aims at cutting waste generation at every production phase. The best review of the whole system promises minimal to no waste generation and allows businesses to conduct the same process with a different ideology and approach. For instance, at the design stage, the model will ensure that the creative direction embraces a “zero-waste path.” When there is inevitably waste, the model encourages the exploration of alternative use of the identified waste. All production and distribution phases are considered in this model, with special consideration for waste generating points to minimize or eliminate waste at each phase. 

A great zero-waste model will highlight ways a consumer can efficiently use, recycle, or redefine the product. This will lead to an increase in the lifespan of the product, so that the fashion piece ultimately serves the consumer, and prevents the product from ending at the landfill.


Fashion waste can be reduced by producers and consumers. It can be redesigned to fit another purpose rather than ending in landfills and causing environmental issues. Imbibing a sustainable approach would create the much-needed balance, reduce the volume of waste that gets to landfill, and inevitably protect our planet.


Elizabeth Orluike

Partner, Sustainability Services

Modupeoluwa Williams

Associate, Sustainability Services

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