AliExpress, part of tech company Alibaba Group, is a Chinese e-commerce site which sells cheap, mass-produced goods. You can get nearly anything on the site, from kitchen tongs shaped like cat paws to plush avocado keyrings, but the platform is arguably best known for its touting of fast fashion. With prices even lower than those on sites like PrettyLittleThing and Boohoo (this generic-looking ruched dress is a staggeringly cheap $3.93), it’s easy to see why so many people are drawn to AliExpress. And because of its eye-wateringly low prices, AliExpress is not only a popular destination for trend-hungry buyers; it’s also a go-to for Depop sellers looking to make a quick buck through dropshipping.
Dropshipping is a simple concept. The dropshipper will sniff out a trend, find a corresponding product from a site like AliExpress (Shein, Wish and ROMWE are other popular options), then create a listing for the item they’re selling – usually for a drastically marked up price. For example: on AliExpress, those cow print boots are listed at $29.95 yet on the listing I saw, they were $72
Dropshipping is a simple concept. The dropshipper will sniff out a trend, find a corresponding product from a site like AliExpress, then create a listing for the item they're selling – usually for a drastically marked up price.
When dropshippers get a buyer, they simply send the product directly to them from the wholesale site. They never even see or handle the items that they’re flogging; as Sirin Kale put it for Wired, a dropshipper is simply "the middleman in a globalized supply chain". Although the practice is banned on Depop for ethical reasons, that doesn’t mean the app is totally free from dropshippers.
I message the seller of the $73 boots and ask where she sources her items – specifically, if the boots are from AliExpress or a similar site. She replies almost instantly: "I can’t tell people about all my suppliers, it’s taken me years to find ethical suppliers. I wouldn’t have a business anymore if I let people know my suppliers." I tell her not to worry and press on with asking her about her thoughts on sustainability instead. She stops replying.
While on the surface, dropshipping seems harmless enough – many justify it by arguing that buyers do ultimately receive the item as advertised, after purchasing it at an agreed price – it’s an incredibly insidious practice, especially when it takes place on Depop. Ordinarily, there’s an onus on the consumer to resist buying into fast fashion but dropshipping complicates this. What happens when the consumer thinks they’re buying ethically?
Maddy, 19, is a Depop user based in Manchester. She bought a 'voting is hot' T-shirt off a Depop seller for $34.51, only to find the same item listed on AliExpress for $3.64. "I figured this out when I looked up the original brand [the design is from independent business, Denimcratic] and found replicas on AliExpress," Maddy says. "It was cleverly done because the Depop listing I bought from did not specify a certain brand."
"It’s one thing to increase the price of an item for profit when you’ve clearly stated the brand and its condition but it’s another thing to be disingenuous and dishonest about where the item is from," she continues. "I understand why people are compelled to do this – the seller stated that she started doing it for economic reasons – but personally I’m just convinced that it is very unethical to do this on an app that encourages stepping away from fast fashion."
This is ultimately why, in March 2020, Depop took a stand and banned dropshipping from the app, with revised guidelines stating that the practice clashes with its values of "quality, creativity and sustainability". Fabian Koenig, vice president of trust and safety at Depop, told Refinery29 that they are continuing to root out dropshippers on the platform by using "a combination of manual and automated enforcement" and taking action on all user reports that they receive.
With this in mind, users like Maddy might reasonably assume that a purchase on sustainability-focused Depop is, by default, an ethical purchase. But this isn’t always the case.
Dropshipping puts money back into fast fashion – an industry which is responsible for 8% of all carbon emissions and 20% of global water waste. Retailers like AliExpress tout the very worst kind of fast fashion too, because when dresses and jackets cost $3.45, it raises serious questions about whether the workers producing these items are being treated fairly. Given that 93% of fast fashion brands aren’t paying garment workers a living wage, it doesn’t seem likely.
Dropshipping is also hugely detrimental to small Depop businesses like Jazzy Garms. Twenty-two-year-old Jazmin is the Bristol-based seller behind the festival and rave clothing brand. "Everything’s handmade to order and we’re as ethical and sustainable as we can be," she tells me.
Jazmin explains that her fledgling business has run into serious problems due to dropshipping on Depop, with one of her designs being stolen by an AliExpress manufacturer. "A few months ago I had a pair of my butterfly reflective flares ripped off on AliExpress. They just took all of my pictures from my photoshoot and mass-produced this awful copy of my trousers," she says. "There was basically nothing I could do."
Dropshipping puts money back into fast fashion – an industry which is responsible for 8% of all carbon emissions and 20% of global water waste.
A few weeks later, the situation got worse for Jazmin when she saw Depop dropshippers begin to sell the AliExpress version of her trousers – priced on her shop at $101.79 – for as little as $22.43. "I messaged the sellers to take them down. I expected them to understand ... but they actually did the opposite," she recalls. "They basically didn’t care at all. They were like, 'You should have copyrighted the design, it’s not my fault your design got copied.' And they just didn’t take it down."
Fortunately, Jazmin has since managed to regain control of her design after registering it in the UK. "Now I have all the paperwork which makes it illegal to sell it, so whenever it pops up now I can just message the seller and legally they have to take it down," she says. "But it’s just a bit of a nightmare, really."
Amber, who lives in Devon, is another Depop seller who’s had to contend with dropshippers on the app. But she says she understands the allure of flogging overpriced tat from AliExpress, as she used to do this herself.
Amber’s shop took off as she grew savvier. "I would scroll through Instagram and save pictures of people wearing jewellery that I thought was trending, then I would try and find a version of that online. Or on AliExpress you can post a picture of an item and suppliers can contact you and offer to make it for you," she explains. "So, if you wanted to, you could basically rip off any design you wanted." It seems likely that this is what happened to Jazmin and her butterfly-patterned flares.
"I thought, This is really easy. Selling jewellery and making lots of money out of it seemed like such a great idea. Like, how could you go wrong? How could this be bad?" Amber continues. "I don’t think dropshippers realize the ethics of what they’re doing, because I never did."
Things clicked into place for Amber after she read an article about child slavery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "I had that realization of, like, Oh, this is what they mean when they say unethical," she says. After reading up on the sweatshops behind fast fashion brands, Amber vowed to stop selling goods from AliExpress. "After that I definitely thought, I don’t want anything to do with this, there’s no way this is ethical in any sense."
Dropshippers are so far removed from the human consequences of their actions – especially since they never even handle the items they’re selling – that it’s easy to see why so many continue with it despite its dodgy reputation. It’s hard to see the true cost of dropshipping when you’re firing off orders from your bedroom, sweatshops out of sight and out of mind. But that’s still no excuse.
Happily, Depop is continuing to crack down on dropshipping. "We are continually investing in building an even stronger Trust & Safety team, developing the right technology and tooling to detect and remove dropshipped items better and faster from the platform," Koenig stresses. It’s clear that Depop dropshippers’ days are numbered. In the meantime, dropshippers shouldn’t skirt around or ignore difficult questions like the seller of those $72 cow print boots (whose listing, thankfully, has now been taken down by Depop). They should face up to reality and make the necessary changes – just like Amber did.