Kelley Heyer is a Pisces. So when she found a mermaid-blue vintage dress on eBay for under $60, she knew it would be the perfect base for her birthday dress. With the help of a friend, Heyer spent over 20 hours sewing, cutting, and altering to turn the long organza gown into an ocean-inspired party dress. But when Heyer posted a video of the process on TikTok, she found herself the target of thousands of online comments accusing her of ruining the dress — and taking it away from poor people who would’ve loved it in its original state.
Welcome to the Depop discourse: the Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok controversy that revolves around old clothes and who deserves to save them.
Depop, a popular e-commerce app used to sell used clothes and accessories, launched in 2012, growing from a small Italian tech incubator to a leading online reseller with over 30 million registered users. On TikTok, Depop’s popularity has turned selling into a way for users to make money on the side. The most popular sellers on the app have even become influencers in their own right — like Victoria Paris, whose platform grew from her Depop storefront. But in the past decade, a common narrative has emerged: that Depop resellers are stealing clothes from the backs of poorer communities. Thrifting and buying second-hand can save consumers money and have the added benefit of not contributing to the massive clothing waste of the fashion industry, a helpful option when experts have proven that shopping trends have dangerous effects on climate change. And fashion and consumption experts tell Rolling Stone that casting Depop resellers as internet villains isn’t just an unnecessary controversy — it’s actively making it harder to address the real problems in the fashion industry.
Much of the debate about clothes reselling and upcycling — updating older clothes — comes from how most Depop users source their clothes. Since a rapidly increasing trend cycle means old styles are coming back into fashion faster, resellers can make a major profit by combing local thrift stores, charity shops, and bargain bins for clothing that is coming back into style. Sellers upload photos of the clothes, set their own prices, and the site takes a 10-percent cut. To set themselves apart from the rising number of Depop users, resellers will often make “haul vids” that show off what clothes will be listed soon. On TikTok, the hashtag #depopreseller has over 3.8 million views. But as the app’s popularity has increased, so has the pushback. The main argument is that by using thrift stores as a means of income, sellers are taking cute and affordable clothes away from poorer people in order to make a profit, and create a demand that makes thrift stores raise their prices.
When Heyer originally posted the video of her altered dress, she thought people would be excited to see how she reworked it. But she tells Rolling Stone she was surprised at the visceral entitlement people felt towards “a dress they didn’t know existed until yesterday.”
“There’s this idea that there’s not enough to go around, especially in the thrifting and Depop community,” Heyer says. “Whatever dress or item someone finds in a thrift store, that’s the only one to exist, right? That’s not necessarily true.”
And she isn’t the only one coming under fire. In Late February, Jack, a 19-year-old who runs a popular thrifting account, goes viral after posting a video of clothes he was planning to sell on Depop. After several Twitter users posted side-by-sides of her video and the accompanying Depop listings, including one that listed a red leather trench jacket for $120, people flooded her comments calling her a “landlord,” “greedy,” and “unethical.
While Jack did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comments, she did address the controversy on her Instagram — saying selling clothes on Depop took her from being a broke college student to being able to pay her bills on her own.
“Where I live, there are 20 goodwills. All overflowing, all restocking hourly, and all sending truckloads of excess clothing to the bins,” Jack said. “It’s terrifying to see the amount of clothing going to waste, while fast fashion continues to pollute and abuse their workers. Reselling pushes circular fashion, and sustainable consumption, and helps low-income individuals earn a living wage off of endless clothing.”
While Depop resellers are considered a new internet villain, discussions surrounding ethics in second-hand fashion can be traced back to at least five years ago. In the r/Depop subreddit, a group created in August 2013 that has over 70,000, discussions about the ethics of reselling thrifted clothes have popped up every year since at least 2018 — the same year Instagram hit a milestone of 1 billion monthly users. The popularity of online selling has popularized many helpful discussions, like making second-hand shopping more accessible for plus-sized people or the harm of fast fashion. But fashion historian Cora Harrington tells Rolling Stone the most nonsensical online conversations are often the most popular because it’s easier for people to pile on common enemies than address what can seem like much larger problems in the fashion industry.
