In September, Swedish fast-fashion brand H&M introduced a 16-piece denim collection that uses 20% recycled cotton yarn.
The Denim Re-Born range includes six pieces for women (three jean styles, a flare-leg denim overall, denim jumpsuit and a denim jacket), five for men (including two jean styles, a zip-up denim jacket and a sweat pant silhouette in coated denim) and a handful of children's items (including a totally adorable zip-front hoodie with animal ears). The clothes don't look any different than the company's standard-issue offerings, nor does the price range ($39.99 to $59.99 for the men's and women's styles, $17.99 to $29.99 for the kid's clothes).
What is remarkable about the new pieces is that the recycled cotton yarn used in their manufacture comes from some of the 14,000 tons of unwanted clothing H&M has diverted from landfills through its global garment-collection initiative, making about as much of a round-trip as a cast-off pair of culottes can travel these days.
H&M rolled out its in-store collection program in 2013, and today it works like this: any customer who donates a bag of clothing (of any brand) at one of H&M's stores receives a voucher worth 15% off his or her next purchase. Then Switzerland-based I:CO (the abbreviation stands for "I Collect") sorts the clothes, sending some on to a new life pretty much as is (supplying secondhand stores, for example), while others are shredded for insulation or turned into rags or cleaning cloths. Still others are broken down into their component parts and recycled into yarns that are then channeled back into the manufacturing process to make more garments. (In addition, the company makes a donation — worth about a penny per pound — to a charity in each country where it operates. In the U.S. the beneficiary is Global Green USA.)
The launch of the Denim Re-Born collection was the next logical step for the company, which has a stated goal of completely "closing the loop" in the apparel manufacturing process. (One hurdle is finding a way to increase the recycled-fiber content of new garments without affecting quality.)
H&M may have been an early pioneer in landfill-avoiding pants-repatriating incentive programs, but these days it is far from the only brand trying to offset its environmental impact and cater to an increasingly eco-sensitive customer at the same time. Below is a short list of some of the brands that are trying to keep discarded duds out of the dump while priming the pump for new purchases at the same time.
American Eagle Outfitters
In April, American Eagle Outfitters announced its own loop-closing (or at least shrinking) program, which turns discarded denim into building insulation for use in construction projects by Make it Right, the house-building effort founded by Brad Pitt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The company has been collecting and recycling clothes and shoes since January 2014, but thanks to the new program, any customer who brings any kind of denim from any brand into one of its 832 stores in North America gets a 20% discount on a new pair of jeans. I:CO (the same company that works with H&M) does the reuse/upcycle/recycle sorting and sends any unwearable denim along to be shredded and turned into UltraTouch Denim Insulation. That, in turn, is used by the Make It Right folks as they work to build sustainable and affordable houses for communities in need.
The label's recycled clothing initiative (with the fun name "Green Eileen") accepts donations of gently worn Eileen Fisher branded items at all of its retail stores. The donations are then resold in one of eight designated Eileen Fisher stores, with profits going to a range of programs that benefit girls and women. Each recycled item earns a $5 reward card that can then be redeemed in store or online.
Levi Strauss & Co.
In July, San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co announced a program that's very similar to American Eagle Outfitters', right down to the partnership with I:CO and the incentive of a 20% discount. The big difference is that Levi's offer isn't confined to denim; any clean, dry item of clothing or pair of shoes (of any brand) brought to a U.S. Levi's store is worth a voucher for 20% off the purchase of a regular-priced in-store Levi's item.
If you've got a closet full of high-end designer goods you just can't bear — or afford — to turn into attic insulation, another option is to check out Neiman Marcus' recently announced partnership with luxury consignment website the Real Real. The goods need not have been purchased at Neiman Marcus, but consignors who elect to be paid via a Neiman Marcus gift card earn an extra 10%, suddenly turning that $1,000 made by parting with some Prada (or Chanel or Gucci) worth $1,100 of shopping credit with the Dallas-based retailer.
In addition, the partnership, announced in July, also expands an in-store consignment program from six bricks-and-mortar Neiman Marcus stores to a total of 34. Under this program, customers don't actually bring unwanted items to a Neiman Marcus store but instead work with sales associates who connect them with Real Real market representatives, to coordinate who arranges the details.
The offer from this eco-friendly clothing brand is about as simple as it gets: Each online purchase is shipped with a pre-printed free shipping label tucked inside the box. Customers are encouraged to remove their new clothes from the box, fill the box up with any unwanted apparel — clothes, bags, belts or shoes — slap the label on the outside and arrange to have it picked up at the door. Reformation has partnered with a Pennsylvania-based company, Community Recycling, to receive the clothes and sort them for either responsible reuse or recycling. There are no discounts in exchange, no vouchers of value — just the warm fuzzy feeling of keeping those questionable clothes off the trash heap. (It's worth noting that Community Recycling also offers the free shipping labels – no strings attached – through its website.)