Jackie May, editor of Twyg, wrestles with the complex issues surrounding our love for fashion, the price the planet pays, and the human consequences of where we are at now.

A few Sundays ago, I visited a large secondhand clothing market in Mbare, a suburb of Harare. It was early. Traders were setting up their stalls. A man was asleep on piles of used handbags and shoes. Huddled in an empty stall, a group of men clearly had been drinking beer for a while. Young men pushed trailers laden with bales of clothes through the market. It is a typical big city market.

But I had never seen good quality used fashion being sold so cheaply at this scale anywhere else before. There were so many shoes – perfectly good quality shoes. Who would throw away a pair of barely worn Veja or Off-White x Nike sneakers? Handbags – thousands of them. I spotted a bag made from upcycled denim jeans. Shirts. Bras. Dresses.

There were no Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Dior labels – these have high-value markets elsewhere.


The global trade of secondhand clothing offers (mostly) informal employment opportunities and affordable clothing to people in low-income countries. But there are a few other things it does too. The first is that it offers big international fashion brands an outlet for excess.

The highly lucrative fashion system generates desire for fashion and manufactures product which is bought, used and discarded at a pace and scale that have increased exponentially over the last few decades. Some estimate that global production of fashion has doubled since 2010. Some say the increase is even greater. The trade in secondhand clothing has increased too and allows for limitless desire for the next trend and the making and purchasing of more garments. All of this making and selling has an impact on the environment – think of the water and chemicals and fossil fuels consumed, the carbon emitted, the scarce raw materials and land used etc.  There seems to be no end to this cycle.

Yet, there is: The “end” is markets like the one in Mbare where clothes are sold very cheaply and where there is most likely little to no capacity to collect and recycle these items when they reach their end use here. What then? Who is responsible for this final toxic textile waste? Most clothing, certainly most fast fashion, is made from polyester which is not biodegradable. Clothing is either washed, dyed and finished using chemicals, not all are benign.


Secondly, the global trade in secondhand western clothes drowns out local African fashion identities and local fashion industries. On the same day as my market visit, I attended the launch event of “I wear my clothes”, a three-year-long project curated and directed by Zimbabwean Gilmore Tee. The project culminated with a Sunday evening fashion show, panel discussion and the screening of a documentary.  Twelve designers had each researched one of 12 local cultures and used this research as inspiration to create two garments. Gilmore says, “We are so rich in our individual tribal groups and all we yearn for is to be seen, heard and celebrated.” But at this same event, a Zimbabwean filmmaker said to me: “I wish people would just get over us having a fashion culture. We are now a re-worn fashion nation.”

But people are not getting over it, they are resisting it.  While localised, crafted, slow fashion is not new, pushback against a globalised, monolithic fashion system is growing. As in Zimbabwe, designers in South Africa and across Africa are decentring the global fashion narrative with brands that are growing in stature and success.  Think of Lukhanyo Mdingi, Thebe Magugu and Danayi Madondo. A new fashion exhibition in Nairobi is testament to this, too. Called Tradition(al), the exhibition interrogates and celebrates the practices of contemporary custodians of tradition across the continent. Curator Sunny Dolat has selected 19 designers, including Maxhosa Africa, Papa Oppong, IAMISIGO and Johanna Bramble to draw attention to “the diverse spectrum of materials, expressions, silhouettes, and knowledge systems that have, in surviving to this day and age, resisted the oppressions of imperial erasure”.


A few months ago, I visited a collecting and sorting facility in Germany, where people process thousands of collected clothes, manually identify fabric type and sort clothes according to value and items (pants, dresses, shirts etc) which are then bailed accordingly. The data intelligence platform Statista provides an estimate that European consumers purchased roughly 42 items of apparel per capita in 2023, a significant increase compared to the previous year. This is far more than the five items of clothing per year that Hot or Cool Institute in Berlin recommends for achieving sustainable consumption levels in line with the 1.5-degree target.

