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H&M, Madewell and other retailers invite you to unload old clothes for store rewards

If you’ve been meaning to donate some old clothes but haven’t gotten around to it, here's some fresh motivation: Certain retailers are offering reward programs for dropping donations at their stores.

H&M, The North Face, American Eagle Outfitters, Levi's, Madewell and Patagonia are among the most notable retailers touting variations of in-store recycling programs. And it’s part of a growing trend, with rewards coming mostly in the form of coupons and gift cards.

Even Target got on board this past summer, experimenting with a similar, smaller-scale initiative through a partnership with online consignment and thrift shop thredUP.

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A spokesperson for Target told TODAY.com that the chain is not presently offering the program, having retired a pilot run this past September after three months. The spokesperson declined to comment on how it performed or whether Target will resume the program. (The consignment shop will continue to accept donations through November in exchange for a threadUP gift card or cash.)

Retail expert Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm the NPD Group, said the trend started in apparel retail about two years ago, and that it will likely gain steam over the next few years given the multiple benefits it affords companies.

"These initiatives give life [to a product] after use," Cohen told TODAY.com.

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They're also excellent PR, painting brands as both environmentally aware and responsible in an age of excess waste. Unlike commonly recycled products such as cardboard, clothing materials can be tough to break down. Cotton, for instance, needs to be chopped up and converted into raw material — a process that wears hard on the fibers. What’s more, the mass production of clothing also has a human toll, too. In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, a Bangladeshi garment factory, killed more than 1,100 people.

"It's ecologically good, and, from a loyalty perspective, incentivizes consumers to come back," said Cohen of retailers' recycling initiatives.

Most retailers offering such programs are handing the goods over to organizations that serve people in need, whether by providing free clothing or repurposing the material into something completely different like denim housing insulation for Habitat for Humanity.

Other stores like H&M go one step further by "upcycling" some of the donated goods into new garments for its Conscious Exclusive line.

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While this option is clever, creative, and eco-friendly, it's not an easy process — nor is it a cheap one.

"The material is already available but the processing of the old material actually costs more than new material," Cohen said.

For chains looking to offer a donation initiative without H&M-level resources, recycling is the most viable option. We can expect to see more stores joining the movement — even if it doesn't turn them a profit.

"It's good PR and it drives loyalty," said Cohen.

Here's the low-down on each of the programs offered by the aforementioned retailers:

  • To participate in H&M's Garment Collecting Initiative, exchange any unwanted apparel to an H&M location for a 20 percent off store discount. The retailer says that any monies earned from the donations will be used o invest in social programs and sustainability research.
  • The North Face's Clothes the Loop program invites consumers to drop off used apparel in exchange for a North Face coupon. Proceeds go to The Conservation Alliance.
  • American Eagle Outfitters partnered with I:CO, a closed-loop textile recycling company — meaning a more sustainable process, where material can be recycled indefinitely — to put donation boxes in 800+ American Eagle Outfitters stores. People who make clothing drop-offs are rewarded a text code for $5 off a pair of AEO jeans. Any proceeds from the program go to the Student Conservation Association.
  • Levi Strauss & Co is also partnered with I:CO. Anyone who drops an item of clothing in an on-site collection box at a Levi's store will receive a voucher for 20 percent off a single, regular-priced Levi’s item in-store.
  • In its recycling initiative, Madewell focuses solely on denim. Bring your old jeans into a Madewell store for $20 off a pair of new jeans. Pairs donated to Blue Jeans Go Green are used to make housing insulation.
  • Patagonia's recycling program is only interested in used Patagonia goods. Once you've selected those, you'll want to sign up with Yerdle, which will give you $25 "Yerdle dollars" in exchange for your retired Patagonia threads.
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