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Mushrooms, Crop Waste and Algae: H&M Foundation Bets on 5 Innovations to Change the Apparel Industry

Could the same plants supply both our food and our clothing?

Innovators brainstorming new materials for apparel textiles seem to think so, and yet other thinkers have identified ways to make fashion more circular.

Now in its second year, the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award aims to foster early stage innovations that can accelerate the shift toward fashion circularity, with the goal of protecting people and planet. This year’s finalists, jockeying for the greatest slice of a €1 million prize, highlight new ways of thinking about natural resources.

By 2030 the UN expects the middle class to expand by 3 billion people, putting a significant strain on natural resources, ecosystems and the climate, Erik Bang, head of innovation for H&M Foundation said at SXSW. “This is how you stay in business in the long run – by not relying on virgin resources.”

Here’s a look at the finalists.

Algae Apparel

The concept behind Algae Apparel is transforming algae, a renewable and biodegradable organism, into a bio-fiber and eco-friendly dye that provides additional benefits by releasing antioxidants and vitamins onto the skin.

Crop-A-Porter

Crop-A-Porter wants to solve the problem of crop waste, which often is burned or abandoned to rot, releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The concept leverages closed-loop technology to convert the waste from crops such as bananas, hemp, sugarcane, pineapples and oil-seed flax into a bio-fiber ready for spinning into a new textile.

Fungi Fashion

Fungi Fashion taps mycelium—mushroom roots—plus 3-D technology to produce custom apparel that avoids the need to cut and sew. The brains behind the idea envision consumers simple burying their compostable Fungi garment in the ground when it’s reached its end of life.

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The Regenerator

Fabric recycling is gathering steam, though mixed fabrics such as cotton and polyester blends pose a challenge. The Regenerator leverages circular technology and an eco-friendly chemical to separate cotton and polyester blends to create a new textile fiber.

Smart Stitch

Also taking aim at the recycling conundrum, Smart Stitch proposes a threat that dissolves at high temperatures and is envisioned as a replacement for zippers and buttons, which require manual intervention during the recycling process. When used for seams, Smart Stitch can enable a garment to be “unraveled” and reused to create a new item, lessening the reliance on virgin resources.

“By working together, we have more opportunity than ever before to invent, test, and implement ideas and create an entirely new value chain. The Global Change Award accelerates our progress by supporting valuable R+D and providing the hands-on mentorship for innovations, that are viable from test tube to market,” said Steven Kolb, president and CEO, CFDA. “To see such ingenuity and creativity applied to problem-solving is exciting. The winning innovations looked to technology, biology, and science to design materials and systems in entirely new ways that will not only help shift fashion towards circularity but also transform it by inspiring new possibilities.”

This year the Global Change Award received 2,600 entries from 151 countries, exploring the possibilities in a broad range of disciplines, from biomimicry, nanomaterials and robotics to connected supply chains, wearables and bio-based materials.

How we manage and consume resources will be crucial for the lives of present and future gene­rations. All industries need to re-think, innovate and challenge status quo. Creative innovations are key to make this shift, and I congratulate the Global Change Awards winners who all have the power to help reinvent the fashion industry, enabling products and resources to be cycled instead of just having one single life,” said Karl-Johan Persson, board member for H&M Foundation and H&M CEO.

The five winners were chosen by an international expert panel with extensive knowledge within fashion, sustainability, circularity and innovation.

Bang noted that previous winners come from outside the apparel industry, with no formal education in fashion. “They need to understand the industry,” he said, “but fashion doesn’t have a history of R&D and changing stuff.”

One of last year’s winners engaged in a high-profile collaboration with Salvatore Ferregamo, using the abundant leftover peels from the orange juice industry in Sicily to create a beautiful silk-like twill fabric.

The public can vote from March 12-16 at globalchangeaward.com for their favorite finalist. On March 20, both the teams behind each concept and the results of the public vote will be revealed at the Grand Award Ceremony in Stockholm. In addition to the monetary prize, the winners will receive access to a one-year innovation accelerator provided by the H&M Foundation in partnership with Accenture and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Offering networking opportunities, exposure and relevant skills, the accelerator will bring the winners to New York, Shanghai and Stockholm.