Earlier this year, H&M Foundation launched the Global Change Award 2018, a €1 million innovation prize searching for new circular approaches to clothing. It’s part of an ambitious mission to transform the entire fashion industry.

Now in its third year, the Global Change Award will select five successful entries that could revolutionise the way we design, make and use clothes. If selected by a judging panel including Ellen MacArthur and other experts, submissions will then proceed to a public vote to decide how the prize purse will be split. They’ll also gain access to a one-year innovation accelerator provided by the H&M Foundation, Accenture and KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Previous award winners highlight the spectrum of innovation possibilities in the fashion industry, and show how applying the principles of a circular economy can unlock new and creative solutions to our most pressing challenges.

There are the examples of materials innovation, with orange peel fibre and grape leather, which use waste byproducts from the food and winemaking industries to create new fabrics. The team behind last year’s ‘solar textiles’ entry discovered a way to make nylon using just water, plant waste and solar energy, with the biomass replacing conventional petroleum based material.

Grape leather – clothing material of the future?

Other entries focus on the business model, enabling designers and manufacturers to use resources in a different way. Reverse Resources, for example, is an online marketplace aimed at remarketing the leftover textiles wasted in clothing factories each month. The Global Change Award has also spurred the development of impressive new recycling technologies which will be vital to the fashion industry. We might cherish that favourite pair of jeans or beloved dress, but all clothing will eventually reach a stage at which it’s past its best, so it’s important to find better ways to sort and cycle the materials clothes are made of without loss of quality. The Global Change Award is one part of H&M Foundation’s mission to reinvent the entire fashion industry to operate within the planetary boundaries.

Change in store

Closer to home for most of us, the retailer H&M’s public commitment is to become ‘100% Circular & Renewable’. Like most industries, the fashion business is firmly based on a take-make-dispose, linear way of doing things. Instead, H&M wants to provide clothing in a circular model “in which resources stay in use for as long as possible, before being recovered and regenerated into new products and materials”.

“Moving towards full circularity will be the key to our future success”, says Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, Circular Economy Lead for H&M. “To achieve this systemic change for the textile industry we need to accelerate circular innovations and we need collaboration within and between industries. At H&M we have set a vision to become 100% circular which means that we will have a circular approach to how products are made and used covering our whole value chain from design to expanding the lifespan of our products through different ways of prolonging use and recycling.”

The Global Change Award expands the search for the next big thing in the frontier of circular fashion, but there’s more happening on the ground now. Both H&M Foundation and H&M are pursuing the goal of a circular economy by working with suppliers, internal R&D and developing strategic partnerships.

Support and scale

Whether it’s the Global Change Award, XPRIZE, LAUNCH, or this year’s New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, it’s en vogue today to hold a grand challenge to discover the radical ideas and new technologies poised to reinvent entire industries. There’s rarely a shortage of creativity on show, but how are the best ideas supported and scaled to a level where they have a meaningful impact? To cover this stage of the journey, H&M set up CO:LAB, a venture capital fund to invest in the most promising early stage startups encountered throughout the company’s many circular economy endeavours.

One such partnership that was recently announced is with Re:newcell, a startup that can turn used cotton and viscose into new pulp which is biodegradable, and can be in turn used to make new fabrics and garments. It’s not just about making do with a bit of waste. Re:newcell claim that their fibres are actually of higher quality in a number of areas, such as tensile strength, dyestuff absorption and in withstanding abrasion.

These types of businesses need to grow, and fast. Some estimates suggest that the rate of recycling clothing after use could be below 0.1%. It’s hardly surprising that analyses such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Textiles Economy report, released last month, have identified ‘radically improving recycling’ by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing as essential to keep textiles in the economy and in use.

Working alongside the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) as part of a four-year study, the H&M Foundation is getting closer to such a breakthrough in the chemical recycling of clothing. Using a hydrothermal process, researchers were able to separate cotton and polyester blends in a way that enables the polyester to be re-used directly with no loss of quality. It’s rapid progress from the partnership, which only began in September last year, and it could have impacts far beyond one company: the final technology will be made available for anyone in the industry to use through licensing from HKRITA.

