Fashion chain H&M offers annual $1M recycling prize for new clothes-recycling methods

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H&M retail company
A woman is reflected next to the logo of the H&M fashion retailer in the newly opened Mall of Berlin shopping centre in Berlin, September 25, 2014. A gigantic German department store rebuilt in the heart of Berlin on the rubble of pre-war Europe's most famous shopping centre before being seized by the Nazis was opened on Thursday with a ceremony paying tribute to its original Jewish owners. The near 1-billion euro "Mall of Berlin" - an entire quarter with a glass covered arcade, 270 shops, a hotel and flats - was rebuilt on the spot where the famous Wertheim store was built in 1896 and flourished until Hitler's Nazis expropriated it in 1937. Reuters

The Swedish firm Hennes & Mauritz has launched on Tuesday the first “Global Change Award” that urges experts to find a solution against waste and pollution as the growing problem in the clothing industry. But critics said the project is just a way to persuade customers and keep the fast-fashion active.

The non-profit H&M Conscious Foundation will offer an annual €1 million or $1.16 million prize for innovators, technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs to develop new techniques to recycle clothes,  said Karl-Johan Persson, H&M chief executive. The move is an effort against the critics who point out the damage that has increased because of the throwaway culture driven by cheap clothing being sold around the world.

The company said the project aims to “protect the earth’s natural resources by closing the loop for fashion” by “catalysing green, truly ground-breaking ideas.” The largest potential of the project, Persson said, is finding a new technology that would allow recycling the fibres but with an unchanged quality.

The €1 million prize money will be dispersed among five winners chosen by a jury composed of fashion and environment experts. Each will receive €100,000, and the other €500,000 will be shared among the winners after a public vote. Winners will also get access to a one-year innovation bootcamp in Stockholm to test their early-stage ideas and see if it’s effective, H&M said in a press release.

The existing cotton recycling methods produce poor-quality fibres, and the potential shortages of cotton concerns the retailers such as H&M. To date, most clothes end up in landfill as there is still no efficient way to recycle garments of mixed materials.

The shredding process being used today only allows a maximum of 20 percent of recycled cotton to be used in a new pair of jeans, as it shortens the length of the fibre. The process has an impact to the quality of new clothes, H&M said.

“This is a great challenge for H&M whose trademark is cheap clothes at good quality ... The fact it’s cheap means there’s a risk people buy and throw away, or buy too much,” said Johan Rockstrom, an environmental science professor at Stockholm university and a jury member for the H&M project. Rockstrom suggests the fashion industry needs to find business models to respond to global resource shortages.

Anne-Charlotte Windal, a Bernstein analyst, said the model will only work if the industry encourages very frequent purchases, but the consumers are already aware of the increasing effect of garment waste to the environment.

Early in 2015, H&M has partnered with Puma-owner Kering to support the start-up Worn Again. The start-up is developing a technology to separate and extract fibres in mixed-material garments.

Britain’s Marks & Spencer and Italy’s Calzedonia also aim to find ways to solve the problem in recycling cottons. While the Finnish entrepreneurs Pure Waste Textiles have already produced sweat shirts from 100 percent recycled cotton after improving recycling techniques and by recycling offcuts from clothes factories.

However, with all the retailers’ plans to reduce the impact of throwaway clothes on the environment, some believes that the companies are just using recycling as a distraction from the real challenge of the fashion industry, to persuade customers to keep wearing their clothes.

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