There’s no escaping the fact that the fast fashion industry is one of the planet’s biggest polluters. Although many brands are looking at becoming more environmentally and ethically responsible, fully sustainable fashion can still be difficult to discover if you don’t know where to look. What's more, these brands' aesthetics often rule out Gen Z, the price points are incredibly high and size inclusivity is frequently lacking. Charity and secondhand shopping would usually be the next best option for those looking to reduce their wardrobe’s environmental impact but recently, something has gone awry.
Set foot in your local charity shop and you’ll notice, firstly, that the prices have gone up and, secondly, that there doesn’t seem to be much on offer. Bound by national pricing policies, your local Salvos was once a place you’d have been able to get a full outfit for under a tenner but now you might not be so lucky. Beyond rising price points, anything slightly desirable or reputably branded is now swept up by resellers looking to restock their Depop shops while marking up the price from $60 to $60. With those on lower incomes relying on secondhand clothing options, these markups have essentially gentrified affordable shopping.
When Harri, 26, was saving up to move house earlier this year, she decided to list some old bits from her wardrobe on Depop to help fund the move. She didn’t expect how much the Depop economy would drive up the prices. Selling at less than RRP, she was immediately bombarded with requests. "So many girls messaged me asking, 'Do you have any more Brandy?'" she tells me. "And they were fast—they messaged me within three minutes." All Harri’s listed items were Brandy Melville, a Y2K-inspired fast fashion brand not dissimilar to American Apparel, where anything no longer on the website is classed as 'rare'—which sellers often know before pricing up. "Most used Brandy pieces cause a bidding war and at least a quarter to a third more than retail price," Harri says of eBay listings. Over on Depop, a quick search for a Brandy Melville skirt will find 'rares' going for $100, even though the RRP is around $40 on the brand's website.
It’s not just Brandy Melville; brands from high street to luxury, vintage to new season are proving to be valuable assets for Depop sellers. From Lazy Oaf to Miss Sixty via ‘90s Topshop pieces and beyond, there’s nothing that can’t be spun into gold on the app. This story isn’t new, though: this wild secondhand economy has been true for sportswear brands like Champion, Nike and adidas for a while now. Originally picking up traction when the ‘90s street aesthetic came back around, both new and vintage pieces have the potential to reach well over their original price tag. One TikTok user found that some $30 Juicy Couture tracksuit bottoms she purchased from TK Maxx were being resold on the app for a whopping $220, while the multiple 'vintage' Von Dutch tank tops sweeping the app at higher than the original price can all be traced back to a single source. But sometimes it isn’t even about the label. Unbranded pieces can fetch a hefty price if they fit into any of the trending looks or decades. 'Y2K' or 'cottagecore' tagged items can often be flipped from $50 to just under $200 depending on the quality and style.
"I started shopping from charity shops at a very young age, before I knew about the impact of fast fashion at all," says Ruth MacGilp, curator of The Ethical Fashion Roundup newsletter. She explains that her love of charity shops began as a way to keep her wardrobe cost-effective. "Mostly because it was cheap and I was broke, and also because it allowed me to experiment with my style and identity in a more instinctive way as a teenager without the pressure of trends." Still buying the vast majority of her outfits from charity shops, Ruth says it is infuriating to see secondhand shopping go in this dubious direction. "Any ‘90s and ‘00s labels get snapped up quickly and the quality overall has definitely been slipping while prices have been driven up, meaning people who shop there due to necessity, or for a more sustainable alternative to the high street, are priced out by savvy resellers. I’ve also noticed a lot of Depop sellers calling things 'Y2K' or 'vintage' when in reality it's just recent fast fashion." Before we were getting ripped off by brands, now we’re ripping off each other: this TikTok of a girl finding a mini bag she bought for $4 listed as deadstock with a price tag of $30 confirms it.
"Essentially, thrifting is being co-opted and packaged as the 'most sustainable option' by those who misunderstand the nuance of it," Ruth summarises. The most worrying thing is that after over a decade of austerity, working class people and families are increasingly relying on charities and clothing banks to clothe themselves, with even middle-income earners struggling, according to this investigation by the Financial Times. This problem is clearly more than just an inconvenience for shoppers; it’s potentially damaging for those who need it the most.
