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Thrifted Denim Is a Win-Win for Consumers, Resale Sites and the Planet

Online marketplaces for pre-owned fashion are the virtual counterparts to traditional thrift shops. As consumers become more conscious about the environment and their wallets, sites like Depop, Poshmark, ThredUp and The Real Real are go-to sources to find their next denim deal.

And the average consumer is finding out what denim heads long knew: denim’s old charm lend itself well to resale.

“Thrifted denim is generally a smart purchase because of the durable nature of the fabric, which often lasts longer than other fabrics, and gets better with wear,” said Natalie Tomlin, a ThredUp spokesperson. “People typically love the distressed look of worn denim with, which makes it easy to be resold again and again.”

Make a deal

With household closets serving as their supply chain, resale platforms offer consumers an element of surprise with a constant rotation of new pre-owned product for less.

“ThredUp is the go-to for expensive denim at affordable prices,” Tomlin said. The company accepts more than 35,000 brands—ranging from Madewell and J Brand to Gucci—and resells them for prices that are up to 90 percent off estimated retail.

A pair of Rag & Bone black skinny jeans that originally sold at traditional retail for $253 goes for $41 on ThredUp, while a pair of $495 flare jeans by Stella McCartney sells for $105.

The brand list on The Real Real reads like a who’s who list of premium denim designers. Jeans by labels like Mother, J Brand and Acne Studios are currently being sold on The Real Real for as low as $25.

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While the cost-saving perks for consumers shopping resale are obvious, denim is also proving to be a reliable business for the resale sites.

“Demand, especially for denim, is not quite impacted by seasonality,” said Sasha Skoda, The Real Real head of women’s.

The Real Real, she said, benefits by having millions of members worldwide. “That means when it’s summer in one country, it’s winter in another,” she said.

Tomlin said ThredUp sells denim year-round, however, the reseller typically sees a spike in the fall months as consumers are looking to refresh their fall wardrobes. Last year, denim sales in October and November were 30 percent higher than average monthly denim sales in 2019, Tomlin said.

Sustainable advantage

And what’s good for business also bodes well for the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the generation of textiles in 2017 was 16.9 million tons. The same year, landfills received 11.2 million tons of textile waste.

ThredUp’s mission is to extend the life of every garment, and to keep as many textiles as possible in use and out of landfills.

“Jeans have 4-5 times the carbon impact of a T-shirt,” Tomlin said. “Buying denim secondhand can help reduce your fashion footprint, while keeping clothing in use and out of landfills.”

While The Real Real can’t alter the production of denim, Skoda said the company can promote sustainable consumer habits through resale by keeping denim in circulation and out of landfills.

“Over 1,800 gallons of water are used to make one pair of jeans, not to mention genetically modified cotton and toxic dyes—the latter of which end up in the world’s waterways,” she said. “To date, consignments of women’s and men’s jeans at The Real Real saved over 89 million liters of water and counting—definitely an advantage.”

Name game

ThredUp’s roster of denim brands says a lot about the current state of the U.S. women’s denim market. Newcomers are speaking consumers’ language with size-inclusive and sustainable production, while there’s always demand for the authentic jeanswear look.

The jeans brands with highest sell-through on ThredUp in 2019, Tomlin reported, were Reformation, Everlane, Universal Standard, Torrid, Madewell, Grlfrnd, Good American, Levi’s, Agolde and J Brand.

While mainstream brands like Levi’s and Madewell that focus on enduring styles are always in high demand, Tomlin said designer styles from brands like J Brand and Agolde have cache among consumers who want to elevate their wardrobes for less. Meanwhile, “cool-girl styles” from brands like Reformation, Everlane, and Universal Standard continue to be a draw on ThredUp.

Designers names pack a powerful punch for The Real Real. Prior to the pandemic, Rag & Bone and J Brand had the highest search demand, Skoda said. The reseller is also seeing sustainability-focused brands like Re/Done, a brand known for its upcycled vintage denim garments, trend in the market.

From a luxury standpoint, Gucci continues to be the most wanted, she added.

Resale is also a place where consumers can experiment with directional fits and runway trends on a budget—a factor that may gain greater appeal to a price-conscious, post-pandemic consumer.

Though classic jeans styles with mid-rise and slim-leg silhouettes are in the greatest demand, Skoda said The Real Real is also seeing interest in vintage designer denim, particularly for Fendi and Versace.

“Classic yet chic boot-cut and straight-leg styles” from brands like Reformation and Everlane are among the most frequently purchased jeans on ThredUp, but Tomlin said flares and wide-leg jeans have the highest sell-through rates.

“Wide-leg denim is in,” Tomlin said. “In 2019, wide-leg styles from brands like Free People and Everlane were flying off the virtual shelves.”