July 12, 2024


Youth trendy style

Depop and thrift shopping are popular on TikTok. But is buying too much unethical?

Depop and thrift shopping are popular on TikTok. But is buying too much unethical?

Depop and thrift shopping are popular on TikTok. But is buying too much unethical?

Alli Vera has sold more than 2,600 articles of clothing on Depop since 2016. Her shop, Color Club, specializes in vintage styles from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and most of the garments are sourced from local thrift stores in Virginia, where she lives. In March, Vera decided to permanently close Color Club and leave behind her 83,000 Depop followers.

In a 28-minute video, Vera explained that she wanted to focus on growing her YouTube channel, since reselling had become “crazy time-consuming.” But nearly half the video addressed an ongoing debate in the secondhand fashion world, one of the pillars of the sustainable fashion movement. The concern is over how upper- and middle-class “haulers” — people who purchase massive amounts of secondhand clothing for resale purposes or personal wear — are contributing to the gentrification of thrift stores.

The popularity and proliferation of thrift haul videos on YouTube and TikTok have introduced thrift shopping to a generation of teenagers, even those who can afford to buy new items. In a digital world where style is constantly on display, thrifted garments are unique, and fast fashion has significantly lowered expectations around price. Regular people can build a substantial social media following based on their proclivity for thrifting. These vloggers, most of whom are young women, film themselves perusing through racks at Goodwill or showcasing and styling the garments they’ve found. Platforms like Depop, Poshmark, and Mercari have also made secondhand buying and reselling more accessible, especially with the pandemic’s impact on in-person shopping.

The secondhand apparel market was worth about $28 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $64 billion in 2024, according to the 2020 Resale Report by ThredUp and GlobalData. Within this market, traditional thrift and donation stores (not-for-profit organizations such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, for example) currently account for the bulk of secondhand sales, but the ThredUp report anticipates that resale (through independently owned consignment stores and Depop shops) will grow significantly. Secondhand buying is growing — and likely contributing to the decline of fast fashion. That should be a good thing, especially for environmental reasons. So why has buying and selling used clothes become, to use internet parlance, so problematic?

The criticism surrounding the so-called gentrification of thrift stores has zeroed in on excessive shoppers: Depop resellers, like Vera, who mark up items found at their local Goodwill to turn a profit; thrift shop YouTubers who frequently buy more than they could reasonably wear; and thrift “flippers’’ who buy oversized garments to transform into smaller, fitted items. The general argument is that resellers and bulk buyers are inadvertently raising the prices of thrifted goods by purchasing items they don’t personally need. As a result, low-income shoppers might be priced out of thrift stores in their area, and plus-sized consumers, who already struggle to find clothing in the firsthand market, could be left with fewer options.

At the heart of this online discourse, which is being driven primarily by young women shoppers, is a broad critique of overconsumption and resellers’ profit motivations. The argument has pervaded the fashion worlds on YouTube and TikTok over the past year, coinciding with the pandemic and its toll on the retail industry. In a world that produces too many clothes, who gets to sell and who gets to buy, even when the items are all secondhand?

There is perhaps no better embodiment of free market capitalism than resale marketplaces. Prices are dictated by sellers, which means items’ value can range from the reasonable to the outlandish. On Depop, where 90 percent of active users are under 26, shop owners are often young adults or teenagers selling their thrifted garments to buyers in their age cohort. These young consumers might have minimal knowledge to help discern true vintage items from the mounds of thrifted clothes on Depop, and as a result could be paying well-above-average prices for items that aren’t really that special. For resellers, though, so long as there is at least one buyer willing to pay the listed amount, the price must not be that outrageous. In a competitive market, so the thinking goes, it’s simply supply and demand.

