EDITORIAL: Why everyone should be a tree-hugger

Trees are one of the oldest living organisms in nature, and they have many great lessons to teach us, one being to slow down and breathe every once in a while.

Feel the groove of their bark on your fingertips. Touch your cheek against its rough skin and inhale the scent of nature. Breathe in the fresh oxygen just released from its leaves. Exhale the toxic feelings that live in your heart. Slow your mind. Lose yourself in the motion. Just exist quietly for a while.

I have always had a fascination with trees, feeling drawn to them in a way I could never explain. Whenever I could, I would scale their trunks and sit amongst the branches. It was always so peaceful in the treetops, and I felt like I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Wits Vuvuzela’s Victoria hugging a tree and showing everyone how it is done on Wits campus. Photo: Thato Gololo
Wits Vuvuzela student journalist, Victoria Hill hugging a tree and showing everyone how it is done on Wits campus. Photo: Thato Gololo

I started hugging trees at a very young age, not knowing quite what I was doing or why, but I knew I had found the one place I could always go whenever I needed life to fade away.

Humans are a quintessential part of nature and are a species who have proven themselves very different from the rest, with verbal language, complex psychological functions, and interdependent social communities.

Yet, when we think about ourselves in comparison to our oldest companions, trees remind us we are part of something much bigger. Humans are not at the centre of life — the world can exist without us.

But trees, animals, insects, and nature are what make the world go round. Willow, acacia, pine, oak, baobab, and many other types of trees influence humans, whether mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Whenever I visit a new place, I look for the tree that speaks the most to me, that evokes the most emotional response, and give it a mighty big hug. I have hugged trees with skinny trunks where I can clasp my hands together, but also wide trees that I can lean against without a care in the world. Then there were trees that were scraggy, and others that were so beautiful they stole the show.

Everyone should be a tree-hugger in this era, because in a world of deforestation and global warming, increased anxiety and depression, feelings of isolation and marginalisation, and spiritual disparity — hugging a tree is a homeopathic solution to human plight.

The beautiful, green landscape at Wits University, with many trees waiting to be hugged. Photo: Victoria Hill
The beautiful, green landscape at Wits University, with many trees waiting to be hugged. Photo: Victoria Hill

Here’s how and why:

    According to research, hugging a tree can reduce stress and anxiety levels through the lowering of cortisol levels, allowing one to feel centred and grounded. Rashmi Schramm, a medical physician and meditation coach, says trees emit negative ions which science says has an impact on humans’ perception and experience of stress.

    Dr Stone Kraushaar, a clinical psychologist also known as ‘The Hug Doctor,’ says oxytocin, our happy hormone responsible for emotional bonding and trust, is released after 21 seconds of physical contact. During or after hugging a tree, people say they feel calmer, happier, and more optimistic.

    Dr David Scholey, a lead researcher on determining the physical benefits of hugging a tree, says it has been proven to reduce one’s heart rate and blood pressure and boost one’s immune system. Dr Hugh Asher, a certified forest bathing guide and forest therapy practitioner, says humans absorb organic chemicals called phytoncides emitted by trees which protect them from diseases.

    Trees are important for carbon dioxide removal and oxygen deposition in the atmosphere. They are also vital for ecosystems to survive. In the age of climate change, they are more important than ever, with increased human dependency on these organisms. By hugging a tree, one is acknowledging their role in life and the interconnected nature of our planet.

    Peter Wohlleben, an avid forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees, says “a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it”. Human society is very much the same, yet has seemingly forgotten these underlying morals in the face of current challenges.

    Trees are living beings that have existed through many histories and live to tell those stories. Through hugging them, one can feel connected to the space they inhabit whilst reconnecting with their soul. Feelings of inner peace, outward optimism, and all-round serenity are just some results, and if these mighty trees can grow from little seeds, so too can you.

    FEATURED IMAGE: Victoria Hill, 2024 Wits Vuvuzela Journalist. Photo: File/Leon Sadiki


    A roaring 120 years at Joburg Zoo

    Approximately 20 000 men, women, and children flocked to the Johannesburg Zoo for birthday celebrations.

    It was a sheer coincidence that Joburg Zoo’s birthday celebration fell on Human Right’s Day, March 21, giving them the chance to create awareness around everyone’s “right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations” (Section 24b of the South African Constitution).

    Executive Director, Louise Gordon, stated their priority has and always will be conservation and education. The zoo is involved in rehabilitation and exchange programmes on and off site to broaden their reach and ability in the environmental sphere.

