Recycling clothes is hard, thanks to mixed materials used to make them and the poor quality of recycled cotton. That’s why fast fashion retailer H&M is now offering an annual $1 million prize for winners who can come up with better ways to recycle what we wear.
It’s one thing to rip the buttons and zippers out of a pair of pants, but quite another to separate the cotton and polyester in a mixed fabric. That’s the challenge faced by retailers like H&M, which sell clothes so cheap that consumers face little incentive not to treat them as disposable. H&M already offers a garment collection service that distributes used clothing either to be reworn or reused (e.g., jeans turned into a purse or t-shirts used as cleaning cloths). The new yearly prize, administered by H&M’s Conscious Foundation, is aimed at the third option: recycling.
The prize will be distributed between five winners, and those winners will be chosen by public online vote. Anyone can enter, not just established companies. “Ground-breaking, game-changing ideas can come from anywhere,” says H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson, “so the challenge is open to anyone.”
Winners will be flown to Stockholm, Sweden, to participate in an “innovation bootcamp” with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The idea is that H&M will work with the winners to bring their ideas into actual use.
H&M is known for its cheap and excellent knock-offs of catwalk collections, so it’s ironic to see the company, the second-largest clothing retailer in the world, trying to lead the industry. “I’m also eager to see how the fashion industry as a whole will embrace the challenge of closing the loop,” says Persson.
Re-wearing, reuse, and recycling are all great ways for a large company like H&M to lessen its environmental impact, but the problem might be with its very business model. An alternative answer is for us to buy fewer, better-made clothes, and wear them for longer. The 10-year hoodie is one example of sustainable fashion, but the shift needs to come from consumers. H&M can’t afford to sell fewer clothes, so it has to dress up recycling as a valid option. To really change the world of fashion, then, you and I have to stop buying so much.