Diving into Depop: A critical look at Instagram’s retail sister

Photo of Depop App
Joe Sison/Staff

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Selling your stuff has never been easier. For instance, if you’re 18 and you still have that cute dress you wore at the ripe age of 8, you can probably sell it to another 18-year-old because Y2K fashion is in — and you can market it as a babydoll dress.

Selling your stuff, particularly the clothes you’d rather not condemn to the Goodwill pile, has really never been easier thanks to the internet.

When I moved back home around this time last year, selling mine became a pandemic activity of sorts after I started using an app called Depop.

Similar to eBay, Depop is an international marketplace where strangers sell their stuff to other strangers over the internet. However, Depop’s retail platform is focused on clothing and related items, and it doesn’t have a built-in auction feature that eBay was especially known for in its earlier years; instead, users have to interact directly with one another in order to negotiate prices.

But the app is certainly not limited to fashion; the selling possibilities on Depop are actually quite vast. After almost a year of using the app, I’m not so sure if I love or hate it more. Part of that mixed perception has to do with what makes Depop more than just another buying-and-selling app: It has a distinct social media culture due to its resemblance to Instagram, and in accordance with that design, its audience is remarkable in its own way.

Founded in 2011, Depop boasts more than 21 million registered users as of press time. Relatively speaking, this isn’t a huge number; in contrast, eBay, founded in 1995 as AuctionWeb, has about 185 million active buyers. However, the overwhelming majority of Depop’s audience consists of millennial and Generation Z users. In May 2020, nearly 94% of users in the United States were younger than the age of 30 and about 55% were teenagers — numbers that are likely the result of the popularity of the app’s social media muse.

Profiles on Depop, which are also known as shops, look almost identical to those on Instagram. Each listing is represented by a square photo — like a regular Instagram post — and they are arranged in uniform rows of three. They have the same double-tap mechanism to generate “likes,” along with a similar heart icon below the image(s) of the listed item, and users can also leave public comments. At the top of the screen, they can set a profile picture, name, bio and website link, and their follower and following counts are clearly displayed. Depop also has a similar home feed to Instagram in that it shows the listings of the shops a user follows as they are posted in real time, making it easy to scroll through a variety of items depending on how many shops one follows.

As someone who’s used eBay and OfferUp (a localized version of the former) in the past, Depop’s attractive simplicity makes it by far the easiest to navigate — for browsing as well as selling. I don’t actively post on my personal Instagram, but my knowledge of the social media giant’s user-friendly aesthetic made the Depop learning curve practically nonexistent. Coupled with its much more expansive offering compared to local thrift stores, the cultural familiarity makes the retail experience offered by Depop an easy one to keep coming back to.

So, despite its relatively limitless reach, the economy of Depop feels curiously small. It’s true that it’s naturally impossible to conceptualize everything the app has to offer all at once — as you can do, to a certain degree, when you consider the swaths of shopping malls and multimillion-dollar retail corporations in the United States, for example. Nevertheless, the dynamic of an audience with an age range even smaller than its social media inspiration presents an interestingly more flexible supply-and-demand environment, an advantage that the app’s brick-and-mortar counterparts cannot inherently benefit from.

Prior to the pandemic, I would make a couple trips a year to drop things off at local thrift shops that buy gently used clothing, accessories and shoes in exchange for cash or store credit. This was always a fairly easy process, but it did have significant drawbacks. The demand for certain items (and sizes) had to be high enough, and more often than not, the supply already in the stores was too high to warrant the addition of mine to the current stock. And even for the items I did sell, the monetary returns were always significantly (but expectedly) less than the prices they would actually sell for in the stores. 

On Depop, however, the transaction between buyer and seller is a true two-person interaction: There are no middlemen to minimize profits. While the app does collect a 10% fee in every transaction, the price you can sell something for has the potential to always be right if you want it enough and are willing to do the necessary research. Conversely, it’s completely up to the buyer to negotiate or purchase an item at the listed price.

While these things can be true on other buying-and-selling platforms, when you’re selling clothing and related items that likely appeal to the vast majority of the app’s audience, buyers on Depop aren’t extraordinarily difficult to attract. When I started actively selling my stuff in May of last year, I didn’t think I’d have much success. And while not everything sells quickly, a lot of what I’ve sold did so much faster than I’d expected; some items even sold within a couple of days. That relatively promising turnaround makes it easier to let go of things I might have otherwise just kept; as a result, over the past year, I’ve found myself far less attached to most of the clothes I own.

So, not only is Depop easy to navigate due to its imitation of Instagram’s design, but its overwhelmingly young audience makes the chances of significant profit far from a pipe dream. In other words, with peers numbering in the millions, the lack of age diversity becomes an advantage without taking away from the potential to appeal to a diversity of tastes and trends.

Still, it’s hard not to criticize the culture of Depop — one that makes me view it as less of a beacon of sustainability and more as just Instagram’s retail sister.

Depop’s little economy is an interesting one because, in terms of person-to-person interactions, it does function more like a social media platform than a modern market governed by specific business models and other professional technicalities. Most of my sales have been the result of casual, low-stakes conversations; I don’t talk to potential buyers who message me about an item in the same way most sales associates talk to me at any store, thrifting or otherwise. In other words, it often doesn’t feel as if it’s a serious business transaction. 

But sustainability is a serious issue — one that hasn’t really been prioritized by the fashion industry, particularly fast-fashion brands — and in my experience, it’s not exactly a visible part of Depop’s social media-inspired culture.

