Depop: The moral paradox of fast fashion and gentrification

Featured image: Becca McHaffie via Unsplash.

When the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020, I passed my time by buying new clothes online. However, I soon realised that I was contributing to an already overflowing wardrobe, and so turned to Depop to get rid of some old clothes and make a bit of money. I wasn’t alone in this; Statista recorded that in the peak of the first lockdown, between March and May, the number of active users on Depop went from under a million to over two million.

Founded in 2011, Depop is a platform designed for people to sell their old, unwanted clothes in an easy and accessible way. Much of its more recent success has come with the ‘second-hand boom’ amidst greater awareness of the detrimental environmental effects of fast fashion. Fast fashion refers to clothing businesses which mass produce cheap clothing according to the current fashion trends. With this mass production and the fast-paced nature of changing fashion trends, brands such as Boohoo and Missguided contribute towards 92 million tonnes of waste a year. In trying to combat this, many have turned to Depop, which now boasts users across 147 countries, 90% of which are under the age of 26.

At face value, Depop epitomises the basics of a capitalist marketplace. During my personal experiences of buying and selling, I realised that I was contributing to an increasingly unethical culture of gentrification. On the platform, we are presented with an ethical paradox; in trying to combat fast fashion, are we creating another issue of gentrification?

Gentrification is the process of making something more ‘refined’, ‘polite’, or ‘respectable’. It is mostly discussed in a geographical context; for example, an area of a town or city that was once considered ‘rough’ or ‘run down’ suddenly becoming the new trendy cultural hub in the space of a few years. Gentrification within towns and cities is problematic because it often aims to drive out those inhabiting the area in order to attract wealthier outsiders. It displaces those who would benefit the most from investment and change in areas being gentrified.

The same process can be seen on Depop. The ‘taboo’ around buying cheap clothes from charity shops has dramatically shifted in recent years. A recent Oxfam survey found that nine in ten adults would happily buy used items, and a further one in eight people claim that they get greater satisfaction in buying second-hand items over brand new. People are more aware than ever of their personal impact on the environment, and changing how we buy our clothes is often seen as one of the easiest ways to make a positive change.

Many successful Depop users, whose main source of income is from selling clothes on the platform, will visit charity shops to find new items to sell. In the shoes of one of these sellers, let’s say that I find an approximately ten-year-old top from a well-known brand, and purchase it for under ten pounds. I decide to label it as ‘vintage’ or ‘y2k’ (the phrase referring to the currently popular millennium style clothing) so it will more likely appear on people’s feeds. I decide to set my lowest offer at 20 pounds and see where it goes from there. After a few days and many avid messages in my inbox with various prices and deals, I sell it to my top buyer for over 40 pounds.

Not only am I making a profit of over 30 pounds, but I am taking an opportunity to buy cheap clothes from that original charity shop away from somebody who might actually need it. More environmentally friendly brands are often far more expensive than fast fashion brands, and so charity shops may be the only affordable option for those who wish to be environmentally conscious on a lower budget. In buying clothes second-hand, they choose not to further fund brands that exploit the environment and their workers, reduce the consumption needs of said brands, and give new life to clothes that may otherwise end up in landfill.

If Depop is full of overpriced items, it becomes less of an affordable second-hand haven and more of a gentrified bidding war. One of the main attractions to second-hand items is its affordability, but by driving up the prices of charity-bought clothes, those on a tighter budget may have their only options directly taken away from them. They are even further displaced from the already highly inaccessible movement of sustainable clothing. This is the exact process of gentrification that we see in towns and cities; and its consequences are even more pervasive.

Even if an item is from a more mainstream brand, sellers have learnt the tricks of the trade to legitimise selling it for a higher price than their original purchase. The so-called ‘Brandy Melville cult’ of Depop epitomises this. Brandy Melville clothing is relatively affordable, but (rightly) comes under fire for only selling ‘one-size-fits-all’ items, aimed towards girls with slimmer builds. Due to the popularity of the brand, items sold on Depop will circulate feeds at a fast pace, grabbing buyers' attention and easily being sold in minutes. Less common items, which sellers refer to as ‘rare’, are sold at absurdly higher prices of not just double, but sometimes triple or quadruple the original price.

One user sold an item originally costing around £40 for £360. This item, a brown oversized jumper, incorporated many elements, or a ‘perfect storm’ of the latest fashion trends, into a highly sought-after item. This staggering difference in price shows how much a seller can make in profits (in this instance, hundreds of pounds) as well as showing how much consumers are willing to spend on items that are clearly not worth the price they are marketed at. This not only takes place with Brandy Melville, but across multiple popular brands such as Levi’s and Nike. Mainstream clothing items are being blatantly gentrified under the competitive culture of Depop. If this is happening without criticism or consequences, then gentrifying charity-bought items, in which the original prices are not as clear, can take place even more easily.

So, we are presented with a moral paradox. When we attempt to combat one problem, we inevitably cause another. It is a vicious and seemingly inescapable cycle that we are trapped in. The site, unfortunately, is increasingly becoming a classist show of wealth, privilege and, sometimes, gentrification. If somebody prefers to buy clothes from charity shops or on Depop because they find normal clothing brands too expensive, they will most likely become more inclined to return to popular fast fashion brands for financial reasons alone.

We have gone from being largely ignorant to extremely aware of the destructive impacts of the fast fashion industry. This must happen with gentrification as well. Many sellers who are gentrifying clothes are simply ignorant of what they are doing. I, for one, cannot sit on a moral pedestal and pretend that I haven’t made more money than I probably should have from Brandy Melville tops or an old pair of Levi’s jeans. Every user's actions contribute towards the problem, but it is particularly endorsed by top sellers on the platform. When we see more influential, verified entrepreneurs on Depop who are clearly gentrifying clothes, it becomes normalised and legitimised. The mindset and tactics will inevitably trickle down to the more ordinary users. Buying from charity shops to resell on Depop is not necessarily immoral, but it does have multifaceted consequences which we all must consider. Some Depop users are taking advantage of lower prices only to double them when selling them on, directly impacting individuals who can only afford second-hand, charity shop prices.

As well as raising awareness of this issue, the employees of Depop should make changes to ensure greater transparency. For example, when inputting an item, sellers should have to include the original price of the item, so those who are exploiting something being labelled as ‘rare’ or ‘high end’ don’t benefit as much. This way, the steps being taken to combat fast fashion on Depop can continue to be promising, rather than problematic.