The non-profit H&M Foundation is working for sustainable development and textile innovation. A new kind of fiber recycling is one of the results – sustainable fashion’s biggest innovation competition is another.

”My role is to lead the work in our focus area Planet. All of the foundation’s work aims to contribute toward the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In Planet, we try to find innovations that can make the fashion industry more circular”, says Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation. Photo: H&M Foundation.

”We believe that we can change one of the biggest and most resource-consuming industries in the world to operate within the planet’s ecological limits, so our way of living can be secured. Our method of doing that is by supporting ground-breaking innovation at its earliest stage, before it is commercially or even scientifically proven”, says Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation.

The non-profit global foundation participates in education efforts alongside UNICEF, in water programmes with WaterAid, in equality initiatives with CARE, and also runs a number of local projects in specific countries. The mission is to be a catalyst of positive change everywhere.

Making the technology available

H&M Foundation is entirely separated from the H&M business group, but with a proximity to it: it is privately funded by the Stefan Persson family, founders and main owners of H&M, and it benefits from the experience, know-how and industry connections of H&M.

”Building on that, we have in the last four years been able to secure our own position and develop our own global network to achieve our goals as a non-profit foundation”, Erik Bang says.

The foundation abstains from anything that would benefit a certain commercial interest. In practice, this means that all research results are made available to the entire industry as open source.

”Our mission is to contribute to public utility, and that is how we maximize change for the better. By making technology widely available, it can be employed in large scale, globally”, Erik Bang says.

The biggest innovation competition in the world

In 2015, H&M Foundation announced a new sustainability prize: the Global Change Award. To speed up the conversion to sustainable practices in the fashion and textile industries, the foundation wanted to create a fast track for potentially disruptive innovations. The initiative quickly gained a lot of attention.

The Israeli company Algae Apparel was one of the 2018 winners of the Global Change Award. Their products are skin-friendly biofibres and environment-friendly textile dyes made from algae.
”The award allows us to go on with our research and development: hire more people, increase  lab hours and evaluate more species of algae”, says co-founder Renana Kelbs. Photo: H&M Foundation.

”We are picking the winners in the fourth round of GCA right now. There was a record number of participants this year too; to us, that is proof that the entire world wants to join in transforming the fashion industry and society at large to something truly sustainable and inspiring”, Erik Bang says. ”It is a challenging task to go through all the contributions – but most of all, very inspiring.”

This year’s theme of digital innovation attracted 6 640 contributions from 182 countries. The applicants have to be early-stage startups, with new ideas, technologies or business models with a potential to revolutionize some part of the textile value chain: from design and transport solutions to manufacturing methods, materials or recycling.  Five winners are chosen by an expert panel, and split one million euro in prize money. They are also invited to an accelerator programme taking them to Stockholm, New York and Hong Kong, where they can build industry contacts and work towards bringing their technologies to the market.

”We are looking for innovation in its earliest stage. Naturally, not all of them are going to make it. It will take time before the solutions are deployed or show up in stores, but the year-long accelerator where we collaborate with Accenture and KTH Innovation helps the team speed past years of development. We are in a hurry!”, Erik Bang emphasizes.

The list of former winners is a fireworks of creativity: Tandem Repeat wants to use self-healing properties from squid genes to make longer-lasting fabrics. Orange Fiber turns cellulose fibers from citrus residue into yarn. Moral Fiber (formerly known as Amber Cycle) employs microbes to recycle polyester into new fabrics.

”Several of the teams from the earlier rounds have on-going cooperations and pilot projects with the industry, and a few are actually already on the market. Orange Fiber won the first year, and a while ago they released a collection together with Ferragamo. Beside the winners’ own successes, we believe that both their innovations and the Global Change Award itself help to pull the industry forward”, Erik Bang says. ”In a sense, that is even more important, because GCA can’t bring out all the innovation required to change one of the world’s largest industries all by itself.”

The holy grail of textiles recycling

A change is urgently needed. The world produces twice as much clothes as it did fifteen years ago, with demand driven by a growing global middle class. The economy that sustains the production is still pretty much a linear process.

There is no commercially available technology today that can turn an old shirt into a new one, or recycle the material from a polyester garment into raw material for another”, Erik Bang says. ”The growth of the industry is completely dependant on virgin raw materials.

H&M Foundation and the HKRITA research institute in Hong Kong have come up with a hydrothermal method to recycle fibers from mixed-material garments. The clothes are put in a kind of pressure cooker, where a bio-degradable agent separates the fibers from each other. The unique solution is open source, and will be made available to the entire fashion industry by 2020. Photo: H&M Foundation.

Two years ago, H&M Foundation joined forces with HKRITA (Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel) to develop new textile recycling processes. Just one year in, the cooperation made a breakthrough: a new hydrothermal method to separate mixed-material garments into their constituent fibers. Separating the fibers is a prerequisite for recycling them – and for the first time, the quality of the resulting fibers were sufficiently good to make new textiles.

”Simply put, it is a pressure cooker. We are using a closed system with water, heat, pressure and a biodegradable chemical to separate the fibers quickly. The breakthrough is that we end up with polyester fiber without degradation, and that allows us to produce a recycled fiber that is significantly cheaper than virgin fiber”, Erik Bang says.

Fiber-level recycling of pure cotton fabrics is a technology that is under development (read more in the article ”New textile fibers rising from the froth”). But making mixed materials recyclable is something of the holy grail of textile recycling, since it would open up a feedstock many times as large.

”We categorize materials in three groups: synthetic, such as polyester, cellulose based, such as cotton and tencel, and animal, such as wool and silk. There is no statistics on how much of the clothes produced in the world that consists of mixed materials – but if I look at my own recent purchases, about 80 percent contain a mix from at least two of these groups”, Erik Bang says.

In September 2018, a pilot facility showcasing the technology was opened in Hong Kong. Scaling up the technology will be a long process, but Erik Bang is confident:

”Our goal is to reach a production volume of one ton within twelve months time. If we can overcome the technological challenges and preserve the economic viability, we are looking at a solution with a very big positive impact both on the industry and the well-being of the planet. It is very exciting”.

The article was published in December 2018.