Finding the perfect pair of vintage Levi’s used to require hours at a thrift store, endless eBay searches, and often a few visits to the tailor. For some of us, it was among the most noble of fashion pursuits; for others, it was just too much work. Today, Levi’s is making it a little easier with the launch of Levi’s Secondhand, a recommerce site for previously worn Levi’s jeans and denim jackets. Some of it will be handpicked vintage, but most of the garments will be sourced directly from Levi’s customers: Starting now, anyone can turn in any Levi’s denim item—even if it’s damaged—for a gift card towards a future purchase.
It marks a significant turning point, both for Levi’s and the fashion industry as a whole. Levi’s is the first denim brand of its size to create a buyback program like this and effectively take responsibility for the full “life cycle” of its garments. It’s an example of true circularity: You could buy a brand-new pair of Levi’s tomorrow, and you’d know exactly what the “end use” might be, should you tire of them in a few years. For conscious shoppers, that’s often the difference between buying something or… not. How long will I wear this? Is it built to last? What will happen to it when I don’t want it anymore?
That’s the same consumer who likely prefers to buy secondhand clothing, which by nature has a lower environmental impact than brand-new items. The growing popularity of thrifting, vintage, and consignment was the real driver behind Levi’s Secondhand (not to mention the fact that Levi’s is apparently the most-searched-for denim brand in vintage and secondhand markets; it no doubt wants to capture some of that market share). As chief marketing officer Jen Sey points out, nearly 60% of Gen Z consumers already buy secondhand clothes. “They love the hunt, they love finding a really unique item, and it makes it even better that it’s a sustainable choice,” she says. “Buying a used pair of Levi’s saves approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions, and 1.5 pounds of waste, compared to buying a new pair. As we scale this, that will really start adding up.”
Some other useful stats: Globally, consumers “miss out” on $460 billion of value a year by throwing away clothes that could be worn by someone else. That’s wasteful from a creative standpoint, and extending a garment’s life by just nine months can reduce its carbon, waste, and water footprint by 20 to 30%. By that logic, a vintage jean from the ’90s might have a footprint close to zero.
Here’s the more pressing, big picture takeaway: If the apparel industry continues to expand at its current rate—last year, the Global Fashion Agenda estimated it would grow 81% by 2030, though the number could be slightly lower due to the pandemic—fashion will use 26% of the world’s budget for staying within a two-degree rise in temperature by 2050. (This refers to the Paris Agreement’s top-line goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature below two degrees Celsius, and ideally under 1.5 degrees Celsius.)
That strain on resources wouldn’t have been acceptable a year ago, but in 2020—faced with a pandemic, a record fire season, floods, dying coral reefs, and countless other climate disasters—fashion can’t just “try” to do better and make incremental changes. Its impacts need to be significantly reduced, and that will require more than just shopping secondhand. We need massive, systemic shifts, all the way down to the way we grow our materials. But seeing global brands promote secondhand shopping and align it with a “lower carbon” wardrobe can be an impactful first step in educating and galvanizing consumers.
The celebrity partners Levi’s signed on for the Secondhand launch will also help. Hailey Bieber filmed a video with stylist Maeve Reilly to show how to find the right vintage fit, and Jaden Smith, Carolyn Murphy, Amber Valletta, June Ambrose, and Lily Aldridge will also appear in campaigns. Levi’s also teamed up with sustainable fashion advocates Dominique Drakeford and Whitney R. McGuire of Sustainable Brooklyn and climate activists Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Xiye Bastida, with portraits by Rachael Wang.
“We want to make Levi’s Secondhand second nature,” Sey adds. “This launch is the first step, but definitely not the last one.” Levi’s is experimenting with recycled and regenerated fibers too, and recently launched a puffer made from recycled plastic bottles, discarded polyester, and other synthetic waste that was spun into a new yarn. In the near future, it isn’t hard to imagine wearing a Levi’s outfit that’s made entirely of garments and fabrics on their second (or third) life. Let’s hope that becomes a reality for all of the brands we love, sooner rather than later.