If you bring an old pair of Levi’s jeans back to one of the brand’s U.S. stores, you’ll get a gift card for as much as $25. Then the company will clean the jeans and sell them in a new online store called Levi’s SecondHand.
It’s the latest in a series of brands to embrace the circular economy. Patagonia launched a take-back program in 2017, sending old clothing from customers to a repair center for cleaning, refurbishment, and resale. The North Face followed with a similar collection in 2018. Then came Arc’teryx, with a program called Rock Solid Used Gear.
Of course, some denim is already donated or resold. But much of it isn’t, just like any other article of clothing. And clothing production has more than doubled since the year 2000—by 2014, more than 100 billion items were being made in a year. As consumers buy more, they’re wearing each item less and more likely to send it to landfill. (On average, a piece of clothing is now worn 36% times fewer now than it was at the beginning of the millennium.) For consumers, throwing out clothing also means missing out, collectively, on $460 billion in value each year.
Levi Strauss will be the first to focus on taking back and reselling jeans, though others have collected jeans for recycling, like Madewell, which sends used denim off to be turned into insulation for housing. From a sustainability perspective, reuse is a better option. Buying used means that the environmental impact of making a new pair of jeans—from water and fertilizer used to grow cotton to the dyes that are used—can be avoided.
Levi’s estimated that the carbon footprint of a pair of cleaned and repaired jeans is 80% lower than new. Just extending the life of a piece of clothing by nine months, the company says, does more to reduce environmental impact than anything else that can happen in the life cycle of that apparel.