2019’s five award-winning techniques (H&M Foundation)
2019’s five award-winning techniques (H&M Foundation)

H&M Global Change Award celebrates sustainable fashion

  • Conceived by the H&M foundation, the Global Change Award celebrates designers who weave sustainability into the fabric of global fashion, helping to mitigate fashion’s impact on the environment
  • Five participants share a grant of €1 million (around 7.7 crore) to scale up their radical and early-stage techniques, textiles and systems that can reduce the clothing industry’s carbon footprint

On the eve of the H&M Global Change Award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, lifestyle journalist and sustainability activist Bandana Tewari floats across the historic Stockholm City Hall in an elegant one-shoulder raven-hued gown, standing out among a debonair crop of women in shimmering cocktail dresses and men in sharp, tailored suits. Her bespoke garment is made partially with the remains of oilseed hemp, while her leather clutch and chic sandalettes are made from fibre remnants of winemaking. The head-turning ensemble is a charming portrait of sustainable fashion. At the ceremony held on 3 April, Tewari, who is also part of the award’s expert panel of judges, announced, “I am a sustainability princess!"

Conceived and hosted by the H&M Foundation (the non-profit arm of the Swedish fashion conglomerate), the annual Global Change Award is an attempt to mitigate the impact of the fashion industry on the environment by raising a toast to innovative designers who are working to alter the industry’s “take-make-waste" linear economy into a circular one. There were 6,640 entries from 182 countries. India was perched among the top 5 participating nations, though it is yet to make a mark on one of the most important and successful campaigns in the fashion industry.

Five participants share a grant of €1 million (around 7.7 crore) to scale up their radical and early-stage techniques, textiles and systems that can dramatically pivot the world towards a smarter future and reduce the clothing industry’s carbon footprint.

From London-based Petit Pli’s children’s clothing, which expands as your child grows (mimicking the technique of origami), and a biodegradable membrane by Dimpora called “Sane Membrane", which protects your adventure wear from extensive wear and tear, to Peru-based Le Qara’s laboratory-grown vegan leather and Kenya-based Green Nettle Textile’s fabric made from stinging nettle, a local Kenyan plant—the disruptive techniques awarded this year are nothing short of game-changing.

Each year, the winners are announced at the Stockholm City Hall—the same venue where the Nobel prize ceremony is hosted. This alone reflects the enormity and prestige associated with the Global Change Award. In the past, ideas involving clothing spun with silk-like fibres made from left-over orange peels, to a collective that makes 3D-woven customized jeans that accurately fit one’s body, leaving zero waste behind, have also been awarded.

A few hours before the ceremony, the chief strategist for innovation at the H&M Foundation, Erik Bang, spoke to Lounge and explained why a paradigm shift towards a circular model was the need of the hour. “As our population increases, the current model—where you take something, make something, then throw it in a landfill and start over—is simply consuming the planet. It’s detrimental. So far, we have been fairly good at just improving the efficiency of our linear system, so we haven’t really had to face the consequences yet. But the circular model is regenerative; it’s where the resources are always recovered to produce something more."

Petit Pli’s ‘Clothes That Grow'.
Petit Pli’s ‘Clothes That Grow'. (H&M Foundation)

Take the example of the German design collective circular.fashion, which received the biggest slice of the grant pie (€300,000) this year. It has designed a digital platform, The Loop Scoop, which serves as a product database for retailers, containing details about the recyclability of the material they have sourced and the way certain cuts and technology used for production can impact the planet. Each product is given a unique “circularity ID", which consumers can later access using a smartphone, to understand how their garment’s life can be prolonged and where it can be returned for recycling.

“The software has three different tools," explains Ina Budde, circular.fashion’s founding member. “There is a material database where we have lots of textiles tested for their recyclability, so brands can just go there and buy the textiles. We also have design strategies on how to prolong the life of the product and make it recyclable, as well as a circular product check that verifies at the end if the product is recyclable or not." Though it is still at the pilot stage, circular.fashion has already begun garnering interest from major international brands, including Hugo Boss.

In a notoriously discerning industry, where the design, fabric, cut and pricing are top priority, entertaining the idea of “environmentally friendly" garments could well be the last thought on the minds of high-end brands.

How does the Global Change Award attempt to bridge that gap, so that clothes not only “look good" but also “do good" for the planet? “People will always use fashion to express who they are—that is part of what fashion is, and we will always have that gap," says Bang. “That is also something that is holding a lot of brands back. While they like the idea of sustainability, they don’t want to brand themselves that, because it doesn’t match their identity. That’s because the perception of sustainability is that it’s a compromise—a compromise in style, performance, price, etc.—and they don’t want to associate themselves with that. So what we need to do is create a solution where people can express who they are, but without harming the planet. So the end goal must be where the solutions are embedded everywhere, so that picking up a sustainable product would no longer be an active choice."

H&M Foundation’s chief strategist for innovation, Erik Bang.
H&M Foundation’s chief strategist for innovation, Erik Bang. (H&M Foundation)

The deadline for that “end goal"? The UN has set 2030 as the timeline for global “sustainable development"—it isn’t too far off. To have sustainable products in stores across the globe, however, awareness needs to be sown into the mindsets of designers and consumers alike.

Each year, India is one of the countries that sends the maximum number of entries for the Global Change Award. “We have been so excited about the interest from India, it’s incredible," says Bang. Yet the country is still to make a mark. When asked what advice he would like to give potential applicants from India, he says: “What we look for when we sift through entries is the awareness around circularity. It’s a new concept for most people, and we see that (among the applicants from India) the entrepreneurial skills are there—they are very creative and they know their business—but they haven’t really thought about how their idea can be circular for the industry or whether it will be generating another problem or not. Is the idea really a holistic solution? Awareness around circularity started in the West and it’s still quite a Western concept. That’s the one thing we realized, that we need to raise awareness across the globe regarding this."

Lifestyle journalist Bandana Tewari in an Agraloop gown with a Vegea leather clutch.
Lifestyle journalist Bandana Tewari in an Agraloop gown with a Vegea leather clutch. (H&M Foundation)

What is interesting is that the winners don’t necessarily have to collaborate with H&M—they are free to partner with any brand they wish. “I think if we limit the innovators, we are just making our job much harder. So they need to have all possibilities and opportunities open. However, if they do end up collaborating with H&M, that’s great too," says Bang.

The writer was invited to attend the Global Change Award in Stockholm by the H&M Foundation.

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