Deep into lockdown, Depop sometimes felt like a window to another life.
As our universes shrank to four walls and the same three office looks, the online shopping app would paint an otherworldly canvas of velvet jumpsuits and corduroy shirts. It was hard to imagine a world without COVID-19, but Depop could help you invent a whole summer in your head.
But as we bought bikes, Marie Kondo’d our wardrobes, and could hear birds in our cities for the first time in forever, one question kept coming up: do we really need all this stuff now? How culpable were we all in the world we left behind, of disposable clothes and fast fashion? And if we follow that to its natural conclusion: is a platform like Depop the answer, or a distraction?
Founded by Simon Beckerman in 2011, Depop describes itself as a fashion marketplace app. But you might know it as the online shop modelled after an Instagram news feed, thriving in thrift culture, where you can find second-hand clothes, vintage styles, and some extremely fetching pink dungarees.
It’s one of a number of different popular online clothes stores, but has carved out its own niche. While brands like ASOS and Boohoo have faced criticism with allegations of fast fashion and even slavery, respectively, Depop has made its name priding itself on environmentalism.
“I think sustainability is not a ‘plus’ anymore — it needs to be factored into everything you do,” Beckerman told The Challenger Project in 2019. “We are heading towards dangerous times, as we’ve been seeing in the news, and so if you’re not sustainable, you’re not going anywhere. We wouldn't use it as a marketing tool either. It’s just a necessity.”
Depop says that it’s “shaping a new fashion system” with a two-year sustainability plan that includes becoming carbon neutral by the end of 2021, promoting circular fashion, and providing educational opportunities that can help the entrepreneurs who sell clothes on their app grow without sacrificing sustainability.
But as the platform hosts up to 140,000 new listings on the platform every day, with "top seller" benefits offered to merchants who meet certain targets, is it the most realistic way out of a culture built on waste?
“Second-hand buying and selling has never wholly been for the altruistic reasons that are often championed, whether it be environmental or to aid people who can’t afford to buy first-hand clothing,” Jennifer Le Zotte, a professor and author of a book on the history of second-hand clothing culture, told Vox in April. “This isn’t a new conversation at all.”
Depop has around 30 million users in over 150 countries, the majority of whom are young people. Its sustainability plan is built around the UN’s Global Goals, the 17 objectives designed to tackle the systemic causes of extreme poverty, including the climate crisis and inequity.
The Depop plan sets out a series of targets to hit by the end of 2021. But only a small section of the plan is devoted to how it works with its 2 million active sellers, who decide whether their products and practices will echo the brand’s environmental values. Can it be a carbon neutral business by the end of next year if thousands of its sellers are still shipping items internationally?
Depop encourages its sellers to develop goals to promote circular fashion in its communities, and has initiatives for sellers to work with sustainable materials, or “dispose of unsellable garments responsibly.” But how does it stand up so far at the beginning of its two year plan? Global Citizen spoke to some of the sellers who have been on Depop for years to see how the platform measures up.
Katy Boyle, 25, runs a Depop store from London called “Kabo Clothing.” She first set it up at university to make some extra money, but started taking it more seriously in the last year. Although she doesn't think that a fully sustainable shop is realistic, Boyle uses fully recyclable packaging made from carbon neutral sugarcane, reuses materials for bubble wraps and boxes, and for international deliveries, hires a courier that offsets carbon emissions.
Depop is "not perfect,” she says, “but it's a start if you want a reasonably guilt-free wardrobe."
“Fast fashion companies can never be sustainable, end of,” Boyle tells Global Citizen. “They mass-produce an unnecessary amount of clothing, the majority of which are made from virgin plastics and materials, made by underpaid workers with no workers rights.”
“Fast fashion clothing is not made to last and is trend-based, so garment workers are risking their health and safety to make items that will probably be thrown away after a few wears,” she adds. “There is nothing about fast fashion that is remotely sustainable, and I haven’t even begun to talk about the environmental impacts.”
Not all of the clothes sold on Depop are second-hand — and Boyle does have some ideas on how the platform could improve sustainability: it could spotlight sellers promoting circular fashion, share educational resources on reducing fast fashion consumption, donate some of their fees to charities supporting those affected by interconnected poor working conditions, or ban fast fashion completely.
“They need to be more transparent about what they actually do,” Boyle says.
But Holly Finnegan, a 26-year-old from Birmingham who runs a Depop shop called “All That Retro”, believes Depop has "come a long way." She’s been on the platform for six years, and has made it onto the platform’s “top seller” programme. Depop has helped make second-hand shopping trendy, creating more opportunities for young people to get involved, she says.
“A mainstream platform filled with small businesses and fashion lovers, selling ethically handmade or second-hand slow-fashion pieces whilst making ethical and sustainable choices within their own businesses and lives, sounds like the dream doesn’t it?” Finnegan says.
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In terms of her own shop on the platform, the majority of the items Finnegan sells are second-hand vintage clothes. She uses eco-friendly biodegradable mailing bags, incentivised with discount codes from Depop. However, she agrees that the app should scrap all fast fashion, unless it’s second-hand.
“I think Depop tries very hard to make the right choices but as with most large companies that want to make money, they don’t want to be held down by those same choices,” Finnegan says. “However, that being said, I think the world is really looking for sustainable, guilt-free shopping choices, so if Depop can create a platform dedicated to offering that then it would grow much more rapidly than any other money-grabbing marketplace.”
She adds: “Consumer consumption will always be a problem and that isn’t something Depop can fix. So wouldn’t it be great to have a more sustainable option to compete with the other huge fast fashion companies?”
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