    She said “if people don’t know, they won’t conserve,”: therefore, the zoo has slashed their entrance fee from R120 per adult to just R20 during their birthday month to encourage affordable access.

    Elephants enjoying all the attention at Joburg Zoo.
    Photo: Victoria Hill
    A lazy tiger enjoying the view at Johannesburg Zoo.
    Photo: Victoria Hill

    The concrete jungle, namely Johannesburg, has long said goodbye to preconceived ideas about animal treatment in zoos. Instead, they have evolved and revolutionised themselves into being one of a few zoos in an urban setting that homes the Big Five. As part of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Johannesburg Zoo has a high standard to uphold, putting animal welfare first.

    Whilst strolling around the enclosures, the many animals seemed to be having the time of their lives, with many sleeping under the sunny skies. Local artists were blaring tunes on the main stage, but Jenny Moodley, spokesperson for Joburg Zoo, assured the animals were protected from any harmful decibels by a buffering system actively established.

    Johannesburg Zoo plays an integral role in the Wits community, because of the educational opportunities it affords to environmental and medical students. Moodley said the ongoing exchange programme between the university and zoo, allows the youth of South Africa to learn from all angles.

    “For example, if we are doing an autopsy on one of our big species […] we invite the students to observe,” said Moodley. The zoo, therefore, offers Wits students a privileged opportunity to learn amongst South Africa’s natural heritage.

    Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, Nathi Mvula, a senior environmental education specialist, shared his views on why he believes Johannesburg Zoo reaching their latest milestone is important:

    An interview with Joburg Zoo’s senior educational environmental specialist, Nathi Mvula. Video creds: Victoria Hill

    To have opened in 1904, and to still be open today, Joburg Zoo has proved itself a national icon and beacon for wildlife conservation.

    Online shopping keeps students en vogue and in the money

    University students, who are expected to have low disposable incomes, are also self-proclaimed big spenders in the world of fashion. However, their love of trending fashion has also encouraged them to be entrepreneurs by contributing to thrifting culture.

    A group of fashion loving third-year students wearing thrifted items clothing for a friendly lunch at Mall of Africa. They held their masks in their hands as to keep covid-19 from ruining their style. Photo: Thobekile Moyo.

    On March 23, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown which was intended to last 21 days but was extended into an indefinite phased lockdown. The national lockdown called for a temporary closure of the economy, as the South African public was under strict orders to remain homebound, only exiting to purchase essential items.  

    Clothing sales during level 5 lockdown were rare due to the closure of retail stores –; until the government made provisions for South Africans to buy winter attireIn order to lower the risk of the spread of covid-19, a switch to online shopping was recommended and, the retail fashion industry rose to the occasion.  

    According to a survey conducted by UNCTAD52% of participants agreed they have found themselves shopping online more often than they did before the covid-19 pandemic. The participants were canvassed from nine countries, including South Africa. Among the participants currently in university, 58% admitted shopping online more frequently, compared to before the outbreak of covid-19. Since the outbreak, online fashion sales increased by 2%. 

    DrMarike Venter de Villiers is a senior lecturer and head of the marketing department at Wits University, specialising in fashion marketingVenter de Villiers said that despite an increase in online sales, she has observed a decline in the sales of fashion items in South Africa, due to three main factors.  

    “Firstly, because retail stores were closed for several months during lockdown. Secondly, because students have been cash-strapped with less disposable income. And thirdly, with the ban on social gathering, students were not going out and socialising so they did not have a need to buy and wear the latest fashion items,” said Venter de Villiers. 

    Despite the retail fashion industry experiencing a decline in sales, according to Statista (a business data platform), revenue in the fashion industry in South Africa is projected to reach US$1258 million in 2020 with an annual growth rate of 12% between 2020 and 2024, which would result in a market volume of UD$2035 million  by 2024. If retail fashion has been struggling, then wherwill the supposed market growth come from?   

    Alongside online shops, the emergence of studentrun thrift businesses selling pre-owned clothing to fashion-forward consumers may end up being one of the main causes of the projected growth. The new wave of environmentally conscious Millennials and Gen Z has also contributed heavily towards the growing popularity of pre-owned clothing, thus creating a large market for ambitious university students.  

    A boom in online thrifting

    “Before lockdown came into play, there has been a sharp increase in secondhand clothing sales, clothes swapping, fashion bartering and customising old clothes. This is largely due to the rising awareness of the sustainable movement and policy makers encouraging brands to comply to the circular fashion economy,” said Venter de Villiers.  