“Especially in the last few years, there’s been an interesting tension between people encouraging folks to shop secondhand and people saying it’s not fair to poor people to shop from thrift stores. One myth is that thrift stores are going to somehow run out of clothes, if there are resellers buying too much, which doesn’t align at all with how much fashion is floating around out there,” Harrington says. “We wind up seeing very bizarre comparisons like when people compare Depop resellers to landlords, which is nonsensical. That’s how this discourse goes awry.
Heyer added that it’s easy for people to focus on Depop sellers because of their age and price points. Because users are able to set their own prices, internet trends can see an object priced far above its worth.
“I find Depop tricky because a lot of people sell items for a lot more than they’re worth,” Heyer says. “With the Y2k trend, people are selling, like, a medium boy [t-shirt] for $55. And while I totally understand what sellers have to make money for, I think Depop can be more about the aesthetics of vintage than the actual sustainable practice of thrifting itself.”
Harrington says that online discourse is just that — online — and rarely escapes into the real world. Vintage shops have existed for decades, and there aren’t crowds of people picking them across America. But he adds that this means meaningful discussions, that could start on the internet and lead to real systemic change, can get left behind.
“Thrifting is not a new thing. People have been repurposing clothes, wearing clothes until they are completely worn out, transitioning clothing from outside wear to inside wear, and trading clothes between people forever,” Harrington says. “What’s also intriguing is when you take these same conversations offline, people who don’t spend a lot of time on social media are bewildered. There’s a lot less friction in real life around these topics.”
Depop is aware of this characterization, but the company says blaming their users for rising prices in thrift shops doesn’t acknowledge the work they do to source clothes — or the impact thrifting’s popularity could have on fashion waste.
“We believe fashion should be for everyone – and that includes secondhand,” Depop said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Depop sellers are active contributors to the circular economy — they are often young, creative entrepreneurs from all walks of life, making a living and building a business from the ground up, while helping to make circular fashion by championing second-hand. Many upcycle secondhand pieces or create their own items using waste materials. Others commit considerable time and effort to finding, preparing, styling and merchandising items that could have a second life — often spending hours at a rag house, scouring the country for unique vintage finds, putting in the work to transform an old item into a new one, or styling it in a way that makes buyers see it in a new light.”
And while Depop resellers have become villains online, the real problems in the fashion industry are getting more concerning than ever, author and sustainable fashion expert Aja Barber tells Rolling Stone. Barber — who wrote the 2021 book consumed, on how consumerism speeds up climate change — says that narratives about who should be allowed to thrift rely on an idea of perceived scarcity. But she notes that the same poverty debate used to criticize resellers is often used by fast fashion supporters to justify the shaky ethics of the industry.
“On the internet, we tend to find a narrative and run with it, because it fits a comfortable pattern or path that we want to continue to exist in. But that doesn’t make it true or right,” Barber says. “In the fast fashion conversation for many years, it was if you criticize fast fashion, you hate poor people. But that narrative completely erases the fact that the poorest people in the conversation are the garment workers, millions of [whom] make our clothing and aren’t paid fair wages. You’re using poor people as a scapegoat if you can’t see the poorest people in the equation.”
Barber, Harrington, and Heyer all point to the popularity of sites like H&M and Shein as actively contributing to the acceleration of clothing production (and waste). In less than 10 years, Shein has gone from a $5 million valuation to close to $100 billion, according to Bloomberg, even among constant criticism for allegations of worker exploitation and the company’s negative impact on the environment. And Barber says as long as the discourse focuses on hypothetical internet villains, the real problems in the fashion industry will continue to go unchecked.
“I genuinely think people do not understand the scale of goods that are being produced by the fashion industry. If more people took an approach of being vocal with the people who have the most power, we could actually transform the industry,” Barber says. “But instead, we’re having the same conversation on Twitter every month. When you find out that a corporation has burned billions of dollars of stock, which they didn’t have to create in the first place, you should be more made about that than someone selling clothing on Depop. I want people to get more involved in a way that’s helpful. Instead of getting mad at individuals, get mad at the organizations that are trashing our planet. There is more than enough clothing to go around.”