Wow... I wonder how long those particular stores have been doing that? In my many years of working at REI, I was never aware that any activity like that was ever taking place. I admit, I wasn't wasn't working in the warehouse or customer service, but I do know that dealing with any damaged equipment was always a risky thing.
Keep in mind that the slightest bit of “damage” in any product, even if it were donated to a great cause, could be a potential lawsuit for ANY outdoor retailer, regardless of some well-written waiver signed by a well-intentioned recipient. Let us not forget the litigious world we live in these days. I am sure REI has had their fair share of lawsuits over their 74 years.
Perhaps the higher level solution could be REI “encouraging” all manufacturers they represent to accept their products back for reconditioning, regardless of their condition.
(Not to digress too much, in “Cradle to Cradle” systems, the manufacturer is ultimately responsible for both the creation of their product, and what happens to it at the end of it’s intended life. If there is any room for re-use or repurpose, the manufacturer would take on this responsibility. I believe large retailers like REI would be in a good position to push more in this direction.)