Design by Melia Kenny. Buy this photo.

For nearly a decade, the Salvation Army on State Street has served as a treasure trove for some of my favorite wardrobe pieces. On Friday afternoons, I could often be found in that giant warehouse searching for five tags of the same color to save on finds that were already steals at just five or so dollars.

By the end of the 2010s, thrifting became more than just a means of buying new clothes for Gen Z — it became a trend. Thrifting offered inexpensive and unique finds while also allowing shoppers to avoid the poor ethics and environmental effects of fast fashion. This trend was popularized on the internet, with the rise of thrifting and thrift-flip vlogs, as well as increased use of online thrift sites like Depop and Poshmark.

Depop was a favorite of mine when it came to these sites, just as it was for many teenagers looking to buy affordable clothes ethically online. Aimed specifically at younger shoppers, the Explore page had banners for retro, streetwear, grunge, Y2K and every other style in between. Going into lockdown, window-shopping on Depop became an alternative to the in-person thrift shopping I was missing in the real world. More importantly, it provided many with a means of income in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In this period of increased thrifting popularity, the trend of thrifting also faced increased scrutiny, and soon thrifting and gentrification were inextricably linked.

The popularity of thrifting, especially among young women, often drew the ire of video essayists and journals alike. According to “Gentrification in Thrifting,” published in UCLA’s FEM newsmagazine, “Affluent shoppers often purchase excess inventory they found at low prices in thrift stores and resell it on websites such as Depop or Poshmark at substantially higher rates.” Due to this purchasing of clothing in bulk, blame often falls to the young women purchasing and selling these clothes online for the rise in prices and scarcity of clothing in stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army.

When it comes to these commentators’ critiques on thrifting, they often make generalizing statements on the shoppers and Depop store owners, calling them “rich white girls” who make easy money selling clothes others need. This is despite the fact that stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army only put about half of their donations on shelves, and half of that portion is sold. With the majority of these donations ending up repurposed, sent to other countries or in a landfill, these worries do not typically translate to a lack of clothing in thrift stores.

Many Depop store owners are also far from the rich capitalist overlords they’re made out to be. As Sora, a teenage Depop shop owner, explained to Vox, “Before I list a price, I factor in the 10 percent fee Depop takes, shipping costs and the time [it] takes to clean, style and package the garment.” 

Selling also takes more than thrifting a cheap item and marking it up before shipping it off to a buyer — it takes cleaning and sometimes repairing old pieces, presenting the fit and style of a piece in just four pictures, writing pithy and attention-grabbing descriptions to make the item more appealing and an understanding of selling in a way that almost mirrors social media, all while having to considering Depop’s 10% fee and shipping. 

While it’s certainly not extensive manual labor or a job that requires years of schooling, running a shop is still work and demands a literacy of not only trends and clothing but also of valuation and consumer psychology. At the end of the day, I’d rather know my purchases go to a fellow teen’s college fund or even just their coffee money as opposed to a big fast-fashion brand like SHEIN or Forever 21 — wouldn’t you?

With that being said, these commentators are right to point out the ethical issues of thrift stores and Depop. Goodwill has been known to pay its workers extremely low wages, and Salvation Army is known for its slew of harmful actions toward the LGBTQ+ community. Depop itself has faced its fair share of issues caused by dropshippers, sellers who forward orders to the actual suppliers and shippers, essentially acting as middlemen who buy cheaply-made goods overseas and sell them at a higher price online. 

In the wake of all this criticism, along with the return of in-person thrift stores, the popularity of online thrifting has seemed to dwindle as Depop’s number of active users and sellers, as well as its revenue, decreased from 2020 to 2021. On TikTok, thrifting hauls have seemingly been replaced with mass hauls of clothes from brands by the likes of SHEIN, a Chinese brand that quickly produces trendy clothes that are sold for cheap prices. While so many pieces at such affordable prices is an attractive deal, fast fashion often comes at the cost of those who make the clothes, as well as the environment. In addition, these cheaply made clothes are rarely made to last, and these bulk purchases made at the hands of TikTok influencers are more than one person can reasonably wear.

Fashion has always been my primary mode of creativity and self-expression, and I believe it’s something that should be accessible to everyone. However, I have found that if it’s new and well-made, it’s expensive, and if it’s not, ethics are likely risked in some form or another whether you shop from thrift stores, fast fashion brands or both. 

The price reflected to us may be about the same when buying a new top from SHEIN or the same slightly used one from Depop, but while purchases from Depop are likely going to individual teens’ rainy day funds, a buildup of excessive purchases from SHEIN goes to those at the top and comes at the cost of garment workers and the planet. You know the phrase: “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” No one can be a perfect consumer, but when it comes to the small purchasing power we each hold, it’s important that we approach our purchases with thoughtfulness to what we need, how much we need of it and whom we purchase it from.

Audra Woehle is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at awoehle@umich.edu.