Currently, the hottest genre of clothing on Depop, as Vox’s Rebecca Jennings has reported, is Y2K and ’90s styles: satin bustiers, low-rise jeans, baguette bags, halter tops, and cropped tees. Unsurprisingly, resellers have thrown screen-printed baby tees and children’s clothing into the mix — pieces that are often advertised for double or triple their thrifted price and which tend to generate the most social media outrage for absurd markups. It doesn’t help that most garments on Depop are tagged as “vintage” to drive search traffic to sellers’ stores, even if the term technically only applies to items that are at least 20 years old.

Ridiculous Depop listings are screenshotted and reposted on TikTok or Twitter for users to mock, with commentary verging on the cusp of disbelief and derision. In December, after screenshots of TikTok user @dullgerm’s thrift haul went viral on Twitter, people pointed out how she was upselling thrifted garments on Depop for more than double their original prices. “$40 for a skirt you bought for what $7 max?” one TikTok user commented. It was “market value,” the seller responded, pointing out that the skirt sold for the listed price.

As more of these callout posts go viral, some resellers, particularly those who publicly document their haul process on TikTok, have been branded as scammers, grifters, and gentrifiers. On the Depop subreddit, shop owners have advised others to stop promoting themselves on TikTok or to remain mum about where they source from, in case their profit margins get scrutinized.

“I can’t speak to the motivations of every seller, but before I list a price, I factor in the 10 percent fee Depop takes, shipping costs, and the time [it] takes to clean, style, and package the garment,” said Sora, a teenage Depop seller who asked that their last name be withheld out of concern for their business. “I care about quality, and I’m not the type of person who upsells every trendy item I come across at the thrift store just to make a quick buck.”

Sellers like Sora worry the overwhelming focus on the ethics of selling and buying secondhand detracts from other issues in the fashion world, specifically fast fashion and the growth of dropshipping. Dropshippers on Etsy and Depop don’t manufacture garments or items directly. Instead, they place bulk orders from factories (sometimes overseas) and ship the product to buyers themselves, usually under the guise that the items are unique or handmade. When major clothing brands barely understand their supply chain, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to determine whether small sellers’ wares are from reputable sources. Thrifting, at least, avoids this concern.

“My shop is a one-person operation, and I love thrifting, photographing the clothes, and selling them as a hobby,” Sora said. “I wish there were more constructive conversations about buying from Amazon or fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Shein, so it’s frustrating to see all this anger directed at resellers, who are mostly young women trying to start a business.”

The concern over the gentrification of thrift stores is not a new phenomenon, although the internet’s cycle of discourse has certainly accelerated it. Jennifer Le Zotte, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said the history of thrift and secondhand shopping is rooted in stylistic and economic appropriation by well-off consumers dating to the 19th century.

“It has been a process of appropriating not just the styles associated with secondhand dress but the actual venues: the sales of items, the economic process, and availability,” Le Zotte told me. “Secondhand buying and selling has never wholly been for the altruistic reasons that are often championed, whether it be environmental or to aid people who can’t afford to buy firsthand clothing. This isn’t a new conversation at all.”

In her book From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies, Le Zotte writes that thrift stores, the organizations that run them, and consumer interest all reveal “an increasingly intricate relationship between industrial capitalism, social welfare, and mass culture” that was “responsive to changes in the meaning of public appearance.” Early in their history, thrift stores gave more people access to newer fashions, benefiting immigrants, minorities, and low-income shoppers who existed on the margins of the consumer world.

But as clothing production sped up in the 20th century, thrift stores became places where Americans discarded used clothing for newer items. “What this accomplished, even back a century ago, was to constantly accelerate the demand for new clothing,” Le Zotte told me. “The impetus to get rid of clothing is often charitable, but the more clothing that is contributed and viable, the more fashion cycles speed up.”

This is currently reflected in the availability and pricing of new clothing. Fast-fashion and “ultra-fast-fashion” brands like Shein and Fashion Nova release hundreds of new styles every week. Americans are buying more clothes than ever; even avid thrifters have felt the need to accumulate new styles and garments to keep up appearances on social media. Still, the discourse combined with the pandemic has led some resellers to reevaluate their purchasing pace and their definition of “sustainable” consumption.

