The rise of online thrifting is raising ethical questions

Apps like Depop allow anyone to flip clothes for profit, but the secondhand explosion is forcing resellers to think hard about how they do business

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      By Heather Taylor-Singh

      Throughout 2020, Kate Bauer spent much of her free time selling clothing on Depop, the popular reselling app that has taken over many young people’s phones.

      “I wanted to cycle out the things that I wasn’t wearing and realized I have a good eye for finding vintage clothing,” she says.

      Bauer, 26, started using the app in 2018 when she moved near a Value Village location in Toronto. She began to accumulate a lot of stuff and quickly became addicted to what she calls “the thrill of the thrift.” With limited closet space, she decided to launch an online shop, Read Write Thrift, which now has more than 3,000 followers on the app.

      Her offerings could be described as “cool girl business casual”—plaid blazers, high-waisted pants and maxi dresses, which mirror Bauer’s own style. But sometimes she found pieces that didn’t fit her or weren’t her style but would still be valuable to someone else.

      In two years, selling on Depop became supplementary income for the PhD candidate student. She would work 15 to 20 hours a week—sourcing, shooting photos, and listing products. Each month, Bauer was making a little less than $1,000. 

      Bauer describes her selling process, saying “[I would sell] a vintage wool sweater that I sourced at the Salvation Army for $4.99 for $40 plus $10 shipping.” But with app fees and shipping costs, Bauer would typically profit $15 to $20 on that item, for what was likely three hours of work. 

      In January she realized her success came at a moral cost, prompting her to only sell clothing from her closet and no longer thrifting extra garments for her shop. Today, only a few pieces remain for sale. 

      Bauer started to get pushback from her community related to gentrification and the accessibility of affordable clothing, especially from her background. 

      “I come from a well-off family, I’m white, and I don’t really need to access thrifting as a way to survive,” she says.  

      While the pushback wasn’t overwhelming—“a few DMs here and there”—she became more sensitive to the gentrification of thrifting in general, not just by resellers. “[It] kind of coalesced into this icky feeling that I was part of something that we [as a society] hadn’t quite figured out how to talk about or deal with equitably.”

      The secondhand resurgence

      In the last few years, thrifting on resale apps like Depop and Poshmark has become popular among millennials and Generation Z. The Wall Street Journal reported that 90 percent of Depop’s users were under the age of 26. Founded in 2011, the app helps users find secondhand, one-of-a-kind pieces in a few swipes. That coincides with this generation of consumers being interested in shopping sustainably, with minimal impact on the environment.

      According to ThredUp, a secondhand fashion resale website, 42 percent of Gen Z shopped secondhand in 2020, and this upward trajectory isn’t slowing.

      Anika Kozlowski, a fashion professor at Ryerson University, isn’t surprised that thrifting is on the rise. “Look at the '90s—the grunge era was full of thrifting. That’s what all my friends and I did. It just wasn’t documented the same way because we didn’t have social media,” she says.

      Kozlowski notes that the issue with online thrifting comes from resellers who are buying large amounts of clothing from thrift stores, depleting access to garments for those who rely on thrifting, such as racialized and lower-income communities. People in these marginalized groups use mainstream thrift stores like Goodwill and Value Village for their low pricing and wide selection of clothing. 

      “The intention of thrift stores is to make nice clothes available at a lower price point for a certain amount of people.” 

      But being a reseller can generate a sizable income. In 2019, Rachel Swidenbank, vice president of Sellers at Depop, said sellers can make as much as $300,000 a year on the app. In this financial appeal, the ThredUp report found that 76 percent of consumers are open to becoming resellers in the future, with 36.2 million first-time resellers in 2020. 

      Kozlowski sees this trend as part of broader gentrification happening in society.

      “It’s limiting access to marginalized communities or vulnerable people who need those clothes, and putting them into boutique stores and charging more for them. The same way we’ve seen it with neighbourhoods. It’s about displacement and limiting access to goods that were intended to be accessible to these various communities and people.”

      She continues: “Thrift stores have always existed but now you have people who have a vintage store on Dundas, who go to Value Village and pillage in there. Thrift stores have also noticed these behaviours, so they’ve increased their prices as well, which is problematic.” 

      Michelle Quintyn, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries in Ontario Great Lakes, says Goodwill aims to keep their prices low, which helps them sell items quicker, and puts the funds back into their charities and community development programs. 

