H&M is looking to close the loop on textiles, and it’s willing to pay $1 million to anyone who can achieve it. Announced by the H&M Conscious Foundation, the Swedish retailer’s philanthropic arm, the so-called “Global Challenge Award” is the first initiative of its kind. The goal? To catalyze “green, truly groundbreaking ideas” to protect the planet’s natural resources by lowering fashion’s environmental burden. It’s a publicity coup for the world’s second-largest apparel company, which, despite lingering questions about overproduction and worker exploitation, has been angling itself as the ethical answer to affordable clothing. The prize will be an ongoing one, with five winners chosen by jury every year.
“No company, ‘fast fashion’ or not, can continue exactly like today,” H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson told Reuters on Tuesday. “The [prize’s] largest potential lies with finding new technology that means we can recycle the fibers with unchanged quality.”
Besides a share of the bounty, award recipients will also gain entree to an exclusive innovation accelerator-cum-boot-camp, where they’ll receive help from strategy consultancy Accenture and Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology to bring their concepts to market.
“It is important to me that an influential company such as H&M, with an immense global reach, contributes attention and resources towards finding solutions to problems that they have played a role in creating,” Master & Muse founder Amber Valletta, a member of the judging panel, told Ecouterre. “In truth, we have all played a role in creating these problems. Now, we must all participate together in discovering actionable solutions. I encourage all participants to enter and can’t wait to see the submissions.”
“It is wonderful to see big brands finally giving something back, with some consistency,” she told us. “After all, the biggest producers should be the strongest at innovating. After decades of mass production and hyper-growth, it is precisely their responsibility to finance new ideas that will provide real change. It’s called tidying up your mess.”
“Zero waste” expert Timo Rissanen, assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design, considers it a “hopeful sign” that a company known for “somewhat aggressive growth strategies” is promoting the circular economy.
“My hope is that the award catalyzes innovation that goes beyond the predicable techno-fixes that focus primarily on the cycling of fibers, to paradigmatic innovation that fosters rich, lasting relationships between fashion and its users, disrupting the unsustainable pace of fashion consumption that we see today,” Rissanen said. “It is a big ask for the first round of the award, however if the award becomes annual as is implied, a space for deep innovation may open up. The notions of restoration and regeneration that most definitions of a circular economy include, should extend into the human networks within the fashion system; there is a lot for us to restore.”
Still, there are critics who believe that the focus on recycling diminishes the real problem: making too much too fast and for too little.
“With a completely devastating production model in terms of overconsumption of natural resources, how is an annual sustainability award for a million dollars offsetting H&M’s elephant in the room of luring cash-strapped consumers to hoard clothing at mindblowingly cheap prices?” asked Amy DuFault, a sustainable-fashion writer and consultant. “Don’t forget that it’s not hidden news that H&M plans on increasing their number of stores by 10 to 15 percent per year, and at the same time increase sales through its other stores: COS, Monki, Weekday, Cheap Monday, & Other Stories, as well as H&M Home.”
Referring to H&M’s model and scale as “wildly dysfunctional,” DuFault looks askance at the company’s goal. “People want to believe good can ultimately come from it but it’s ludicrous and just teaches other fast-fashion chains that you can grow with no limits just as long as you give back here and there,” she said. “Throw some solar panels on your roof, make something out of bamboo… This award? If I were [H&M] I too would be offering a million dollars to get inspired for the long road ahead.”
Others, such as Sass Brown, acting associate dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology School of Art and Design, and the author of Eco Fashion and Refashioned: Cutting-Edge Clothing From Upcycled Materials, welcome any and all opportunities for producers to take responsibility for their output.
“The fast-fashion industry that H&M represents has more reason than most to find closed-loop solutions to its highly disposable products,” Brown told Ecouterre.