September 19, 2017

H&M Foundation Is Trying to Fix the Sustainability Problem That We All Started

A Study of the fiber extract from the hydrothermal process.

I open my closet and the first thought I have in my head is, “I don’t have anything to wear.” Cliché, but I’m sure you can relate given that we all probably have a closet full of clothes. It’s been said that we are the first or second generation in the history of civilization who look at clothes as a disposable commodity. No, I’m not here to point fingers, we all contributed to the world of fast fashion. But just in case you didn’t notice, it’s now taking a toll on our planet.

H&M Foundation, a non-profit organization started by the owners of (you guessed it) H&M, committed to a four-year partnership with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) in developing technologies for textile recycling with the end goal to share it with the rest of the fashion industry and to finally close the loop on textile and clothing production. But what took so long?

Edwin Keh, CEO of HKRITA

“If you’re recycling plastic and aluminum cans, it’s very easy, visually you can say that one is plastic and one is aluminum, and there’s the sortation,” said Edwin Keh, CEO of HKRITA. “A lot of the clothes are blended—it could be two yarns twisted together or fibers blended together. So even if you judiciously sort your clothes, you still haven’t figured out what’s polyester, what’s cotton, or what’s wool. And basically to be able to be reusable you have to know what it is.” Here we see the first obstacle: the separation of blended clothes.

Given the fashion industry’s complex and creative background, clothes are made in many different ways to improve design, fit, and wearability. “We’ve not been very thoughtful about the eventual end of life or reuse of these products,” explains Edwin. “Therefore, we do these crazy blends which create the problem that we’re trying to solve today.”

H&M Conscious collection that’s made of sustainable cotton or partly-recycled textiles.

There are efforts in apparel recycling, but that just means it’s mechanical where they break down long fibers to short fibers in order to be reused. Think high value products such as your trendy dress being turned into low value products like insulation and carpeting. You can mix short fibers with new fibers in order to make partly-recycled products (available through H&M’s Conscious line), but quality is not good enough if they were made to be 100 percent recycled because they’d feel coarser and would have a much shorter life span.

Erik Bang, project manager of H&M Foundation

What H&M Foundation and HKRITA wants to do is to look for different alternatives to recycling. “The approach is applied research,” said H&M Foundation’s project manager Erik Bang. “We look into what the others are doing, what’s been done, what’s working, and try to fine-tune, improve, tweak, and apply to a new setting.” Since they’re not starting from basic research, they have actually narrowed down to two processes out of the 15 different technologies they have evaluated.

Biological Method

Textile going through the process of fermentation.

With this process, they make use of enzymes and fermentation to separate cotton from polyester. (Think of it as making beer. Yum.) They get polyester fibers as they are, which can obviously be reused again, while the cotton turns into cellulose which can be used as a building block not just in fashion, but other industries. Edwin got really excited as this particular process doesn’t involve as much effort, “Because this is a biological process, we don’t have to use additional energy. The enzymes are doing all the work for free!”

Chemical Method

The cotton turns into this fine powder after it goes through the hydrothermal process.

The second one is hydrothermal and it basically makes use of pressure, heat, and a biodegradable chemical agent to also separate cotton from polyester. It’s simple and efficient because what they get is cotton that turns into very, very fine powder that can be used to coat new cotton or it can be degraded further to become cellulose. The polyester comes in fiber form, there’s no deterioration and change in the characteristic of the said material allowing it to be used over and over again—again, it’s a closed loop same as above.

This tank can process a lab scale amount of textile.

To emphasize the breakthrough of polyester in fiber form sans deterioration, Edwin shared about recycling PET (plastic) bottles into t-shirts, with this existing process, the problem was simply pushed back a little further. “What you want to do is to make PET shirts and recycle them,” he said. “The reason why you can’t do it is when you turn a PET bottle into a shirt, you deteriorate the performance characteristics of it. The molecular weight goes down and it can’t be made into another bottle because it won’t be water-tight.”

We’re a few steps closer to a better, more sustainable fast fashion industry, but as consumers, what can we do? Return the clothes to H&M and support their Close the Loop campaign as it helps fund the research, and also, “Buy only the stuff you love and intend to wear,” advised Erik. “I don’t buy food to fill up my fridge just because I can and let it put to waste. It should be the same with my wardrobe.”

Choosing sustainable and being thoughtful with our consumption doesn’t mean it’s equal to less enjoyment. We can all enjoy fashion and have fun, we just have to be responsible.


Photos courtesy of H&M

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