    Online thrift seems to be experiencing a boom during the national lockdown, and university students are a significant factor in that achievement.  

    “During lockdown, with specific reference to customising old clothes, there has been a rise among Millennial consumers, mainly due to the following reasons: They did not have access to retail stores to buy fast fashion items; they were cash strapped and could not afford to buy new clothes on a regular basis. And students had more free time at home (with universities being closed, and not doing their usual part-time jobs),” said Venter de Villiers. 

    Robyn Evans (22) and Juliet Markantonatos (22) are two finalyear BA theatre and performance students who started a thrift store on Instagram during lockdown called What What Thriftselling secondhand clothes. These, they have acquired by rounding up the old clothes no longer worn in their households and carefully selecting pieces from the clothing bins at the secondhand market in the Johannesburg CBD.

    Their target market are fashion connoisseurs who appreciate the charm of a faded t-shirt and the nostalgia of a pair of brown bellbottoms once worn by a disco queen in the 70s. Thrift culture has revealed the timelessness of goodquality fashion, catering to people with different and unique styles, ultimately keeping the trendsetter alive.  

    As they sat side by side during our interview, Evans and Markantonatos proved themselves to be quite well in sync with each other, as they seamlessly alternated in answering each of the questions during the interview. Much like two parts of a whole, they were able to finish each other’s sentences and complement each other’s statements, which is a good quality to have as co-partners in a business. 

    “We started this business based on what we saw as a public demand among students like us, which is affordable fashion. Thrifting is an affordable business to get into because of the low startup costs. Juliet and contributed R200 each in the beginning, which we managed to double through our first round of sales to make R400 profit,” Evans said.  

    This combination of a brunette with an 80s pinup look, and an edgy blonde is a perfect formula to create a carefully curated Instagram store, in hopes of making enough money to support a finalyear university student’s aspirations for their first year of complete independence.  

     “Our main inspiration for starting this business came from wanting financial independence as finalyear students with concerns for our future. We felt as though we needed to start making an incomebecause the pandemic has proved itself destructive to the economyWe are hoping that the money we make here could fund the projects that start our careers,” Markantonatos said.  

    Social media’s contribution to keeping the fashion industry alive

    Anthovene Burricks (23) is a computer science student, fashion designer and Lisof Fashion School graduate, who not only studied the trends in the fashion industry but also admits to being one of the people who puts a lot of her money into buying fashion items, ever since Instagram awakened her consumerist spirit within.  

    “As students we are always looking for ways to get new clothes in order to change our aesthetic, and our biggest barrier is always a financial one. Instagram is one of the reasons why I started spending so much money on clothing in the first place. Instagram has also made the re-wearing of clothing seem abnormal. I think it’s why young people are always seeking to buy new clothing,” said Burricks. 

    Married couple Twiggy Matiwana and Sindiswa Magidla-Matiwana wearing unique and earthy thrifted dresses for an event. Photo: Thobekile Moyo.

    An article by Metro UK titled ‘One in six young people won’t wear an outfit again if it’s been on social mediaunderlined the claim by Burricks. 

    According to a survey orchestrated by Hubbub, 41% out of 1 000 people between the ages of 18-25 feel there is pressure to wear a different outfit each time they go out. In this same survey, 79% of the people between the ages 18-25 admitted to having been influenced by social media platforms when it comes to their taste in fashion. Instagram came in first, with 55% of participants using it as their primary source of inspiration, while Facebook came in at a close second.  

    Furthermore, 30% of the participants surveyed admitted having watched clothing hauls on YouTube, where influencers unpack and try on all the clothing, they have purchased on shopping spree. So, could we say that social media is now the main source of temptation when it comes to shopping? 

    “Across all generational cohorts, as well as market segments, the industry experienced financial losses. However, online sales have increased, especially among Millennial consumers, as they are the most tech-savvy generation and spend hours a day on their smartphones,” said Venter de Villiers. 

    The cost of an online thrifting business 

    Shipping costs with courier companies have proved to be a turnoff for both the buyer and the seller. According to Shopify’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Ecommerce Shipping and Fulfillment’, shipping may generally make up around 37% of the cost of each unit sold. However, when dealing with thrift fashion, shipping could constitute up to 90% of the total cost.  

    “Some couriers will charge over R100 as the starting price for shipping, which can increase depending on the travel distance and sizeSo, in the beginning we would select a meeting point and specificy for all our customers to pick up their packages. This would work quite well for us, since the majority of our customers were from Johannesburg North and are Wits students, much like us, who understand the financial inconvenience of using courier companies,” Markantonatos said.  

