How do we act collectively to solve some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges of the fashion industry? I have taught designers for many years, and worked on projects that attempt to disrupt how textiles and garments are made and produced. I know that many of the best creative minds – including designers and artists but also scientists and entrepreneurs – struggle to activate their ideas in the real world. This can be due to lack of funding, or access to the actual supply chains and companies to test out the solution.
So what place does one of the biggest global fashion companies have in offering to fund some of these creative solutions? With a business model that is based on ‘fast fashion’, there is no doubt there are significant environmental (and social) impacts from H & M’s business activities. Yet, this company are also global leaders in corporate responsibility strategies, and have a history of being able to identify and partner with smaller companies or innovators who are creating real game-changing solutions (they partnered with Worn Again, a UK-based company who invented a technology to chemically recycle mixed-fibre polyester). The H & M Foundation, set up to carry out H & M’s philanthropy activities, has established the Global Change Award. This is a competition that will fund five of the best ideas that address the environmental impacts of fashion, to the total value of 1 million dollars. The public are also asked to vote for their favourite of the final five ideas. My colleague and long-time collaborator Prof. Becky Earley is on the judging panel and has been enthusiastic at the range of disruptive projects that were submitted.
Some critics may see this competition as a cynical marketing exercise by H & M to attempt to ‘clean up’ their damaging business practices and improve their reputation. This may be so, but as a designer and creative problem-solver with a passion for both fashion and sustainability, I advocate for finding creative solutions rather than merely complaining about the problems.
If you are interested in understanding the real technical problems of materials and production processes that cause environmental impacts in the fashion supply chain, take a moment to read the five entries. The range of projects – from the recycling of cotton that has been up till now technically difficult; to the creation of fibres from seaweed – shows how many great solutions we have as a global community, but that need funding to make them a reality. The challenges we face – polluted waterways all over China from textile industry; to the mountains of textile waste in landfill all over the world – are too pressing to waste time arguing. Rather lets celebrate the sheer ingenuity and potential of humans and technology to improve the fashion industry for the better.