Out with the new, in with the old – the rise of a R10 billion economy in South Africa

 ·29 Jun 2024

In recent years, the global second-hand fashion market has seen significant growth, driven largely by eco-conscious consumers seeking more affordable and unique clothing options.

Supporters of sustainable fashion argue that transitioning from fast fashion—cheap, mass-produced clothing—to a circular fashion ecosystem (focused on reuse, reduce, recycle) offers environmental benefits and economic opportunities for both retailers and consumers.

“The landscape of sustainable fashion in South Africa has completely transformed over the past decade,” said Aune Aunapuu, CEO and founder of Yaga, the fastest-growing marketplace for selling and buying second-hand fashion in South Africa and Estonia.

“In the early 2010s, it was niche – driven by some local designers and eco-conscious consumers – but now, it’s becoming truly a mainstream movement,” she added.

The rise of second-hand apparel

Photo: Ernest Rose (Shutterstock)

While second-hand or thrifted fashion is not new, there has been a noticeable increase in demand from environmentally conscious consumers for sustainable and ethically produced clothing.

“Fast fashion has dominated – but today, the global concern for our planet’s health has shifted where consumers put their money. Shoppers understand that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting sectors in the world, and they are looking for other, greener options.” said Aunapuu.

Aune Aunapuu, CEO of Yaga
Yaga CEO and founder Aune Aunapuu.

Statistics from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that fast fashion contributes approximately 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions annually, along with 20% of wastewater, and imposes a heavy burden on landfills.

According to ThredUp’s annual Resale Report, published to track trends in the second-hand and resale sectors, the market grew significantly faster than the broader retail clothing sector in 2023.

Projections indicate that South Africa’s apparel market revenue will reach US$5.91 billion (R108.51 billion) by 2024, with approximately 9.1% stemming from second-hand apparel

This is about R9.9 billion in a segment that continues to expand its market share annually.

Forecasts suggest that by 2028, the global second-hand market could reach $350 billion (R6.38 trillion), underscoring its rise in popularity.

“The global second-hand apparel market continues to burgeon — a testament to the intrinsic value shoppers find in the second-hand experience and proof of the seismic shift towards a more circular fashion ecosystem,” said James Reinhart, CEO of ThredUp.

Source: ThredUp’s 2024 Resale Report

Although it is nothing new to South Africa, “it’s been exciting to watch how the space is evolving,” said Jessica Ramoshaba, founder of South African-based Fouura, a style and sustainability consultancy.

This was echoed by Aunapuu, who said that “thrifting has always been part of South African culture, but it used to carry certain negative connotations – often associated with necessity rather than choice [but] together…. we are redefining what it means to buy preloved.”

This redefinition is coming from “finally having a conversation about clothing from a deeper sense – aspects such as where your clothes come from, how long you are wearing [and] who made your clothes, what materials were used, and responsible ways to discard our clothes so they don’t land in landfills,” said Ramoshaba.

Jessica Ramoshaba, founder of South African-based Fouura.

Ramoshaba attributes much of this recent market growth to both social media and the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that many consumers have reassessed their clothing consumption habits, realising they often do not fully utilise their wardrobes.

“Consider this: people wear only 20-30% of their wardrobe regularly [so] the waste – in terms of both items and money – that sits in those closets is pretty huge,” said Aunapuu.

“It’s a no-brainer to give carefully selected, once-loved items a second life,” she added.

Despite Africa having the world’s second-smallest second-hand apparel market (according to the ThredUp report), the segment is growing across the continent for various reasons.

“Eco-conscious consumers are getting more educated and exposed to the effects of fast fashion, and overconsumption,” said Ramoshaba.

The appeal of second-hand fashion lies in its typically lower prices compared to fast fashion, as well as the opportunity to find unique clothing items not typically found in stores.

According to the ThredUp study, affordability plays a crucial role in thrift shopping, with nearly three out of four consumers prioritising price when making apparel purchases, hence their preference for second-hand items.

“For shoppers, preloved items are typically 50-80% cheaper than new ones and often in excellent condition — who wouldn’t want to find great deals while supporting the environment?” said Aunapuu.

Additionally, 69% of consumers who resold apparel in 2023 did it to make extra money.

The economic impact in South Africa

The economic and environmental advantages of the emerging second-hand clothing market are becoming increasingly apparent in the country.

A standout example of this trend is Yaga. Since launching in South Africa in 2020, the site has grown to nearly 1 million users, with over 1.5 million items finding a second life.

“Not only are items being reused – meaning there are fewer purchases of new items – but we’ve also empowered our users to earn money by making sustainable choices,” said Aunapuu.

Since Yaga’s launch, close to R500 million has been spent on the platform, with majority of it going straight into the users’ pocket.

Aunapuu said that the company’s growth is a testament to growing interest for sustainable options. “There truly is an economy in preloved,” said the Yaga CEO.

“Yaga is sustainable by nature, but it’s also fostering a community where the average person can profit from what they no longer use,” she added.

“The fact that our trajectory shows no signs of slowing down is proof that sustainable fashion is no longer a niche – it’s quickly becoming the norm,” she said.

Ramoshaba said that “more people will embrace other forms of shopping as they see their community exploring in different options.”

This is through more awareness and collaboration around sustainability.

The Fouura founder said that it also presents a great opportunity for designers to incorporate sustainable practices, although more work is needed to be done in the industry.

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