Is it safe to buy vintage online while social distancing?
An expert weighs in on whether you should click purchase on that Depop order.
Photo via @spicyshit Depop.
As much of the world stays home and practices social distancing, life as we know it -- including our shopping habits -- has been halted. While online shopping was already steadily overtaking the retail market, store closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have hit the accelerator towards an online-only market. In fact, data from analytics firm Quantum Metric show that online clothing shopping revenue is already up 43% at US-based online retailers since the first week of January, and that the average order value has gone up 26% in that time span.
While shopping online may seem like the most obvious way to continue to support your favourite local businesses at this time, as many job losses cause people to shop less or not at all, the secondhand clothing market has gone largely undiscussed. And with more time on our hands to endlessly scroll, the temptation to splurge on pieces on Ebay, Etsy, or apps like Depop is real. Julia L. Marcus, who's an Infectious disease epidemiologist and an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, believes it’s still possible to shop vintage finds without risking your health.
“I would say the overall risk of transmission in terms of secondhand shopping is very, very low,” she tells i-D. “By the time a box of secondhand clothes gets to your house, it's been hours or even days since anyone was in contact with the contents. So, even if somebody who was infected handled the clothes, it's highly unlikely for the virus to still be viable after that much time.” This makes the risk of shopping secondhand similar to buying new, although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wash the items.
“If you're buying secondhand clothes, you could also throw them in the washing machine with hot water and detergent before wearing them if you're concerned,” Marcus says, something that should be considered with vintage purchases regardless. “But again, we're talking about a really hypothetical and probably very low risk.”
The outside of the package, Marcus explains, is more likely to have come into recent contact with an infected person, but handling it still has a “very low risk” of transmission. “The best approach here is to wash your hands after bringing anything new into the house, including mail packages,” she says. As for packaging material, she doesn’t think people need to be overly concerned about the type of packaging. “It is generally going to be a cardboard box. And we know that at this point, the CDC is not recommending disinfecting packaging,” Marcus explains. “As far as we know, there's no evidence of transmission happening through packaging or mail or even grocery shopping.”
Marcus emphasises that the most important thing to do is keep your hands clean. She recommends picking up a package, taking out the contents, disposing of the outside packaging and then making sure to wash your hands before you touch your face. With this in mind, you can still enjoy purchases Depop or your favourite secondhand stores.
“I don't think there's any inherent ethical problem with buying second secondhand clothes right now as long as everybody in the supply chain is being cared for in terms of their safety,” says Marcus, noting the importance of asking retailers how they’re protecting their workers.
For many sellers on popular secondhand clothing app Depop, the ability to work alone and from home brings the opportunity to still generate income during the pandemic. "It is still safe to shop second-hand and vintage on Depop," Marie Petrovicka, Vice President International of Depop, told i-D in a statement. "It is a requirement that all secondhand items sold on our platform must be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s instructions before being listed for sale, and we have strict measures in place including removing accounts or listings that fail to abide by this rule. We have also provided guidance from the World Health Organization on the health and safety precautions that both buyers and sellers should take with every transaction."
Oliver Purnell, the 21-year-old behind the popular Depop store Oliver’s Archive, has adapted to the new challenges by ensuring that he’s the only person that goes into his studio. “It’s still business as usual regarding our online store, however I’m only going in twice a week for fundamentally necessary operational tasks, packaging orders and photographing new stock,” he says. Previously, he was visiting his studio every day of the week.
Purnell says that once he’s in his studio he’s washing and sanitizing his hands before packaging orders, and only visiting the post office once a week. He’s had a few customers ask if they’re still shipping orders, but otherwise sales have returned back to normal after a dip a week prior to the UK lockdown. “The fact that most people should still be getting paid this way and that they’re not spending money on nights out, going out day to day could actually have a positive impact on online businesses that are still operating like us,” he adds.
Fiona Short, the UK-based Depop seller behind Fifi’s Closet, is in a similar position to Purnell, in that she's able to prepare, package and process all of her orders single-handedly. “We see this as a chance to build as a community and see the sustainable movement grow,” she explains. “We are lucky enough that we can push forward as a small business safely and continue to use Fifi's Closet to support and bring people together through these times, as part of the community.” Currently unable to handpick new stock and materials, Short is featuring and releasing unique one-off archive pieces on her shop instead.
Aside from resale apps such as Depop, small secondhand businesses are adapting to be online only. Awoke Vintage, which has three stores in Brooklyn, is still selling vintage pieces through Instagram stories, via direct messaging. While all of their physical stores are closed to the public, they’ve established several "outposts", of staff selling online from the safety of their homes. “We have our own online shipment system too, so we can follow social distancing rules, stay home and keep ourselves and the wider community safe,” Jennifer Robson, who manages Awoke's two Greenpoint stores, tells i-D. “All packages are wrapped and labeled at home and collected safely by our neighborhood USPS workers, who we're eternally grateful to for supporting us at this time.”
Robson says the support during this time has been “heartwarming”. “We're very fortunate to have a strong online customer base as we've been selling through our Instagram stories for a long time,” she says. “We're also fortunate that our customers are incredibly loyal and supportive. People are really rallying for small businesses across America and we're shipping to more states than ever.” The demand has even transcended their expectations, with many of their regular customers checking in on how the staff are keeping safe and well.
For those who are able, there’s a strong urge to shop online during this time to support small businesses and still enjoy new items, from the safety of home. There’s also no reason why this can’t include secondhand businesses, who have a positive impact on our environment, if you check in on how they’re keeping their employees safe. And, as always with any current purchase, make sure you’re washing your hands.