One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: A qualitative case study aiming to explore the contribution of small and medium-sized enterprises’ business models – by creating value from waste – to a sustainable transformation of the fashion industry

Viktoria Charlotte Angelika Piller

Student thesis: Master thesis


The fashion industry is a major contributor to waste and, thus, to environmental and social problems worldwide. This is especially the case because clothing production has doubled in the past fifteen years, while its utilization rate has halved. When evaluating this development in the context of increasing resource scarcity, rising earth temperatures and a growing world population, a transition from a linear to a circular economic system becomes imperative. Therefore, this study is concerned with fashion SMEs using waste materials and addresses how CEBMs – by creating value from waste – contribute to a sustainable transformation of the fashion industry. The purpose of this study is to shed light on the various opportunities and challenges of using waste materials for fashion SMEs and their role in a sustainable transformation. Since CE requires a collaborative approach, the results also provide valuable insights for other industry actors, such as larger companies, policymakers, educational institutions and consumers. Following an interpretivist and subjectivist perspective, the researcher undertakes a qualitative case study. The data used was obtained from seven semi-structured interviews and two questionnaires with fashion SMEs using a total of eight different types of waste materials. Additional data was retrieved from two fieldconfiguring events entailing fourteen informal interviews and field memos across various industry stakeholders. First, this study identifies and categorizes the SME’s experiences with waste materials into product-related, organizational and environmental/societal opportunities and challenges. While they vary based on the type of waste used, no universal conclusion on the potential of waste material can be drawn. However, the most cited challenges comprise of high prices, high minimum quantity orders, limited financial resources, difficulties in attracting investment, lack of consumer awareness, negative perception of waste and real environmental effect. In contrast, the relevant opportunities are unlocking new market potential, advertising advantage, creating awareness, fostering education and positive environmental contribution. Second, the data indicate that all of the SMEs examined also engage with other sustainable practices in addition to waste materials. These additional sustainable practices lie either within the “from waste to value” approach (e.g. take-back system) or beyond (e.g. clean energy). Third, the study’s findings show that the role of SMEs in a sustainable transformation goes beyond simply creating a product from waste. To illustrate this, the researcher develops a Typology of the roles of fashion SMEs in a sustainable transformation. Accordingly, SMEs adopt at least one of the following roles: Entrepreneurial Pioneer, Activist Educator, Connecting Orchestrator and/or Visionary Change Seeker. Finally, while the environmental contribution of a SME depends primarily on the specific waste material and sustainable practices it uses, its social value, through creating awareness and changing the perception of waste, also has a major impact on the sustainable transformation. This study demonstrates the relevance of CEBMs and in particular, waste materials for SMEs. It further contributes to a comprehensive understanding of and appreciation for fashion SME’s working towards a sustainable future.

EducationsMSocSc in Organisational Innovation and Entrepreneurship , (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2019
Number of pages79
SupervisorsErin Leitheiser