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For Blue Jeans Go Green, ‘Tis the Season to Recycle and Donate Unwanted Jeans

Minimalist Marie Kondo is millennials’ Martha Stewart. Greta Thunberg is giving a voice to young environmental activists. And clothing brands are owning up to their contribution to pollution and textile waste by setting ambitious goals to reduce, reuse and recycle.

For Blue Jeans Go Green, Cotton Incorporated’s denim recycling program, these wide sweeping movements combine to create a perfect storm. The program, which has collected more than 2.5 million pieces of denim, diverting more than 1,230 tons from landfills, now has 29 retail and brand partnerships in the U.S.—many of which offer incentives for consumers to recycle, like discounts on new purchases (i.e. your holiday shopping list).

And the momentum is growing, said Andrea Samber, Cotton Incorporated’s director of consumer marketing. In the first 10 months of 2019, the initiative collected more than double the number of jeans it collected last year, she said .

“We’re really excited by the awareness of [Blue Jeans Go Green] and the fact that it’s really resonating with people across the U.S.,” Samber added.

In June, Blue Jeans Go Green unveiled an activation at Denim Days New York, where it announced a collaboration with Zappos for Good, the community outreach arm of The footwear and apparel site is providing consumers with prepaid mailing labels that they can download and use to ship their used denim to Zappos.

And to mark America Recycles Day in November, Blue Jeans Go Green hosted a sustainable pop-up shop and donation drive at The Gregory Hotel in New York City with Caravan Stylist Studio. The event was supported by the first-ever “Denim Stack Challenge,” which encouraged consumers to take inventory of their wardrobe and recycle unused clothing. Participants were asked to stack up their old denim and share it on Instagram with the hashtag #DenimStackChallenge.

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These activations were made possible by the more than 13 years of grassroots efforts that started at the college level in 2006.

Blue Jeans Go Green emerged during a time when the U.S. economy was declining and consumers were seeking ways to give back without having to open their wallets—particularly cash-strapped, millennial-age college students.

At the time, Blue Jeans Go Green had just one retail partner accepting donations—Buckle—but the message was out there and it was simple: The denim collected through the program is recycled into UltraTouch denim insulation, and a portion is distributed each year to help with building efforts in communities around the country.

Sustainability with a side of philanthropy resonated with the young audience. “The environment and giving back mean everything to millennials and Gen Z,” Samber said. “We’re aware that Gen Z and millennial consumers are more likely to buy clothes from a store that offers an option to recycle or drop off clothes for resale.”

The cohorts are also likely to purchase from brands that allow them to participate in programs with a positive impact, which has piqued the interest of major denim players. While it was a slow roll for retailers and brands to sign on as partners, Blue Jeans Go Green now counts millennial- and Gen Z-centric retailers like American Eagle, Levi’s, Madewell, Old Navy and Rag & Bone as partners and donation points.

“The brands and retailers are integral,” Samber said. “They allow us on a brick-and-mortar level the ability for someone to bring their denim somewhere. Cotton Incorporated doesn’t have that infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Zappos has made it accessible to anyone across the country who wants to be involved and recycled their denim, she added.

And perhaps more than any point, Blue Jeans Go Green serves as an example of how the industry can do more when it comes together.

At the end of the day, the majority of Blue Jeans Go Green’s retail and brand partners are targeting the same demographic with the same type of product, but Samber says they are not in it for promotional gains and it shows.

The program, she said, is “harnessing the collective power of the apparel and fashion industry” to make stronger commitments to sustainability and responsible business. And each are using the program in their own unique ways to differentiate with the customer.

“It’s great to see that [their support] is truly because of their commitment to being responsible and to cotton sustainability,” Samber added.