The retail giant’s foundation is calling for innovative solutions to waste and pollution but critics say it’s just a way to keep the wheels of fast fashion spinning
H&M, one of the world’s largest fast fashion brands, has launched a €1m ($1.16m) recycling prize in an effort to engage innovators, technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs to find a solution to a growing problem in the clothing industry: waste and pollution.
The Swedish brand’s foundation, the H&M Conscious Foundation, announced the Global Challenge Award to “catalyse green, truly groundbreaking ideas” that will “protect the earth’s natural resources by closing the loop for fashion”.
It’s a clever move from the fashion giant. The challenge has public appeal (it’s open to anyone with an early stage idea) and it will bring attention to an important issue for the fashion industry. But critics question whether the company is side stepping the knottier issues of overproduction and worker rights by emphasising materials innovation and technology – especially when recycling the mixed fibres so common in fast fashion is proving tricky.
The €1m prize money will be dispersed among five winners chosen by a judging panel – including academics such as Johan Rockström, Vogue Italia’s editor and a fashion model – each of whom will receive €100,000. The other €500,000 will be shared between winners after a public vote. Winners will also take part in a one year innovation bootcamp in Stockholm, organised jointly by Accenture and KTH Royal Institute of Technology, where the winners can test out early-stage ideas and see if they have the power to scale.
According to Erik Bang, project manager for the Global Change Award, the impetus behind the competition is that “change is not happening fast enough”. A prize of this size and nature is a first in the fashion industry, he says. People are not going to stop buying clothes, he says, “however, the fashion industry requires large amounts of natural resources, lots of which can be reduced, recycled, substituted or eliminated”.
Rebecca Earley, professor in sustainable textiles at the University of Arts London, is one of the judges. She agrees that the fashion industry needs change and quickly. “The industry is under pressure to adhere to unrealistic margins and speeds; and customers have grown accustomed to low prices and masses of choice,” she said before the launch, taking place today in Stockholm. “We need radical new ideas now to be able to face the next ten years without the prospect of the waste, pollution, resource use and working conditions continuing.”
However, Lucy Siegle, journalist and author of To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, is less convinced. She calls the H&M challenge a “clever award that people are understandably going to get very excited by, given that it has a €1m prize fund, a glossy name – Global Change – and a great panel.”
But, she explains, the reality is that it does little for those who are concerned about inequality and labour rights in the supply chain. “Over consumption of natural resources is a root problem, but not the only one.”
Rather, Siegle says, it’s H&M’s way of saying that “we can have as much fashion as we want without any talk of scaling back or slowing store expansion or the drive to gain market share”.
Maxine Bedat, co-founder and CEO of Zady, a New York-based online company that sells “slow fashion”, agrees: “Closing the loop is important, but it doesn’t tackle the elephant in the room, which is overproduction of clothing”. If 150bn pieces of clothing are made every year and that piece is worn just seven times, she argues, then “each turn of fashion creates a massive carbon footprint, even if it’s in the loop, and doesn’t change the impact.”
The solution, she says, lies in an age-old idea: buy high-quality pieces and less frequently.
**This story first appeared on The Guardian here.