In the first year of American Eagle Outfitters' "Recycle. Rejean." promotion, the South Side company collected 61,672 denim items from customers who got discounts in exchange for their old jeans. This fall's event -- the second year of the program -- brought in 71,330 items.
This year's haul alone is enough to make unconventional insulation for more than 140 houses, according to Marcie Eberhart, director of the American Eagle Outfitters Foundation.
"It's product-rooted philanthropy," said Ms. Eberhart. The retailer has found that its young customer base is particularly interested in educational issues and in environmental ones, which is one reason the denim recycling promotion resonates.
"Customers love this kind of thing," she said.
In this season of consumption, it's worth noting that a number of experiments are under way as companies explore ways to close the sustainability loop in the supercharged merchandising world. That might mean helping consumers do something better with stuff they don't want rather than sending it to a landfill or it might mean capturing excess raw materials in the manufacturing process and putting them to use.
The interest is there -- whether as a result of customers attracted to community-minded businesses, government pressure to reduce waste or just seeing the value in a more efficiently run operation -- but figuring out what will be the most effective method may be a few years away yet.
One of the more advanced sectors in terms of taking merchandise out of the system is consumer electronics. It doesn't hurt Best Buy's image that it now accepts everything from cell phones to computers for recycling, but the big factor driving the electronics recycling trend is the growing web of laws around the country meant to keep the heavy metals used in electronics out of landfills.
In Pennsylvania, the new Covered Device Recycling Act takes effect Jan. 24. Under the regulation, citizens and businesses will have to stop throwing away computers, laptops and televisions with the normal trash. While iPads and Kindles are covered, cell phones are exempt.
To put a little teeth behind the law, manufacturers must send a report every year to the state Department of Environmental Protection that "includes the total weight of the devices sold nationally, for the past two years, and in Pennsylvania for the past year," according to the department's explanatory literature.
That data will be compared to the plan manufacturers submitted on how they would collect and recycle the devices. "If the total weight of the covered devices collected is less than the amount provided in its approved plan for that year, the manufacturer must pay a penalty."
Bagging up old jeans or cell phones for a trip back to the mall is one thing, but what can be done with that old couch?
Not long ago, Swedish furniture seller Ikea ran a test in which consumers were asked to return discarded plastic furniture to two stores in Sweden, according to the company's 2011 Sustainability report. The stores collected two large containers worth over a two-week period, and the company determined that a lot of the materials could be used again.
Another project being planned in Sweden and Germany is meant to figure out how to encourage customers to recycle Ikea products. "This may include organizing secondhand events as well as providing opportunities for customers to bring back products such as sofas and mattresses, if they cannot be donated or re-sold by the customer," the report said.
Instead of seeing trucks and cars leaving Ikea stores loaded up with latest fashions in furniture, the future may bring the sight of vehicles returning battered futons and bookcases.
Much in the way that nonprofits like Goodwill have taken on the work of re-configuring old computers or dealing with used clothes, charitable organizations often have a role in helping for-profit businesses organize these new efforts.
When Columbia Sportswear wanted to figure out a way to use material left over when suppliers make its products, the Portland, Ore., company contacted a lot of charitable organizations, including World Vision.
The Christian relief organization worked with Columbia on a pilot project in Indonesia last year in which a supplier made school uniforms out of excess material and World Vision distributed them. The company is now trying to re-purpose materials in Central America, and it might eventually partner with other brands that use the same factories.
Jeff Fields, who works in World Vision's Sewickley warehouse as the organization's senior director of corporate development, has been working with Columbia on the projects and he's excited by the possibilities. In his job, he spends a lot of time helping businesses get rid of excess goods in a way that benefits people who don't have enough.
Lately that has meant trying things beyond the group's traditional route of taking unsold merchandise off a retailer's hands or picking up slightly imperfect goods from a manufacturer. If the Columbia Sportswear project works out, Mr. Fields plans to pitch the concept to other companies.
He's also in the midst of a different sort of trial with Dick's Sporting Goods. In late October, the Findlay retailer asked customers to bring in winter coats they didn't need. The promotion was meant to boost sales -- the retailer offered a coupon to those who also bought a new coat priced at $90 or more -- and tap the warm, fuzzy factor.
But the deal also turned the chain into a reverse logistics operator, coping with used goods. That's not exactly what Dick's has spent years perfecting as it has grown into a business with hundreds of stores that produce sales in excess of $5 billion annually.
World Vision, which doesn't typically deal with used goods either, has worked with the retailer before and agreed to re-distribute the coats from its warehouses in Philippi, W.Va.; Chicago; and Seattle -- if the quality is good. "We're hoping it's going to be successful," said Mr. Fields.
Groups like World Vision, and others like Unicef and the American Red Cross that Columbia Sportswear works with, have transportation systems set up and have established relationships with governments around the world, noted Scott Trepanier, senior manager of public relations and promotions for Columbia Sportswear.
"Our difficulty is we don't have the kind of budget to put toward this project because we're a business," he admitted.
Without World Vision's involvement, he said the project in Indonesia wouldn't have worked because of government restrictions on where certain materials can be distributed. In addition, he said, the company might not always know what the needs are in communities dealing with disasters or battling poverty.
American Eagle's partner on its denim project is Cotton Inc., which has been working since 2006 with retailers and other groups to collect denim for recycling into insulation by a Chandler, Ariz., company named Bonded Logic.
In the teen retailer's programs, the denim has been turned into insulation used in Habitat for Humanity houses in the New Orleans area. Ms. Eberhart took a group, including two employees from stores in Colorado and New York, to the site earlier this year to spend a day putting the material into two houses under construction.
"It was just really fun," she said, even if the blue insulation did give everyone's skin a colorful cast by the end of the day.
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018.