‘Waste not, want not’ – or not?

 ‘Waste not, want not’ – or not?

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

Back in the days of our post-war grandmothers, clever frugality was a virtue. Wastefulness – of time, energy or goods – was a sign of poor character. My, how things have changed.

We’ve normalised wastefulness. Single-use packaging fills our wheelie bins to overflowing; food waste contaminates recyclables because people don’t know better, or don’t care (90% of waste generated in SA goes to landfill);  our must-have tech tools have built-in obsolescence; throwaway fashion and homewear change with the seasons.

In parallel, deep and generational poverty continues to blight the lives of millions. But waste isn’t just a function of surplus: single-use plastic and other detritus is just as much a byproduct of life in informal settlements. It’s an apparently inescapable truth today that everything we buy comes with a plastic wrapper for which we can find no further use. The mountains and rivers and tidelines of trash that result are both alarming and depressing. We have to learn to think differently about the waste we produce.


The scale of what we waste is eye-watering. Globally, an estimated 1,3bn tonnes of food is wasted each year. In 2019 (latest figures), South Africa sent around 95m tonnes of general waste to landfill sites.  Each item of waste also has a carbon and water footprint; everything we throw away contributes to water fragility, global warming, and thus to climate change.

There has always been a moral minority who, conscious of waste, strive to trigger greater mindfulness across society. The City of Cape Town, for instance, has distributed tens of thousands of composting bins to residents, trying to nudge them into keeping organic matter out of landfill, and thus reduce methane and CO2 emissions. Ladles of Love launched their Feed the Soil programme in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, coaxing followers to do the same, though their “why” relates less to noxious gases, and more to soil creation and productivity. Commercial enterprises like Nude Foods sell everyday grocery store items packaging free – shoppers take their own containers on a weigh-and-pay basis, while entities like Twyg try and drive the Zero Waste fashion consciousness. That’s government, civil society and the private sector all looking to contribute to a better, less wasteful world.

SOLVE@Waterfront, with its partners the V&A and the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, are throwing down a greater challenge: can we aim for zero waste? At the V&A Waterfront, we’re already big on upcycling, recycling and seeking circular design solutions – see what we’re doing here and see here for our latest – and pretty exciting – plastics circularity challenge.

Our Zero Waste official launch is in mid-February 2023, at our “One Blue Heart” gala dinner at the One & Only. It’s a dinner with a difference: the intention and undertaking is that absolutely nothing will go to landfill as a result of the event; and funds raised will support the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation Turtle Conservation Centre.

Guests are being challenged to get into the spirit in terms of how they dress; certainly the chefs are being challenged in how they conceptualise, prepare and present the meal. For everyone involved, it’s a thought-provoking idea.


Well, it starts with food itself; it takes intent, and often it’s eased by collaboration. At Maker’s Landing at the Cruise Terminal, for instance, members already sometimes collaborate around avoiding waste. For instance, if one dish uses only the thighs and breast of a chicken, another chef might devise an offering that uses its wings and drumsticks, while a third might use the feet and innards, and the last one might convert everything that’s left into a rich, nutritious stock that’s the basis of a soup or sauce. In the professional cooking world, this is considered respectful and good practice. Zero Waste simply brings a more focused energy to this. Zero Waste, for instance, would look at the mess of bones and aromatics left after stocking the carcass, and find ways to avoid sending this to landfill. And there are always ways. To stick with our example, chicken bones can be composted, for instance, or added to a bokashi, which in turn is ferments a powerful fertiliser or to catalyse composting processes. Bone-meal production is potentially another destination.

Some other considerations around Zero Waste in the food space:

  • Edible food is never wasted: at the V&A, food that is healthy and nutritious is redirected through the relationships the Waterfront holds with NPOs such as SA Harvest and and Ladles of Love
  • Packaging should be minimal, compostable and/or reusable.
  • Food production values should align. No greenwashing allowed. Food should be produced along regenerative principles; food should be seasonal and at least semi-local. In procurement design principles, shared values should be a primary consideration.


Vintage, pre-loved, thrifting, call it what you will – items of apparel that date from an earlier era have always held allure. That is, if they are luxury items, meaning well-designed, and well-made, using quality fabrics that hold their own with the passage of time. What’s known as “fast fashion” is none of these things: it’s made to be used today, and disposed of at season’s end. To sustain this buy-and-discard behaviour, prices are kept low through the mechanisms of cheap materials, cheap finishes, and cheap labour. The intention of fast fashion is to pile it high, sell it cheap, and repeat. Technically, Zero Waste fashion starts with the cutting and design of items of clothing to eliminate waste in the production phase. There’s a fascinating (and lengthy) teaching video embedded in this article which explains the lengths designers are going to in search of Zero Waste. That’s not something most of us can engage with, as it requires technical knowledge and access. But we can think about sustainable fabrics – here’s a list of South African conscious fashion brands and see also Twyg‘s site – and we can think about quality over quantity.  

SOLVE@Waterfront commissioned research into resale fashion to assess how and where it might be possible to nudge consumers into more sustainable practices, and found that interest is surging: there has been an estimated 96,1% increase in revenue from resale fashion between 2018 and this year, 2023. Predictably, the headlines lie with the quality or luxury sector: globally, this sector was valued at $25bn in 2020, and is expected to grow 15% a year. Luxury brands themselves are buying in, either launching their own resales channels or partnering around them.

Young consumers, the biggest buyers of any kind of fashion, are predictably leading the charge – the 16-24-year-olds are followed by the 25-41-year-olds. Of these, 75% are female. But what’s interesting is that the lower costs are not their only driver: they are also motivated by sustainability considerations, and by problematic production values in modern clothes such as plastics, toxins etc

So, what is Zero Waste fashion? Really, it’s about avoiding fast fashion. Dig out the back of your wardrobe, or even your grandparent’s wardrobe, items that you love, and have them customised. Or seek out one of the many local designers doing extraordinary work, and support them with an off-the-peg or bespoke purchase. Buy seldom, but buy well. And if buttons come off or zips break, have things fixed. If your taste moves on, repurpose the garment – have it turned it into something else – or put it back into the value chain through a vintage clothing retailer or exchange.

We like the way this is looking.


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