    While the fashionmongers satisfy their need to shop by scrolling through online shopsthey may stumble upon a website called Yaga, which turns out to be thrifter’s heaven 

    Yaga is an online marketplace where people can sell their used clothing, and thrifters can purchase oneofakind fashion items that are ready to part with their owners. It also makes the seller’s job easier because of its readily available, accessible and affordable shipping options.  

    Anette Apri, the head of Yaga’s marketing team, said, “Yaga’s mission was to make online selling and shopping as seamless and as safe as possible and provide everyone an easy way to keep their items in circulation, while also earning some extra money by doing so.  

    The shipping options on Yaga include PAXI and AramexPAXI, being the cheapest shipping option, makes use of Pep’s stores as drop-off and pick-up points for the user, and costs only R59 for the sender. Alternatively, Aramex is a courier that delivers directly to the receiver’s door, and costs R100.  

    Yaga intended to alleviate the shipping dilemmas that small online business owners experience on Instagram and Facebook. We found that businessminded people would often get held back by the daunting idea of having to negotiate with couriers, and the excessive shipping costs, so Yaga has put forward the best two shipping options for users to choose from,” said Apri. 

    While browsing through Yaga, one will find several stores owned by university students who are marketing to their own age groups. 

    “We have captured the audience we were aiming for, which in the majority is between 20-35 years old. However, I have found that during the lockdown period, people between the ages of 19-26 have been particularly active in both buying and selling on our platform, which greatly contributed to the boost in activity on our site,” Apri said. 

    Even though lockdown has seen a sharp increase in the sales of pre-owned clothing, it has also been held back by the valid fears that society has about covid-19.  

    “When covid-19 hit the world, consumers became paranoid about hygiene matters around the idea of secondhand clothes. There is still a risk associated with this practice as the virus stays on fabric for several hours, and consumers are paranoid that they might contract the virus,” said Venter de Villiers. 

    The future of fashion

    Despite the hindrance that covid-19 has placed on the pre-owned clothing market, Venter de Villiers believes in its ability to eventually overtake the retail fashion industry.  

    However, when viewing this from a sustainability point of view, it is an imperative stepping stone towards creating a more sustainable fashion industry. Should we see the secondhand clothing market grow, it will most likely have a negative effect on fastfashion retailers,” said Venter de Villiers. 

    By contributing to the popularity of pre-owned clothing, university students are also promoting more sustainable fashion, which seeks to counterbalance the 10% of carbon emissions produced by the fashion industry annually (according to UNEP). The question of whether retail fashion will become obsolete because of the rise in popularity of thrift fashion might not be necessary, after considering the struggles retail had already been facing before the covid-19 outbreak.  

    According to News 24, retail fashion stores such as J Crew, Neiman Marcus and Forever 21 are facing bankruptcy, which has encouraged other stores such as H&M to switch to online sales exclusively, much like Zara.  

    Instead of interpreting the struggle of the retail fashion industry negatively, it could also be the consumers discarding their old habits, in order to repurpose their finances and realise their priorities.  

    Even though retail clothing sales have been struggling, since lockdown restrictions started lifting and consumers started to go back to normal life, there has been a shift in the demand for different clothing categories. For instance, activewear sales reflected a steeper increase in comparison to fastfashion items. Likewise, there has been an increased demand for durable, quality clothing as opposed to fast fashion,” said Venter de Villiers.  


    A group of fashion loving third-year students wearing thrifted items clothing for a friendly lunch at Mall of Africa. They held their masks in their hands as to keep covid-19 from ruining their style. Photo: Thobekile Moyo. 


    SCIENCE INSIDE: Nuclear corruption

    This week’s show looks at The Nuclear Corruption Scandal. The team chats to Dr Tristen Taylor from Earthlife Africa to find out if we should invest in nuclear energy, as well as nuclear physicist, Dr Jacques Bezuidenhout on what happens when you blast a sea creature with a nuclear reactor. They wrap up with insights from Dr Petro Terblanche, of Pelchem, on how South Africa has the Number one deposit for the chemical crucial to making nuclear fuel.

    The Science Inside, the show that goes inside the science of major news events, is produced by Paul McNally, Anina Mumm, DJ Keyez and Lutfiyah Suliman for The Wits Radio Academy. Tune in live to VowFM every Monday at 6pm.

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