H&M offers $1.16 million for clothing recycling ideas

Fashion retailer H&M has announced an award for solutions that reduce waste caused by throwing away clothing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Customers walk past an H&M window, an inexpensive clothing store, on March 13, 2014 in Stockholm, Sweden.The firm is seeking to reduce the impact of throwaway clothes on the environment.

In an effort to fight throwaway culture fueled by cheap clothing, H&M, the world's second-largest fashion retailer, is offering up a $1.16 million prize for the best idea on how to recycle unwanted clothes, and keep them out of the trash.

The company will offer the grant, called "Global Change Award," for innovators, technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs to develop new techniques to recycle old clothes, chief executive Karl-Johan Persson told Reuters.

“No company, fast-fashion or not, can continue exactly like today. The (prize’s) largest potential lies with finding new technology that means we can recycle the fibers with unchanged quality,” Persson said.

The announcement comes as the Swedish firm, which sells trendy clothing at low prices, faces criticism for the damage being caused by the “disposable” clothing culture that is fueled by cheap clothing.

In H&M's estimation, figuring out how to recycle garments "represents a radical departure from the old linear 'take, make, waste' production and consumption models to a model where products and resources are designed to have more than one life.”

The problem, Reuters reports, is that “existing cotton recycling methods make poor-quality fibers, and there is no efficient way to recycle garments of mixed materials, so most clothes end up in landfill.”

Though waste and pollution continue to be a gnawing problem in the clothing industry, other companies have already taken steps to combat the environmental effects of “fast fashion.”

Last year, Mud Jeans, a Dutch clothing company, implemented a plan in which customers pay a monthly fee for jeans, returning them at the end of the lease period – a year is the minimum. If the product is in good condition, it can be cleaned and re-used.

“This is the future: producers that are responsible for their own waste,” Mud Jeans chief executive Bert van Son told Reuters.

“Our company can do this because we are quite small; that it is why we can do these kinds of crazy things because we can keep cotton pure. If you are a big store chain it is very complicated if you mix cotton and polyester.”

Marks & Spencer in Britain and Italian store Calzedonia both collect used items in their stores that could be recycled, resold or reused. British designer Tom Cridland offers a 30-year guarantee on his range of T-shirts to encourage people to buy something more expensive, but will last.

“I don’t believe it is fair on customers to churn out plain white T-shirts that will only last a year or two,” he told Reuters. “I can’t compete on price so I have to do something different.”

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