      “We have to be a prudent business [and] make a profit that enables growth and our mission. But we don’t want the customer to turn away because of price. That’s what thrifting should be about—moving those goods,” she says. 

      The secondhand clothing sector is being flooded with fast-fashion garments.
      Getty Images

      A thrift store’s purpose

      When Goodwill was founded in 1902, Quintyn says the purpose was to transfer goods from the wealthy to those living in lower income communities, which allowed them to prosper.” 

      While many lower-income communities rely on thrift stores, the shops were not created to provide clothing directly to them. Rather they aimed to sell mass amounts of items and use the money made to fund programs that supported the people who needed it in lower-income communities. 

      Since thrifting has become increasingly commodified in the last few years, Quintyn notes a shift in who thrifts. 

      “Now I see a lot of people coming in, especially with the evolution of digital [platforms] and they find stuff that Goodwill has on a rack for six bucks, and they think they can sell it for $18.” 

      Quintyn says resellers make up approximately one-third of Goodwill’s buyers. 

      “The secondhand economy is spiralling with growth and expected to take hold in the consumer marketplace.” 

      According to IBISWorld, the thrifting market in the United States is valued at around $10 billion USD. ThredUp’s report takes it one step further, estimating that the global resale market is worth $36 billion, with a projection to reach $77 billion by 2025. The data suggests that secondhand fashion is growing at a much faster rate than retail fashion, with consumers turning to resale websites and apps as it’s easier to both buy and sell secondhand items. 

      When asked if this evokes fear of a clothing shortage, Quintyn isn’t worried, saying “there is a huge abundance of textiles and household goods in our system.” 

      With the rapid rate of donations that most thrift stores receive, an item can hit the store floor within 20 minutes. “[The donation] goes to a station where we hang it and price it, and then it rolls out onto the floor. Every single day, we’re pushing goods out, so there’s always a full store.”

      Bauer echoes this sentiment, debunking the idea that resellers are depleting thrift stores of clothing. 

      “I don’t think there’s a problem of access. There’s something to be said about how we consume [and] how people consume thrifting that is key.”

      She clarifies that the lack of abundance in thrift stores is more about the quality of clothing available, rather than the quantity. She believes shoppers are more likely to find cheaply made fast fashion clothing at thrift stores in larger quantities rather than high-quality or designer vintage finds because resellers are snatching those items up. 

      “The problem is that the spectre of fast fashion has infiltrated the thrifting space, which is creating a divide in the quality of clothes that are in the stores,” she explains. “If you’re looking at it from an angle of access to clothing, it’s the high-quality vintage or the high-quality brands that are getting scooped up by resellers, because they have the time, energy and resources to visit as many thrift stores as possible.” 

      Bauer says it’s important to note what people are buying from the thrift stores. Looking back, she is grateful for the experience she had as a Depop seller. For future sellers, she notes other ways to source clothing to avoid trips to the thrift store, like estate sales or wholesale. 

      Finding other ways to source

      Bessie Barlis runs the New Store Vintage on Depop. In the past year, she has started working with a wholesaler who helps source pieces, accounting for about 50 per cent of her stock.

      “I have a supplier who is from the GTA, and she has access to warehouses and rag houses. I’ll tell her what I want, and then I get about 35 lbs of clothing a month from her at a wholesale price,” she explains. 

      Barlis, 24, mainly sells fun, feminine silhouettes. She opened her shop in early 2018, selling vintage pieces from her closet to make extra money. Now Barlis has almost 4,000 followers on the app. Barlis does Depop on the side, while also working a part-time job at Holt Renfrew. 

      Using a wholesale supplier has taken the pressure off Barlis to buy from thrift stores. She also notes many thrift stores like Value Village and Salvation Army donate their unsold inventory to warehouses and people who have resellers licences can go there and purchase the garments at a discounted rate. 

      While Barlis hasn’t come across thrift stores in her neighbourhood being gentrified, using a wholesaler has made things easier. “The stress I’m relieved from by having wholesale is having consistent stock for my store,” she says. “[At my local thrift stores] there’s always an abundance of stock. The fact these warehouses exist proves there’s more stock than what thrift stores can keep up with.” 

