A new video that is part of Levi’s multiyear “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign, features a man buying a pair of 501 jeans in the 1970s and wearing them to the disco. The jeans are then thrifted by an ’80s arcade-goer and a ’90s skateboarder. By the 2020s, they’re faded to light blue and torn, but an influencer gets her hands on them, giving them another life.
The point is that Levi’s jeans are so durable, they can be worn for generations, rather than seasons. Levi’s is illustrating that we need to stop treating our clothes as disposable.
Fashion has contributed to our current environmental crisis thanks to decades of convincing consumers to buy more and more. Today an estimated 100 billion garments are churned out annually, accounting for around 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions and the extraction of vast quantities of natural resources.
The Levi’s video makes the case that in order to get out of this mess, consumers need to stop buying so many new clothes. But it shouldn’t be entirely on us: Brands need to take responsibility by not manufacturing trends, then flooding the market with new products. And as of right now, brands—including Levi’s—do not appear to be following through on this. But with its new campaign, the denim company is at least willing to start the conversation.
“Levi’s was workwear for the longest time,” says Paul Dillinger, head of global innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. “But we got away from that when (denim) started to represent youth, dissent, and identity. We started mass-producing them, but now we’re trying to use our voice to realign the market to a more responsible mode of behavior.”
Turning back the clock
In many ways, what we’re really talking about is turning back the clock and returning to the consumption habits of our parents and grandparents. In the 1950s, most American clothing was expensive, and families spent 9% of their annual income on apparel. Brands made clothes locally, using high-quality materials such as cotton, wool, and silk; cheaper, plastic-based synthetic fabrics like polyester weren’t widely available yet.
But starting in the ’90s, things began to change. Brands started making clothes using low-cost labor in developing countries and relying on cheap materials. Then came the fast-fashion brands that specialize in making fashion-forward clothes at rock-bottom prices.
The latest, Shein, puts out 6,000 new styles every day, with shirts priced as low as $3. As a result, today’s consumers spend an average of only 3% of their income on clothing but are able to buy exponentially more products. The lower prices democratized fashion, but the problem is that we have stopped wearing garments for as long–an average of just seven times before tossing them out.
Over the past decade, consumers have become more aware of fashion’s environmental footprint. To cater to these eco-conscious customers, brands have started to invest in more sustainable materials like recycled cotton and polyester, and less-polluting manufacturing practices—from regenerative farming to factories powered by renewable energy.
Levi’s has done this as well. Its most recent sustainability report is focused on reducing greenhouse gases, toxic chemicals, and water use. But Dillinger acknowledges that the most powerful way to reduce environmental impact is simply for consumers to buy fewer jeans and wear them repeatedly.
“Marketing campaigns that are about promoting sustainable attributes as a mechanism to incite additional consumption seem inauthentic and misaligned with the spirit of sustainability,” he says, noting that the current campaign is an effort to correct this. “Levi’s has a marketing budget. Instead of using it to convince people they should buy us because of our sustainability, we’re going to convince them to care for their clothes, wear them longer, then give them away.”
But it’s going to take a lot more than an ad to change production and consumption habits. To create this change, brands will need to redesign clothes to be longer-lasting using sturdy materials. More importantly, they will need to stop chasing trends and making consumers feel like clothes have an expiration date.
Can Levi’s actually produce fewer jeans?
Dillinger believes that Levi’s is in a good position to pivot to selling fewer, more durable goods. The company was founded 170 years ago as a workwear brand, creating pants that miners and farmers would be able to wear through years of hard labor. The brand continues to make jeans with the same methods, like using metal studs (called rivets) to reinforce pockets.
“The patent for rivets is still the foundation of the jeans we create today,” he says. “The product quality metrics—like the tear and tensile strength—-that we expect in a 501 has not changed.”
But Levi’s is far from curbing its production. The company’s revenues have been steadily increasing annually, minus a small blip during the pandemic. Its 2021 revenue was $5.8 billion, back to pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the price of its clothing hasn’t gone up, which means that it is manufacturing the same quantity of products.
Like all other denim brands on the market, Levi’s is interested in keeping up with trends, as jean styles tend to change every few years, from bell bottoms to skinny to boot cut. In its most recent annual report, the company took pride in kick-starting a new denim trend. “We have led a new denim cycle to looser, baggier fits—the first new cycle in over a decade,” the report says.
Levi’s has a long way to go before its business practices are focused on churning out fewer jeans. But Dillinger contends that its multiyear advertising strategy, which is called “Buy Better, Wear Longer,” is not just about helping consumers rethink their buying habits. This new video is meant to highlight the enduring popularity of the 501 jean and prompts the viewer to shop pre-owned 501s from thrift stores, rather than buying new pairs from Levi’s.
All of this has a bearing on Levi’s production strategy. And Dillinger says that the company is developing new business models that will allow it to keep generating revenue while producing fewer garments, such as marketing its most classic, timeless styles, like the 501 jeans, and investing in its resale site, which it launched in 2020.
“Business will adjust,” he says. “I have no fear that businesses like ours won’t figure out what to do in the scenario where people start consuming more responsibly.”
By Liz Segran