Even as H&M pushes to add hundreds of new stores to its thousands-strong global fleet this year, raking in a few billion dollars in profit annually, the Swedish retailer is working hard to change the conversation around the environmental impact of the cheaply made, high-churn apparel that has made it so successful.
On Tuesday, H&M announced that it has created a €1 million ($1.14 million) grant to promote advances in clothing recycling, called the "Global Change Award." Applicants must submit their ideas by the end of October; five winners will be chosen in February by a jury of professors and CEOs (along with Vogue Italia Editor-in-Chief Franca Sozzani and model/actress Amber Valetta) and awarded €100,000 each. The remaining €500,000 is up to the public to distribute via online vote.
With luck, the winning ideas will actually come to fruition. In addition to funding, the winners will enter a one-year accelerator program that gives them "the support and knowledge they need to actualize their ideas."
In H&M's estimation, figuring out how to recycle garments "represents a radical departure from the old linear 'take, make, waste' production and consumption models to a model where products and resources are designed to have more than one life." That's good. But the company's not exactly trying to put the brakes on the rapid pace of consumption that's helped it expand so quickly; it's just trying to figure out how to ameliorate the damage associated with it, so that it can keep doing its thing.
If a fast fashion brand tossing some of its wealth at advances in sustainable clothing manufacturing brings to the fore new ideas that can be implemented by the industry at large — and, notably, H&M says it won't take equity or intellectual property rights in any of the inventions — that's awesome. But without changing the rate at which it produces its goods, an environmental initiative like this come across, at its most basic, like a PR move and at its best, a Band-Aid.