Finally, if you’ve ever returned old clothes as part of H&M’s garment collection initiative and were wondering what happened to your old threads, the surplus revenue from this activity is donated to the H&M Foundation to finance research with institutions like HKRITA.

Establishing circular flows

The retailer also recently joined forces with Danone – another Global Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – for a collaboration that focuses on collection and aims to keep materials in use for longer. In this initiative, Danone’s Indonesian drinks business Tirta Investama will collect used plastic bottles from the country’s Thousand Islands district. From there, the bottles are sorted, washed and processed into flakes before being sent to one of H&M’s textile partners. The bottles might end up being transformed into your next pair of socks, t-shirt or jacket.

It sounds simple, but this project serves multiple purposes. It supports H&M’s 100% circular commitment, and for Danone finds a useful onward route for materials previously being lost as waste, with considerable environmental implications. This is an important shift in mindset, as when something is seen simply as waste, there’s no incentive to recover and reuse it.

Of course, there’s a good case for saying that in a circular economy, plastic packaging should be refilled and re-used. That means a bottle should stay in use, as a bottle. This would preserve the integrity of that product, particularly the extra energy, water and labour that went into turning it into a bottle in the first place. That’s what’s called the ‘inner loop’ of a circular economy, and it’s where the magic happens. But for some countries, achieving direct reuse for packaging is no mean feat. Creating the right infrastructure often requires government support, and even countries that have well-established deposit return schemes – where customers pay a small surcharge on the original product, which is refunded on the return of the packaging – see this incentivisation as a way to boost collection and recycling rates. A business-led collaboration between Danone and H&M could be a different means to the same end, by establishing a valuable onward use for waste material and therefore incentivising its recovery. It’s a starting point, and a chance to invest in creating increasingly circular flows.

If such cross-industry collaborations can help shift perception and increase the perceived value of waste, we could keep plastic in the economy and out of the oceans – something that’s vital if Indonesia is going to reach its aim of reducing marine pollution by 70% by 2025.

A linear hangover

For some readers, these efforts might sound at odds with the news on October that H&M had destroyed clothes that could have been worn. Commentators were quick to undermine the company’s circular economy initiatives, although independent lab results back up H&M’s claim that the garments were mould infested and breached acceptable levels of lead. “It is our responsibility to ensure that everything we sell in our stores is safe” reinforces Cecilia Brännsten. “For us this is a basic and indeed very obvious requirement. Therefore, any garments that are deemed as potentially harmful to the health of our customers must be destroyed.”

That makes sense for a circular economy too. If a product contains toxic materials – in this case a high lead content was part of the problem – then it’s not really designed to be continually cycled. Those substances can accumulate, or cause quality and safety concerns further down the line. That’s also a core belief of Fashion Positive, a movement set up by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and one in which H&M are a central member.

“This is the only instance in which we destroy products and thankfully this is very rare. We absolutely, do not destroy any products that can be used. If for whatever reason we cannot sell a product in our stores, it will be sent for re-use or recycling – it is as simple as that. Under no circumstances do we destroy clothes that are safe for use.”

Unfortunately, anecdotes do exist regarding retailers of all types, from clothing to food, destroying products for reasons other than safety. However, the transition to a circular economy is gaining pace. If more businesses begin to understand this missed opportunity, and also have the means to reuse these materials, these stories should become increasingly rare.

What’s clear is that H&M isn’t dragging its feet along to path to ‘100% circular’. There isn’t a template for the transition to a circular economy, and whether it’s through scaling innovations from the Global Change Award, investing in future technologies or discovering new collaborations, the company will learn a lot on its journey. These are learnings that can have an impact beyond one business: H&M was a significant presence at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and is a core partner, alongside Nike, for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Fibres Initiative which grabbed the headlines this November. Being a pioneer isn’t supposed to be easy, but H&M is firmly embracing that role.

Find out more about the Circular Fibres Initiative, and check out the report A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]circulatenews.org

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