Those involved with the H&M Foundation's annual sustainable innovation challenge, the Global Change Award, firmly believe that the competition can help accelerate the industry's shift to a new, circular and sustainable model. As one of the world's largest challenges for early-stage innovations and the first of its kind launched for the fashion industry, the 3rd edition of the challenge drew in over 2,600 applications from 151 countries. Five winning innovations from 5 different countries were each awarded a cash grant, along with access to a year-long accelerator program, based in Stockholm, Shanghai and New York on March 20, during an intimate ceremony held at the city hall in Stockholm.
"While fashion aesthetics may be fleeting, the outcomes of the Global Change Award can change the world"
The winning innovations, which ranged from making textile fibers from food crops, dissolving thread, bio-dye and textiles made from algae, advanced recycling processes and biodegradable textiles shared a 1 million euro from the H&M Foundation. FashionUnited attended the Global Change Award 2018 and spoke with this year's main winner, Crop-A-Porter, also known as Argaloop, who was awarded a 300,000 euro grant following the online public vote, to learn more about their innovation and what they hope to achieve. We also spoke with last year's overall winner, Grape Leather, to hear what progress they have made and what advice they have for this year's winners.
“Our innovation comes 100 percent from our love of fashion and design,” explained Isaac Nichelson, CEO and co-founder of Circular Systems SPC, parent company of Agraloop, to FashionUnited during an interview. The idea behind Argaloop is simple but incredibly effective. The company has invented a closed loop system which takes the waste from food crop harvests, such as oil-seed flax, hemp, sugarcane, bananas, and pineapples, and turns it into a biological fiber which can be used to make textile fabric. But where did the idea to create such an innovative material come from? “It stems from a time when I was trying to find a solution in to the challenges faced by the industry during my early career, after finding out about the most toxic aspect of fashion," said Nichelson, who believes outerwear performance, which heavily relies on man-made materials such as nylon and polyester, being the worst of all. "This was back in the 90s and when I realized this it was a terrible shock, this was something diametrically opposed to my values."
Nichelson began his search for better materials, which connected him with Circular Systems Chief Technology Officer and co-founder Yitzac Goldstein, in 1997. "He was the persevere of organic cotton, organic linen - he really was one of the early pioneers of using recycled polyester and one of the first to blend that with organic, natural fibers. We started working together in 1997 and have not stopped innovating since. [Argaloop] really is the solution for using limited natural resources.” After winning the 300,000 euro grant, Argaloop aims to use the money to help streamline and optimize its closed-loop technology system, which is currently being piloted in China and start the commercial production of Argaloop bio fibers. “We currently have prototype fibers in production. They are made using food crop waste inputs. We are doing pilots with banana and pineapple fibers in China." The company is also running pilots in North America and plans to launch pilots in Costa Rica soon. "We will be spreading south as we containerize it and create a modular system that goes through the waste,” he added.
In addition to offering the fashion a more sustainable fiber, Argaloop also has another added social benefit. “We can bring the farmers more income from their products," pointed out Nichelson. "There is a liability in their community right now - they are having to burn their crop harvest waste, or it is rotting and creating crop disease and smells while releasing all this methane gas up into the atmosphere. We can convert that liability into value for the community, so more income to the farmer." Nichelson foresees Circular Systems working with farmers and establishing local mills in the area to produce the fibers, which will be owned by the local communities, thereby creating more jobs in disadvantaged communities. At the same time, the production of Argaloop also creates a surplus of clean plant-based energy and clean, plant-based chemistry, according to Nichelson. The waste is being used to power their pilot plants and the plant-based chemistry makes an ideal organic fertilizer, which can go directly back into the fertility cycle at the farm level, another added benefit. “It is really a regenerative system design - this is circular tech in its essence.”
But is the fashion industry ready for such innovative textiles? Perhaps, however, consumer awareness is vital in kick-starting the industry's shift to a circular future, according to Nichelson. He hopes that one day a comparable hang tag, similar to that used in the technical wear space for Gore-Tex, will be used by the fashion industry to raise awareness for better textiles. "We are creating ingredients for new materials with our raw materials. The fashion consumer of the very near future is going to be a big label reader, just like the organic food eater. We are creating recognizable brands, built around safe and healthy materials. This is the means of spreading the awareness what of to buy and how to buy, so consumers know they are buying something safe. If we can flip the paradigm for what is used in the technical wear space and have the important brands of the future make a comparable hang tag or label, this things will help sell the product in the future and build value for the company."
However, Nichelson stressed that they are still designing the system to bring Argaloop fibers and textiles to the market, which has to be perfected before being scaled up. “We are really focused on circularity and trying to take it a step further to this regenerative space where we are healing things - not just driving for zero impact, but really taking on the cradle to cradle philosophy of doing good, not just less bad.” Scaling up such innovative initiatives can be a challenge, even with the help and support of the H&M Foundation, said last year's winner of the Global Change Award, Vegea. "The most challenging moment during the one-year mentorship was switching from a pilot to larger scale production. It took time and many tests on both the product and the textile machineries," said Valentina Longobardo, CEO of Vegea to FashionUnited. Together with Gianpiero Tessitore, architect and designer, they began researching alternatives to animal and synthetic leather. After collaborating with industrial chemist Francesco Merlino and investigation different agroindustrial byproducts they discovered that the grape marc, the leftover skins and stems from the wine-making process made the perfect base for a technical fabric, as it contains specific multifunctional components. Together they founded Vegea in 2016.
After winning the Global Change Award in 2017, Vegea used the grant to run tests on a pilot scale, focus on R&D activities. "We also received a great support from H&M Foundation, Accenture and KTH during the one-year accelerator programme with tailor-made skills and tools." Since then the team has been hard at work further developing their grape leather, creating product prototypes and connecting with future potential partners. "Last October we held an event where we revealed the first grape leather prototypes for dresses, handbags, and shoes in order test the market and show the great versatility and potential of grape leather," added Longobardo. "The event was a real success, actually many brands, investors and journalists appreciated our work." Vegea's prototypes attracted so much attention that the Victoria & Albert Museum ended up reaching out to the company and is set to showcase one of their dresses at the upcoming sustainable materials exhibitions this spring. "Thanks to H&M's support, we were also given the chance to grow our research team with more experienced chemists and engineers."
Seen as a veteran winner of the annual innovation challenge, what advice does Longobardo have for new winners of the Global Change Award, like Nichelson? "New winners should know that from now they will be overwhelmed by media and brands’ requests. It is very important to be well prepared to this if you want to start a business. The Global Change is an amazing opportunity, we had never started our own communication office before and it was tricky to manage all this, so be prepared!"
Photos: Courtesy of the Global Change Award and H&M Foundation