Credit: Shanna Camilleri via Unsplash

Pre-owned capitalism: can Depop save the planet?

By Basilia Weir

Basilia Weir has some questions about just how sustainable shopping from Depop really is.

Being more sustainable means buying my clothes second-hand whenever possible. But, when I peruse the racks at my local charity shops, I’m often met with wooly jumpers, raincoats and orthopaedic slippers – all of which have a certain elderly air to them. Enter: Depop. A resale app on my phone, within which I have a saved section brimming with vintage Harley Davidson t-shirts fulfilling my corduroy dreams. The thing is, I’m never able to hit “buy”. I can’t stop asking questions about how ethical the site really is. 

Depop is an online marketplace where anyone can buy and sell second-hand goods. It’s like Gumtree, but for selling your mum’s old bell bottoms. Other apps of its kind exist, but Depop is set apart by the boutique vintage stores that populate the site. And that’s where the ethical quandaries arise.

These sellers typically use charity/thrift stores as wholesalers, harvesting the trendiest items at low prices and proceeding to sell them on at a significant markup. This is standard practice for most brick and mortar vintage stores; find a vintage Burberry bag for a tenner and resell it for the “appropriate” market price. However, that’s not quite how it goes on Depop.

You don’t need to scroll for long on the app before you find a t-shirt you bought from Primark two years ago being sold as “vintage” for £40. The t-shirt cost you a fiver at the time and probably cost the seller three quid at a charity shop. Of course, this isn’t true of all the clothes they sell – some are legitimately vintage. Regardless, they are still gatekeeping sustainability by selling second-hand clothing at high-end price points and, arguably, depleting the stock in charity shops as they go.

Did I mention that the t-shirt was an extra large but the model is a size six and the seller has marked it as “oversized”?

This affects marginalised communities in a myriad of ways. First of all, those reliant on charity shops to provide them with affordable, durable clothing theoretically can’t get it because Mr. Monopoly has snapped it all up to make a profit online. This increases lower-income folks’ reliance on fast-fashion. That’s bad news for both the planet and their wallets, since goods from places like H&M or Primark are typically poorer quality and require replacing, faster.

The plus-size community is faced with similar problems. If they want to be sustainable, Depop sellers price them out of it by taking the plus-size clothing from charity shops and selling them on for two, three times the money on there. Not to mention the lack of plus-size representation on the site, with large clothing being sold to already privileged small bodies. Again, in theory, creating a dependency for this community on fast fashion, especially considering the high price point of sustainable brands like Reformation.

But, you may have noticed my use of the word “theoretically” regarding the depletion of charity shop stock. That’s because according to WRAP UK, £140bn worth of clothes in the UK alone go into landfill each year. And GreenAmerica reports that, overseas, clothes will remain in thrift stores for about 4 weeks, before being sold on in bulk bundles for 99 cents. The destination after that? Unknown, but assumed to be landfill. So, there’s no concrete evidence that Depop is hurting charity shops and, even if it is, the vast amount of waste still happening makes it easy to come to the conclusion that “every little helps”.

Then I see pictures of communities that are burning, drowning or being pillaged to create £70 leggings and I’m reminded that the time for “little” is long gone. With climate change having an increased impact on the same communities that Depop disenfranchises from both fashion and sustainability, I am certain that structural change is needed, and quick.

The fashion industry is predicated on consumerism. Making you feel inadequate so that you will buy more clothes; telling you that the more expensive these clothes are, the better you will feel. And if second-hand clothing is being commodified to meet the same capitalistic standards, to revolve around profit margins, then we cannot expect it to save us. It’s an integral way of cutting down textile waste, but it will not eradicate it altogether. We shouldn’t be forcing marginalized communities to sacrifice confidence and comfort while others get to have a clear conscience and a wardrobe they love.Instead, the fashion industry as it currently exists must be overhauled in favour of one that prioritises sustainability and inclusion over profit. I concede I do not have all the answers on how to bring this about. However, Depop could make a start by promoting sellers on the app who cater to a range of body shapes and sizes whilst having affordable pricing. This won’t save the planet, but it might make the app more accessible for marginalised communities.


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