As the mainstreaming of resale for apparel continues, there is a growing — and fierce — online debate about the ethics of individual resellers capitalizing on the new secondhand market.
If this sounds counterintuitive to you, you’re not alone.
Isn’t resale better than fast fashion? Isn’t extending the use of a garment better than manufacturing a new one? Aren’t companies supposed to be investing in reuse and resale, and tapping into the growing market that’s projected to reach $77 billion in the next five years? Still, yes.
But this heated online debate shouldn’t be ignored either. It illustrates the complexity of resale’s relationship with access, race and power.
What’s all the fuss about?
ICYMI, Gen Z thinks thrifting is cool. This generation of consumers has driven the growth of resale platforms such as Depop, acquired by Etsy earlier this year for $1.62 billion. "Thrift hauls," a vlogger’s chronicle of a shopping spree at a secondhand store, are a popular form of content on YouTube and TikTok, sometimes generating millions of views per video. Most of these social media and now secondhand-savvy consumers are white, upper- or middle-class women.
Seizing the resale market opportunity, individuals are becoming entrepreneurs, buying up cheap garments in bulk from Goodwill and other charity shops, marking up the price and selling them for a significant profit on Depop, Mercari or Poshmark.
Resale’s current momentum deserves to be scrutinized through the lens of gentrification.
In turn, this increases the price of thrifted goods, and low-income shoppers are being priced out of their local secondhand stores.
Some call it unethical. Others call it free-market capitalism.
Why it matters
Peer-to-peer resale platforms rely on individual sellers, and make a profit from every transaction. While these sites may have envisioned users to be individuals seeking to sustainably sell their own pre-loved clothes, a growing class of entrepreneurs are driving their growth.
It’s a familiar narrative, not dissimilar to the image of a humble driver making a few bucks on the weekends with Uber, an archetype increasingly displaced by a full-time Uber driver picking up passengers in a rented car. Uber and other ridesharing apps have also been called out for racism on their platforms and the carbon footprint of the services have been called into question — not to mention the heated fight about the line between employee and contractor in the gig economy.
The potential social and environmental benefits of these new business models can quickly become complex, so companies that rely on independent resellers or participants will need to consider the real environmental and social impacts, as well as the unintended consequences of the platforms.
More to the story
The tension between access and influence in apparel is nothing new. The history of appropriation in fashion by privileged consumers — both in form and in forum — has been thoroughly chronicled, and resale’s current momentum deserves to be scrutinized through the lens of gentrification.
But also well-documented is the fact that most donations to Goodwill end up in landfills or flooding markets in the Global South, which isn’t doing much good either — or helping to address the environmental impact of the apparel industry overall.
It’s important to acknowledge the social and economic context of resale and consider the accessibility of new business models. But let’s not forget that systems change requires systems thinking. Placing a Band-Aid on a symptom will not address the root cause of waste and pollution in the apparel industry. And resale needs to be a part of the solution.