It's the holy grail for the fashion industry: Can manufacturers seamlessly close the loop on fabric, so an old T-shirt or dress headed for the landfill can be turned into something new? The world now buys more clothing than ever before in history; the average American throws out 68 garments in a single year.
A new €1 million competition asked for new ideas to help the industry become more circular. "Fashionista or not, clothes are a necessity, and one of the biggest challenges facing today's fashion industry is how to create fashion for a growing world population while protecting our planet," says Erik Bang, project manager for the Global Change Award, sponsored by H&M Conscious Foundation, the nonprofit created by the Swedish fast fashion giant.
Waste—and the unsustainability of the supply chain—is a problem endemic to the entire apparel industry, but especially interesting in the context of fast fashion. If clothing was fully recyclable, and made with the fewest resources possible, could we keep churning out new clothing at the frenetic pace of a fast fashion company like Zara, which makes more than 1 million garments every day, in a way that was actually sustainable?
Here are the five finalists in the competition, which is now open for public vote.
Polyester—now the most common material used to make clothes, and made from petroleum as a raw material—is hard to recycle without losing quality. But a new type of microbe can eat an old shirt and break the polymer down into a basic raw material that can be sold back to polyester manufacturers. The process even works on fabrics that are a mix of materials, like cotton and polyester. The result is cheaper than making new fabric from petroleum.
Orange juice manufacturing results in piles of wasted peels and seeds—maybe as much as 25 million tons of waste a year. One startup has developed a process that turns citrus byproducts into raw material that can be spun into yarn. With a working prototype, the team is ready to start testing the process in other orange-growing regions around the world.
Growing a traditional fabric like cotton usually has an enormous footprint: It can take more than 20,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton for a single pair of jeans, and cotton also uses more insecticides than any other crop in the world. Quick-growing algae, on the other hand, doesn't require extra water besides the oceans and lakes it grows in, leaving land free for growing food instead. This startup is working on an open-source process for turning algae into fabric.
Cotton is hard to recycle; in the past, if you gave your hole-filled jeans away for recycling, they might have been most likely to be shredded up for insulation. But this new process uses an environmentally friendly solvent to dissolve old cotton clothing into a cotton-like material that can be spun into new fibers—eliminating both waste and the problems that come with growing new cotton.
As much as 15% of fabric ends up trashed in the process of making clothes. This startup is designing a database that tracks the leftover material, so other designers can make use of it.
Each of the finalists will be supported in a year-long accelerator, and will split the million-euro prize. "We can see that there are a vast number of great ideas out there, but we also know that access to capital, know-how and business support is scarce," says Bang. "Many great ideas never get to see the light of day. With the challenge we want to find these ideas and give them the support needed to make a difference. ... The aim of the Global Change Award is to move the needle not just with one player but with the entire fashion industry."