The fashion industry flourishes on creativity, innovation, beauty and glamour. It is also an industry addicted to speed. New ranges hit the high street at ever increasing rates meeting a huge consumer demand for the latest trends. This addiction creates a problem - fairly hidden at the moment but growing and real. Calling for solutions is mass retailer H&M who is harvesting bright ideas to make mass production more sustainable.
The ever lower price tags for clothing do not reflect the growing social and environmental impact created. Our desire for the latest look generates growing demand for cotton and polyester both of which have significant environmental impact. The price competitiveness of the industry encourages costs to be cut along the production line. The surge in buying creates a mountain of discarded clothes which are often landfilled or dumped onto developing markets damaging local economies.
Whilst most of the industry remains contentedly on the destructive treadmill a few with more foresight have looked into the future and realised the need to change. These leaders include iconic designers such as Stella McCartney and, perhaps surprisingly, retailer H&M.
The H&M Conscious Foundation launched the Global Challenge Award offering one million euros and expert mentoring support for the best ideas from around the world that would help put the industry on a more sustainable path. The response was overwhelming with 2,700 applications. These applications were sifted by leading sustainability experts into a short-list of five ideas and the public was then invited to vote for their favourite from the shortlist. The grant funding was allocated between the winners according to the 22,500 votes received.
The outcome of the public vote was announced on 10th February at an award event hosted by HRH Crown Prince Victoria of Sweden in the City Hall Stockholm. The five winning ideas point to a fascinating new future direction for the industry. There were three key trends:
A world of new fabrics
Two of the winning entries asked the question; how can we turn materials that are currently viewed as waste into new fabric? The most developed idea came from Sicily which created a new textile out of citrus juice production by-products. The first industrial prototypes have been developed and plans are in place to extend the idea to other regions around the world where citrus juice is produced.
Slightly more conceptual but potentially more intriguing was a Dutch entry aiming to make a renewable textile from algae. If this works, fabric could be made from excess algae which currently clogs lakes and oceans. Transport costs would also be slashed as algae can be taken from coastal regions around the globe and it is not tied to a specific region.
Transforming waste fabrics
The most popular ideas in the public vote transformed waste fabrics. The winning idea from Finland was a technology that allows waste cotton to be used in the production of new textiles without loss of quality. An environmentally friendly solvent dissolves cotton in textile waste allowing a new cotton-like fibre to be spun from the waste material.
The second prize was awarded to the polyester digester - basically an environmentally friendly packman. This new type of microbe eats waste polyester creating new ingredients that can be used to produce new polyester without loss of quality. The idea is under development at the University of California and could potentially have a hugely beneficial impact.
The leftovers market
A team from Estonia are creating a new online market place allowing the 15% of textiles that are wasted in the manufacturing process to be available directly to designers. Their simple philosophy is 'why create new fabric when so much is being wasted in the first instance?'.
The ambition behind the Global Change Award is that the funding and mentor support provided will help speed the ideas from concept to mass market quickly and efficiently. Crucially the developments will be available to benefit the whole industry increasing the chance of systemic change.
The H&M Conscious Foundation should be applauded for the steps it is taking - let us hope that others in the industry acknowledge the elephant in the wardrobe and join with them to create a successful and sustainable fashion sector.