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H&M, HKRITA Embark on ‘Most Ambitious Program’ to Drive Fashion Circularity

H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) are extending their circularity-driving partnership for another five years.

A week after the two organizations unveiled the first “Green Machine” technology to separate and recycle polyester-and-cotton blends at scale, H&M’s nonprofit arm said that it will be plowing 100 million Swedish kronor ($11.8 million) into a new initiative that will test drive “groundbreaking” and “planet positive” innovations that further close the loop in fashion. Hong Kong Government’s Innovation & Technology Fund will provide additional funding, resulting in a total estimated budget of $100 million over the next half decade.

“Our partnership with the H&M Foundation is guided by speed, scale and impact,” Edwin Keh, CEO of HKRITA, said in a statement Tuesday. “Our goal is to find technologies and solutions that we openly share with the industry to ensure rapid scaling and positive impact. To our knowledge, this is the most ambitious program in our industry to move the needle in this field, and we are very excited to start discovering the breakthroughs that can change the game.”

One of the first projects in the Planet First program stems from the aforementioned “Green Machine,” the culmination of a four-year, 5.8-million-euro ($7 million) collaboration that began in 2016. The technology applies hydrothermal power, water and less than 5 percent of a “biodegradable green chemical,” which is essentially lemon juice, to dissolve the cotton component of blended materials and extract the polyester for spinning into yarn.

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The liquified cotton is dried to create a cellulose powder, which researchers say is “clean and nontoxic.” HKRITA will now be working with Japanese fiber producer Daiwabo Rayon to see if it can create new garments from the material. The powder, they added, also boasts super-absorbent properties that could be “interesting” for farming purposes. Working with Shahi Exports, one of India’s biggest apparel manufacturers, HKRITA “successfully implemented” a pilot with cotton farmers that increased yields by 20 percent.

“We believe this is because the powder improves water retention of the crop, especially under extreme water stress conditions,” said Anant Ahuja, head of organizational development at Shahi Exports. “The quality of cotton grown this way was better and the fibers were stronger and longer. These improvements can potentially enable farmers to receive a better market price.”

HKRITA and Shahi Exports plan to embark on a larger pilot next spring. “We believe this research can help both cotton farmers and also benefit the environment by enabling the use of textile waste as an eco-friendly super-absorbent powder and by reducing water consumption in cotton production,” Ahuja added.

Also in the works is a “first of its kind” open factory in Hong Kong that will enable researchers, suppliers and brands to convene and experiment with new concepts. By creating this space, H&M Foundation and HKRITA say they’re tackling two of innovation’s biggest bottlenecks: access to equipment and other industry stakeholders. More information will be available next year.

Erik Bang, innovation lead at the H&M Foundation, admits the retailer doesn’t have all the answers. And indeed, the tension between growth and sustainability remains a central one for all facets of clothing production, particularly those models predicated on high turnovers and low prices. Those criticisms aren’t likely to go away any time soon.

“We don’t know what a planet-positive fashion industry will look like, no one does,” Bang said. “This goal is directional and requires innovation and thinking outside the box in every step of the fashion value chain. By signing up for five more years with HKRITA, we not only dip our toes but take the plunge with this partnership to figure this out, and we look forward to making the Planet First program a revolutionary one.”