Clothing is, in the words of sustainability commentator Chris Goodall, “the linear economy at its worst.” The fashion industry runs cheap and fast, outsourcing the environmental and social costs onto lower income countries, and relying on novelty purchases in rich countries to make its profits. Most clothing is discarded before it is worn out, and 85% of it goes to landfill or incineration.
Although it very rarely gets mentioned in discussions around climate change, clothing is a major obstacle to net zero goals. There are carbon emissions from growing the cotton or producing polyester, more emissions from processing and manufacturing, then shipping, and then from disposal. At the moment the fashion industry is responsible for a single-figure share of global emissions, but it is rising so fast that by 2050 it could account for a whole quarter. And carbon is just one of the problems. Water pollution and depletion are also considerable, and then there are all the ethical concerns around worker pay and conditions.
There are of course companies that want to do business differently. I’ve written before about Rapanui and its recycled t-shirts. Mud Jeans will lease a pair of jeans to you instead of selling them. G-Star Raw have experimented with making fabrics out of ocean plastics. Tom Cridland will sell you timeless wardrobe staples with a 30 year guarantee.
The bigger the company, the more likely they are to influence the wider sector, and that’s where Levi’s have been a brand to watch. Last year they launched a water strategy, improving on water-saving processes that have already saved billions of litres of water. They have experimented with hemp, and with recycled cotton. They were among the first businesses to commit to science-based carbon targets, and are on track for a 90% reduction by 2025. And their latest step is to prolong the life of their clothing by encouraging a secondhand market.
American customers can now drop off used jeans and denim jackets at Levi’s stores, in exchange for a credit voucher. The company will refurbish them, clean them up and sell them through its online secondhand store. “Levi’s SecondHand keeps coveted pieces in circulation” they say. “It’s all about connecting people to timeless styles they otherwise may not have found, and most importantly, saving clothing from going into a landfill.”
With this new initiative, Levi’s joins a select handful of fashion brands that have developed a ‘reverse supply chain’ to support secondhand sales. Patagonia, which sells refurbished outdoor gear, is another. So is Eileen Fisher, and there’s actually one behind-the-scenes start-up behind all three of these pioneers. I’ll write specifically about them another time.
Secondhand markets are an important part of a circular economy. They keep goods in circulation, reduce waste and CO2, and help companies to take responsibility for their clothes after use.