Thrift-oriented YouTuber Alexa Hollander — aka Alexa Sunshine — grew her channel by consistently uploading “Thrift With Me” hauls but told subscribers in January that haul content would no longer be a main part of her YouTube channel. “My favorite part about thrifting is showing all the gems you can find and not having the pressure to buy it,” she said in a video, explaining why she felt stressed about the sustainable fashion movement. Hollander’s decluttering videos have received comments criticizing her overconsumption habits, and over the past year, she was moved to reassess how frequently she bought or thrifted clothes.

According to Le Zotte, this wide-scale reflection on individualized consumption habits is generally positive. Social media platforms, through ads and the streamlining of the purchasing process, have only eased people into buying more. Still, Le Zotte said she is skeptical that excessive shoppers are to blame for rising thrift store prices, or for buying up items intended for low-income people. Thrift haulers are not outpacing the production of new clothes. During Covid-19, thrift and charity shops across the US received more donations than they could handle. Tons of pre-owned garments still go to landfills or get sold by the ton for very cheap amounts overseas. These misconceptions, Le Zotte said, are wrapped up in the prevailing myth that donating clothes offers a net positive for society, an idea that has existed for decades.

“The idea is that you’re giving it to someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to buy, and that has expanded to such a degree that there’s so much secondhand clothing waste, [the] equation doesn’t work out anymore,” said Le Zotte. And thrift stores have historically distinguished high-quality goods from regular garments by charging more, upcycling, or selling it in higher-priced shops. “This blame shouldn’t be directed specifically at the haulers or buyers,” she added. “Maybe we should look at the corporate facilities, even as they’re classed as nonprofit organizations. That is a dubious delineation when it comes to major secondhand clothing corporations.”

A common refrain online is that wealthy white teenagers have ruined things: Depop, the Y2K trend, even the premise of thrifting itself. It’s a tale as old as time, but the internet has a tendency to make things seem new. When a trend enters the mainstream, it’s inevitable that retailers and people (namely, influencers) will try to profit off of it. The markup on Y2K-styled clothing is just the latest example of how easily retro aesthetics are co-opted once enough consumers think it looks cool.

Mainstream retailers such as Urban Outfitters initially drove this aesthetic reappropriation. Through its Urban Renewal program, UO notoriously sells pre-owned clothing in its shops, labeling it vintage to appeal to customers (sound familiar?) interested in dressing “trendy” without putting in the effort to source such clothing secondhand. In some ways, the program was a corporate precursor to how independent Depop sellers operate. But as illustrated by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s hit 2012 single “Thrift Shop,” going to a thrift store soon became a teenage rite of passage and a normalized part of American consumer culture.

Some teenagers and young adults, though, are dropping hundreds of dollars at thrift stores — not just 20 bucks. TikTok’s format, which helps cement the narrative of each user as the main character in their own lives, makes it easy for a certain type of thrifter to be villainized. Over the past year, some of this finger-pointing has been lobbed at individual resellers who feel they’ve received the brunt of backlash that should be directed toward fast-fashion corporations, thrift stores that are purposefully raising prices, and Depop, for its largely unregulated structure.

There’s a lot of rage directed at individuals rather than institutions, one seller remarked on a Depop subreddit. Members of Gen Z know shopping is a political act, and they’re well aware of the nuances of race and class that separate “privileged” individuals from the underprivileged. Still, the psychic burden laid upon shoppers and sellers to operate ethically under a flawed system can be overwhelming. It’s easier to point fingers at visible, seemingly well-off people — who have the means to go to thrift stores and buy up heaps of clothes without batting an eye — and ignore the mechanism that makes this a desirable act.

While thrift shopping, on its surface, might seem like an anti-capitalist alternative to capitalism, the secondhand market is closely linked to the firsthand retail market. “There’s a lot of rhetoric that makes it seem like thrift shopping exists ethically outside the negative ramifications of capitalism,” Le Zotte said. Sadly, thrift shopping exists in the same messy reality as everything else.