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H&M Opens Hydrothermal Recycling Facilities, Calls for Latest Class of Circular Innovators

This year’s Early Bird Winner of the Global Change Award, US-based startup Tandem Repeat, uses self-healing characteristics in squid genes to create programmable fabrics that are biodegradable and 100 percent recyclable. | Image credit: Global Change Award

This week, the nonprofit H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) opened two first-of-their-kind textile recycling facilities in Hong Kong, where HKRITA’s breakthrough hydrothermal recycling technology will for the first time be put into practice at scale, and a miniaturized Garment-To-Garment Recycling System is opened for the public. These facilities are the results of a the Foundation’s partnership with HKRITA to accelerate research on textile recycling to speed up the development of a closed loop for textiles.

In September 2017, only one year into the four-year long partnership, HKRITA presented a hydrothermal method for recycling cotton and polyester blends into new fibers; blends are the most common type of textile in the world and remain largely unrecyclable.

A year later marks the opening of a pre-industrial-size facility scaling this technology, to invite fashion brands and stakeholders worldwide to see, test and implement the technology within their own operations. As a nonprofit, the H&M Foundation works to drive change for the global fashion industry; HKRITA will license the results widely to make it available to all and enable a bigger impact.

“This is a significant step towards a new fashion industry that operates within the planetary boundaries,” says Erik Bang, Innovation Lead at the H&M Foundation. “As we scale up and make this technology freely available to the industry, we will reduce the dependence on limited natural resources to dress a growing global population.” 

In addition, customers can bring their unwanted clothes, and watch the container-sized Garment-To-Garment Recycling System recycle their garments and make new fashion finds. 

“Seeing is believing, and when customers see with their own eyes what a valuable resource garments at end of life can be, they can also believe in recycling and recognize the difference their actions can make,” Bang says. 

The Garment-To-Garment Recycling System is the result of a collaboration between HKRITA, the H&M Foundation and Novetex, and located at Hong Kong’s The Mills, a newly repurposed former textile mill.

“After successfully developing revolutionary recycling technologies, we have devoted sustained effort to put them into practice. Our recycling systems represent the industry’s well-applied innovation efforts. These not only revitalise a decades-old major industry, but also do it most sustainably for the benefit of our community and as a responsible global citizen,” says Edwin Keh, Chief Executive Officer of HKRITA.

The H&M Foundation is projected to invest €5.8 million with HKRITA over four years. The investment is made possible through the surplus from the H&M group’s in-store garment collecting programs, which is donated to the H&M Foundation. The H&M Foundation allocates 50 percent of the total surplus to research on textile recycling and the other 50 percent to projects focusing on equality and inclusion of marginalized groups.


Meanwhile, the H&M Foundation has also opened the fourth round of its annual Global Change Award textile innovation challenge, which provides €1 million in funding and yearlong coaching to innovators who come up with solutions to spark the shift towards a circular fashion industry.

This year, there’s an emphasis on ideas within digitalization.

“This year, we keep an extra eye on digital innovations which can make significant impact on efficiency, planning and resource use — all the way from making raw material to a garment’s end of life,” Bang said. “Digitalization has the potential to disrupt at the root, reinvent how things are done and help producers, sellers and customers to become circular.”

The Global Change Award wants to find tomorrow’s game-changers. Innovations should have the potential to make fashion circular; other criteria include impact and scalability, that it’s novel and economically sustainable, and that the team is suited to make a difference. Previous winners with unexpected techniques, methods and fabrics show an incredible range of innovation possibilities, and how they can unlock solutions to big challenges. This year’s Early Bird Winner, US-based startup Tandem Repeat, uses self-healing characteristics in squid genes to create programmable fabrics that are biodegradable and 100 percent recyclable.

Applications will be accepted through October 17; winners will be crowned at the Grand Award Ceremony in Stockholm City Hall in April 2019.

“Innovation and collaboration lead fashion’s shift to circularity and a more sustainable future. The Global Change Award’s support to material and systems innovators not only helps to accelerate the success of each individual awardee but also impacts the progress of the global fashion industry”, says Steven Kolb, President and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and member of the Global Change Award 2019 Expert Panel.

H&M Foundation initiated the challenge in 2015 to find innovations that could catalyze major change for the entire industry, and winners can collaborate with whomever they want. Neither the non-profit H&M Foundation nor H&M group take any equity or intellectual property rights in the innovations.

“New ideas are the foundation for change, but scaling them is an enormous challenge for every innovator. Together with our partners, Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, we’ve seen previous winners cut years off their timeline through our accelerator program. Now, we are eager to welcome five new circular heroes and encourage everyone who wants to reinvent one of the world’s largest industries to apply,” says Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M and board member of the H&M Foundation.


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