People are buying lots of clothes and after an average of seven to 10 wears they discard them. Of course, they don’t throw all of them away, instead they contribute to the many calls encouraging people to donate their clothes to recycling systems (we see a few of these in stores in South Africa). The promise is that your clothes are being recycled responsibly, and not causing any harm. Unfortunately textile-to-textile recycling is not an economically or technologically viable option yet – it’s expensive and due to blended fibres, it’s complex – so collecting, sorting and baling is what recycling usually means. From textile recycling centres, clothes are sold to traders across the globe.

Recognising that there are significant environmental, social and health problems with the secondhand trade, three countries in the European Union are proposing a restriction on the export of hazardous textile waste from the EU. But Kenya has resisted this. Teresia Wairimu Njenga, chair of the Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya, which represents sellers of second-hand clothes, told Reuters that imports of used clothes supported livelihoods and generated tax revenues for the country. The Or Foundation, an organisation in Ghana takes a cautious approach to export restrictions. Rather, the foundation works to ensure that people in the Kantamanto market are safe, and advocates for a more just distribution of responsibility for cleaning up fashion’s waste.


So where does this leave us?

  • With way too many clothes – clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, surpassing 100 billion garments for the first time in 2014, according to the OR Foundation.
  • With serious environmental damage and climate change – the fashion industry contributes between 8% and 10% of the global carbon emissions and projected to account for 26% of global greenhouse. 
  • And with millions of people around the world earning a living from the industry.

It’s a hugely complex issue and one that needs to be unraveled with care to avoid unintended consequences. So, what do I think we should do?

We need to produce enough good quality clothes for what is needed, including an occasional pretty dress or two. We need to design and develop products for prolonged use, and for recycling after maximum use. We need to shift from a make-take-waste fashion culture. We need to ensure we protect people’s livelihoods. We must respect local fashion cultures. We must manufacture sustainably by choosing the lowest-impact fabrics and finishes, transitioning to renewable energy, and applying zero-waste principles. We need to produce and source on-shore and near-shore to create jobs in the primary fashion industry.

Fast fashion companies, luxury brands, local retailers, designers and citizens need to address these issues, together. Our beautiful mountains, oceans and fields of indigenous plants should remind us how urgent it is to act on what we already know.


  • Reduce purchases of new garments
  • Support local sustainable brands (See our slow fashion guide)
  • Swap, rent and support local vintage and secondhand stores like Vintage with Love
  • Increase use-time
  • Reduce washing and drying
  • Learn to mend
  • Dispose responsibly


On 11 April 2024 the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, in collaboration with One & Only, is hosting the second One Blue Heart Gala Dinner to raise funds for the Turtle Conservation Centre. This blue carpet event will celebrate our marine world and will showcase zero-waste food, slow fashion, and mesmerising art. Through these elements guests will be reminded that everything we do, from our daily choices to larger decisions, ultimately impacts the ocean and the planet as a whole.

Turtles, as ancient travellers of the ocean, are the beneficiaries of One Blue Heart. The Turtle Conservation Centre at the Two Oceans Aquarium rescues, rehabilitates and releases turtles – to date more than 1000 turtles have been given a second chance and returned to the ocean after rehabilitation

One Blue Heart is committed to protecting and preserving their ancient legacy.

If you want to know why I hadn’t seen used clothing markets like this before: South Africa sells secondhand clothes, but because it regulates these imports well, we don’t see secondhand trading of international imports at scale. You find secondhand imports in thrift stores, in downtown Johannesburg, on the Grand Parade in Cape Town… There are some big stores selling imported jackets which are legal for certain times of the year. Many of the informal traders and thrifters in and around Cape Town sell South African brands and clothes that are donated locally or bought through initiatives like Taking Care of Business.

Images, from the top: Wanda Lephoto fashion by Armand Dicker; Mbare market in Harare by Jackie May, Sindiso Khumalo fashion by Armand Dicker.