Why talking wardrobes could help save the planet

Sustainability is a challenge for every industry, but in fashion where consumers buy products shipped from a far off land only to throw them away when they get bored, it's particularly pertinent. Aiming to be a "Nobel Prize of fashion", the non-profit H&M foundation's Global Change Award is designed to help tackle those problems, providing funding to innovators who come up with solutions for making the fashion industry circular and protect the planet.

Why talking wardrobes could help save the planet
Previous winners of the Global Change Award include leather made from the leftovers from winemaking. Photo: H&M Foundation

With 2018's award winners due to be announced on March 20th, The Local spoke to the H&M Foundation's innovation head Erik Bang to find out whether it is really feasible for fashion to be sustainable, what some of the success stories so far are, and why talking wardrobes could help us save the planet.

Why was the award set up and why do you think it is necessary?

The starting point for the H&M Foundation is the fashion industry's environmental impact, the fact that the global population is expected to continue to grow, and the middle class will grow by three billion people by 2030. So no matter how you twist it, consumption of clothing will increase, resources will not suffice and the impact on ecosystems and climate are simply too big. We need to reinvent the fashion industry to meet that demand, while working within our planetary boundaries and thereby protecting our living conditions.

Sweden is known as one of the countries that takes sustainability more seriously than others. Does that extend to the Swedish fashion industry?

Awareness of global climate change is very big in Sweden, that drives consumer demands and expectations. It also impacts awareness among decision makers at the brands. They're part of the same society as consumers after all.

What we see looking at the industry at large is the speed is picking up significantly in terms of brands and suppliers being aware of the challenges in supplying fashion for a growing population while securing the long-term. That's where business and sustainability converge. How do you stay in business in 50 years' time? By making sure you operate within your planet's boundaries, with no negative impact and without the risks associated in that.

READ ALSO: This Swedish company proved you can eat your own clothes

How feasible is it for fashion to become sustainable though? It's one thing for producers to make changes, but wouldn't consumers have to fundamentally change their habits too for any difference to be made?

We need to reinvent every step of the industry: from how we design, to what materials we source, to how we produce the clothes, how we ship them, sell, and also how we use them and return them for recycling. Consumers have a lot of power and influence in terms of showing a demand for a sustainable option, extending product lifetime by making sure that when you're tired of a garment or move to a new size that you make sure your old garments have a new life. And also that at the end of its life cycle, you make sure that you recycle the textiles instead of putting it in a landfill.

As for consumption, just as with food or anything, we should buy what we intend to use. That's a systemic issue: we're very wasteful with our resources. As industries, society and consumers. That's not just true for fashion, it's true with food, air travel, everything.

Couture Manure, a biodegradable textile made from cow manure, won in 2017. Photo: H&M Foundation

The five winners of the award are given a one million euro grant, which is obviously not something they would complain about, but how does it help them produce tangible results?

The winners are also given access to a 12 month long accelerator programme, where we work with them virtually and also bring them together three times over the course of the year in Stockholm, New York and Shanghai. We open every door we can, to all parts of the industry: investors, people who can inspire them and other entrepreneurs or innovators who have made similar journeys. Together with KTH university and Accenture we can also provide the skills that leverage innovation.

Our aim is to help them cut years off development with this programme. They're at such an early stage we know there's a huge risk in terms of not everybody succeeding, but at least they can nudge and push the industry forward. The winners tend to be very brave, curious, and want to break new ground. Sustainability currently comes with a perception of compromise, they're trying to change that. To make sure these innovations are not only sustainable but better from a price and performance point of view.

Have previous winners produced any results of note?

We're very proud of what we have been able to help them with in terms of industry connections that have led to pilots and partnerships. From a consumer point of view it will take a longer time before we see the impact.

One great example however is Orange Fiber, who won in the first year. Within 12 months of winning they had released a capsule collection with (Italian luxury designer) Salvatore Ferragamo. That was available for consumers, but not all of the innovations are consumer facing.

Orange Fiber creates sustainable textiles from a citrus juice byproduct. Photo: H&M Foundation

Is Sweden somewhere that has a particularly strong culture of innovation? It often tries to market itself in that way.

Sweden is a small country and a community that's dependent on the rest of the world – a trading nation. That helps us to be at the forefront of these issues.

But Sweden is not perfect, we have lots to learn from others. How do you facilitate and make those changes? Collaboration across borders and industries, not being too narrow-minded about who you can learn from in order to produce new solutions from outside of the box. With work I travel a lot and Hong Kong stands out to me in particular as somewhere that is at the forefront.

They live with the waste issue today: a small area, lots of people, lots of waste. They need to solve the problem of waste far sooner than Sweden which is a large country physically, with not so many people. They are investing significantly in innovation, in research and in supporting the industry in building a conducive environment for sustainable innovation in the textile and fashion industry in particular.

READ ALSO: The Swedes have made a jacket out of beans, wood and nuts

Your specialism is innovation: is there one big future innovation in the fashion industry that would be truly groundbreaking and mark a fundamental change?

One specific I think has huge potential is the RFID thread. That's like a full product passport: when you take a garment back to recycle it, you would know exactly what is in it, the materials, the dye, the treatment it has had, making recycling much more efficient. The RFID thread could also allow for a digital wardrobe that would help you to use your clothes, remind you there's a sweater you haven't worn for a long time, and if you still don't want to wear it, the technology could help you release it to the market and give it a new life instead of leaving it sitting on the shelf.

A digital interactive wardrobe would likely increase product lifetime and use, because we currently own a lot of clothing that we don't wear that much. We've seen some very interesting ideas on how your wardrobe could speak to you through your phone, and take into account the weather and how your schedule looks. The RFID is an enabler for several other solutions, but it also needs to be washable and last the lifetime of the garment, as well as thin and discreet enough that the wearer doesn't know about it, otherwise they would cut it off.

Finally: how optimistic are you that we're going to solve our struggle with sustainability, not just in fashion but beyond?

We still need lots of innovation. We're not done yet by far. We need consumers to adopt innovation and sustainability, and push for it through demand. We need regulations to help by making sure it's more beneficial to be sustainable than wasteful and linear. The beauty of the circular economy is that business and planet work hand in hand, but the system is currently supporting linear business models and resource usage. That system needs to favour circularity.

Handling textile waste is an example. Waste is considered a municipal issue in Sweden, so you need to adapt to all the municipal regulations here, which is time consuming. Waste on an international level is heavily regulated – it's associated with dumping, the western world dumping its waste in other countries. The best up-cyclers are in Turkey and China, but they're banning the import of textile waste. We have all of these regulatory issues that need to be addressed.

We still need to work at it. But it's a huge opportunity: the circular economy is a chance to create value, new jobs. It's not about shutting down and doing less. Returning to population growth and growth of middle income, less is not a realistic scenario. We need to make the system work for what is coming.