      “Resellers are mostly buying stuff in what we call our aftermarket,” Quintyn says. “They prefer to shop in the rag houses or the outlet because they can buy textiles for $1.70 a pound and get a lot of value there versus in the store, where something is $4 apiece. So it is helping us divert stuff that was heading away from the reuse market into better markets.”

      “With my wholesaler, it’s allowed me to do this full time in the future because I have enough stock to sustain me,” Barlis says, adding she makes between $900 to $1,700 a month off the app.  

      Recently, Barlis started posting items on Instagram, cultivating a tight-knit community of buyers. In tandem with top-notch customer service, this has helped to further show buyers that she’s not reselling to “make a quick buck.” 

      “I know the people buying from me, and there’s a connection to them now,” she says. “I’m posting my sourcing and photography process and they can see that I’m a real person working.”

      Clothing for the community

      Long before the rise of app-based reselling, brick-and-mortar vintage sellers have had to think about questions around ethics, sustainability, labour and community. Seasoned retailer Andréa Lalonde, owner of the Nouveau Riche online shop and vintage studio in the Junction, prioritizes her community. Her shop is sprinkled with eccentric bold patterns, elegant gowns, and basic wear.

      She had a brick-and-mortar vintage store in Parkdale for a couple of years, but closed last November due to the pandemic. When lockdown hit in March 2020, she quickly pivoted and started selling online—Nouveau Riche’s website launched a month before everything shut down.

      “We were trying to keep safe and do our best to get as much as we could online. We were putting up about 50 pieces a week,” she says. Of the type of garments she was selling, Lalonde was trying to keep it fairly accessible. “We were sourcing things that made more sense [during the pandemic.] I still was having fun listing some of the gowns but most people wanted things that would be easy to wear.”

      Throughout the pandemic, Lalonde supported the encampment crisis, which she funded with support from buyers. 

      “What is important for me as a vintage seller is being a resource to the community—and I have a vintage store so that I can do mutual aid,” she says.

      “By selling vintage, it allows me to support community initiatives, new emerging stylists, queer people. That is one of the things about owning my business that’s been exciting.”

      Lalonde sees the growth in selling vintage clothing online as beneficial. She agrees that there is an issue with resellers dominating the online thrifting spaces, but sees the appeal as a way to reach a variety of buyers. 

      “There are so many more people doing it. The growth makes it feel like a little bit less of a community, but the beauty of vintage [is] we all have different things.” 

      “It’s really important to understand that there’s so much out there, regardless of how old it is, or how much you’re reselling it for,” she continues. “I don’t think there’s a scarcity of clothing. It’s really important to consider where you source, [but] I’m more concerned about labour practices and stores being accountable to the issues in their community.”

      Lalonde, who has been collecting vintage pieces for over 20 years, sources her clothing from a mix of wholesalers, stylists and even her personal vintage collection, but avoids sourcing from thrift stores as she doesn’t agree with some of their ethics. She cites well-known thrift stores that have been caught up in a couple of controversies in the last few years, regarding anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, transparency around their charity donation plan and increased prices. 

      “When a vintage store owner is reselling something for a lot, it’s important to remember that these stores are not charities, but they’re often the people who are going to be caring for communities more than the charities.”   

      Buyers are also supporting small businesses when they shop locally.

      “Someone should buy me a building so I can run a vintage store and queer community centre. That would be the dream,” she says.

      At the beginning of the summer, Lalonde reopened her shop as a studio where she rents garments out to stylists and creatives for editorial or commercial purposes. While she’ll continue to sell online, Lalonde prefers selling in person.

      “I’ve started reconnecting with people in the studio again, which has been really nice,” she says. “I want people to find things they love, which is more interesting in person.”

      Consuming consciously

      While thrifting has become a trend for younger generations, Kozlowski says it still perpetuates the idea of over-consuming, especially if it becomes a business. 

      “This idea of thrifting is sold as this sexy new way to consume. It’s really neat, like, it’s great that [an item is] secondhand, but do you really need it?”

      As Bauer continues on Depop, she says: “I’m happy that I had the chance to grow the platform, because it does mean when I’m moving on from things in my wardrobe, I can quickly get them into the hands of somebody else who will cherish them.” 

      Her previous growth has made it easy for her to enforce sustainability practices. “The best and most sustainable way to give clothing a second life is to sell directly. For me, it’s an important way to maintain my own consumption of fashion, and be as cyclical and circular as possible.”