Another secondhand shopper since her teens, south London-based writer and editor Ione, 26, has also been finding it significantly harder to come by genuine vintage ‘70s and ‘90s dresses that she loves. "There is less ‘true vintage’ stuff in charity shops or if they are there, they’re priced to reflect the resale market or vintage market more so than charity shop prices." There’s also a darker issue at play: some DIY sellers are 'making' these 'upcycled' tops which are badly held together with safety pins while smaller size women seem to be taking mid and plus sizes from the rails and labelling them 'oversized' while turning larger items into co-ords. "It’s harder to get larger size items and infuriating to see skinny sellers peddle these items on Depop as being ‘oversized’ or even worse, altering them to fit smaller sizes," says Ione. "It’s already near impossible to find good vintage for fat people so to see this new trend of altering, or chopping up into co-ords, is really annoying."
There is, of course, a huge difference between abusing the Depop guidelines and attempting to give your old clothes new life while making a quick 20 quid before your rent is due. Despite the high number of resellers guilty of skewing Depop’s economy, it’s unfair to dismiss the varied backgrounds of users on the site. Hannah Valentine, 19, from Missouri, is known by her brand Ghostsoda on Instagram and Depop. She explains in an infographic that there’s an enormous amount of clothing waste still being unused and reselling used goods provides an income for the otherwise unemployable, who might be disabled, chronically ill or with a criminal record. "If anything, Depop is making it more accessible to people and making it as easy to shop as fast fashion! We aren’t taking clothing opportunities away from people who need it because thrift stores are constantly being restocked and constantly getting donations," she tells me.
Finding employment as a teenager was monumentally difficult even before COVID-19; now, thousands of applicants fight it out for a single entry-level role. For those who suffer from physical and mental disabilities, it's even harder. Sixteen-year-old Demmi from Walsall, UK, who suffers from a combination of hip dysplasia and patellar disorder, finds that regular employment can be strenuous and has to take time off for surgeries. "I did get accepted for a job as a ‘waitress’ last week but I was just made to wash up for five hours, which hurt me but was almost bearable because I kept on top of my tablets," she tells me. Having discovered Depop through a YouTube ad earlier this year, she finds that the app allows her to make some money around her own schedule and capabilities. "I started off with vintage sportswear before going into charity shops and sourcing more, but because I’m getting worse I’m not actually able to spend enough time in there to find anything good. Now I just sell my old clothes that no longer fit."
Rather than laying the blame for gentrification solely with secondhand sellers, we should be scrutinising the fashion industry’s waste problem, too. A recent survey from WRAP which investigated the UK’s lockdown clothes clear-outs showed that two-thirds of people donate their wardrobe castoffs to charity. Yet this leaves charity shops with an overabundance of clothing. "The growing consumption of fast fashion means that our team sorts many more clothes for much less stock," a representative of the high street charity shop Traid tells me. "This is because so much fast fashion is poor quality and has been made to be worn only a few times, and means that great vintage and designer clothes are scarcer than they used to be. In Australia, we each consume an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing per year and dispose of 23 kilograms of clothing to landfill each year. The problem doesn’t lie with individuals who are buying small amounts of clothing to resell, the problem is the fashion industry." While aspects of Depop’s skewed economy could definitely be attributed to this waste, there’s certainly an irony in the intention to provide relief from fast fashion by offering pre-worn fast fashion.
When I reached out to Depop, a representative said: "It’s important to know that any kind of mis-selling on Depop is wrong and against our rules. We encourage all of our sellers to list their items honestly and accurately. We reserve the right to remove any items or accounts that seek to take advantage of the Depop community." This is positive news but where money is involved, people will always find a new loophole to exploit. Whether you’re a secondhand buyer or charity shop reseller, it’s important to check your privilege and take into consideration how one woman’s marked up junk could be another woman’s lifeline.