Like Instagram, Depop has its own influencers — those who actually do put in lucrative effort to amass consistent sales. In turn, they gain massive popularity and, in some cases, verified status, resulting in a population of small businesses on the app. While looking at shops with follower counts in the thousands and, more importantly, sale counts in the hundreds (and sometimes thousands), the most striking factor to me often lies not in the listed items themselves or the immaculate photographs of models who look as if they belong on the pages of professional marketing campaigns. Rather, it’s the listed prices for used clothing that one would expect for brand-new products, sometimes even designer labels.

In my experience, the shops with reasonable prices, or at least prices that you would typically encounter at Goodwill and other traditional thrift stores, are usually not the ones with blue check marks or extraordinarily high sales counts. The latter are popular because they’re pretty — in another word, “aesthetic,” but not in the way I’ve already described in terms of the app’s general design. It’s a matter of image — an enigmatic but alluring kind of aesthetic that has resulted in prevailing criticism targeted at Instagram’s peculiar culture of narrowly defined physical perfection.

And it’s a criticism that should not be ignored when considering just how sustainable Depop is in relation to the greater fashion industry. Shops with massive followings and clear signs of investment in their image naturally gain much more attention for the items they list; privilege, in many ways, is rewarded. Such popularity is an echo of a traditional fashion brand — it’s not surprising that people are more willing to pay more for pretty. But if fashion is problematic for its lack of consistent sustainability, are these shops with less-than-affordable used items really any different?

Thrifting, in spirit, is more sustainable because the clothing isn’t automatically going to a landfill after one owner. Depop is naturally designed with the ability to promote that practice as a peer-to-peer platform: Users are extending the life of their clothes by passing them on to new owners directly instead of throwing them away, and the purchase of those clothes generally signals a conscious departure from investment in brand-new clothing, particularly fast fashion that isn’t produced sustainably.

Promotion of and potential for sustainability, however, only go so far. It’s important to consider that because secondhand clothing does not inherently possess the same value as new clothing, the cost for the buyer should naturally be lower. But if these popular shops on Depop sell used clothing for prices close to what they could sell for brand-new — and buyers gravitate toward those profiles, thus perpetuating the cultural cycle — then it becomes sustainability for those who can afford it.

Other questionable practices also plague Depop’s marketed culture of sustainability. A common seller practice I’ve noticed on the app is buying clothing from thrift stores for the sole purpose of selling those “thrifted” items on Depop. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad side hustle, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth considering the affordability that thrift stores offer, in addition to their natural model of sustainability. Buying clothes at physical thrift stores only to sell them — not only for a higher price than what they were purchased for, of course, but to ship them, which presents another sustainability issue — takes away from those who rely on these stores because they can’t afford to spend money on brand-new clothing that’s more expensive.

Despite its unique potential to revolutionize the way young people shop, Depop is also not immune from another kind of inflation. Terms such as “rare,” “vintage” and the aforementioned “Y2K” are used as labels on Depop listings to the point of excess — not because the majority of the fashion on the app is necessarily rare or vintage or from the 2000s but because the demand for items that fall into those categories is extremely high. In perfect alignment with the democratic nature of Depop, the only real limit users face is the 1,000-character maximum count in their listing descriptions.

But in response to this demand, prices as well as the supply increase, even if the latter does so artificially. It’s not just an issue with used clothing, either; it’s not uncommon to see new items listed for far more than their retail price because the demand for certain brands is there. For example, this is often the result of the app’s cult obsession with Brandy Melville and Nike spell-out crewnecks — and sometimes users will even upsell certain products when they’re still available on the brand’s original website. Compared to the alluring power of trends, the benefit of sustainability seems almost nonexistent.

This is all not to say that every verified or popular account on Depop massively upsells the items it lists, nor that these practices are limited to those shops. It would be impossible to determine how many do. However, it’s still a significant trend I’ve noticed after roughly 10 months on the app as both an active seller and an occasional buyer, and it’s one to consider within the greater picture of both consumerism and sustainability.

In popular discourse hinging on the value of democracy and the ills of consumerism, we often condemn, to varying degrees, those in the uppermost echelons of society. Yet the very democracy of Depop doesn’t just give its users agency to do arguably absurd things such as (re)inventively sell the clothes they wore as a kid to young adults; that freedom also allows them to willingly feed into the consumerist zeitgeist we’ve upheld for centuries.

The sustainability conversation, then, becomes a little more complicated when applied to the app’s unique economy of young sellers and buyers: Who or what do you blame when an everyday stranger — who, statistically speaking, is likely not much older than a teenager — manages to sell things for much more than what could be considered affordable because they’re seemingly motivated more by demand than by sustainability? Is it fair to categorize such a seller as greedy, or is it all just “business”? Is it fair to categorize such a buyer as foolishly swept up in the vacuum of consumerism, or are they simply acting in response to their own place of privilege?

As much as Depop fosters sustainability in spirit, corporate marketing only goes so far in a culture virtually ruled by individuals who are more connected to the world than any generation before them. They bring the values they’ve already absorbed to the mobile marketplace, not the other way around. In turn, those values determine not only how they present their supply as sellers but also how they populate demand as buyers.

It’s true, of course, that Depop’s users aren’t unethical capitalists generating billions of dollars. But you don’t have to be one to a) like making money and b) understand the law of supply and demand. Sustainability doesn’t have to conflict with these things, yet it’s apparent that Depop does not exist in the fashion world solely on its own terms, as singular as its little economy is. Until sustainability becomes a driving force in the creation of the fashion fueling the Depop economy in the first place, it seems that Instagram’s retail sister will continue to be defined by its paradoxical culture: a novelty rooted in imitation.

Contact Jordan Harris at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jordxnhxrris.