The problem of fast fashion is – by its nature – accelerating quickly. In the UK alone, people are purchasing five times as many clothes as they did in the 1980s, and the global fashion industry is now responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. But on the rise, too, is the number of ideas to fix it. 

Hunting them down this year is the European Social Innovation Competition. Set up by the European Commission, the competition was originally organised eight years ago in memory of Diogo Vasconcelos – a Portuguese politician and leader in social innovation, known for his rallying cry “we have to fix the future!” It calls on people from across EU countries and Horizon 2020 associated countries to come up with solutions to the problems affecting today’s society. 

The 2020 edition of the Competition invited people across Europe – and beyond – to ‘Reimagine Fashion’. Underlying the fashion industry is a vast and complex system, that runs from field to factory to fashion show before clothes reach our wardrobes. The damage it can cause to ecosystems, the climate, local communities and those working in factories has prompted all of us to think differently about how and what we are buying. But it has also sparked the imagination of those determined to fix these problems – to find new, creative ways to make clothes so that we can bring the joy back into fashion, without concerns.

This year, nearly 800 applications came in from 39 countries, in 19 different languages. From this raft of imaginative ideas, 30 applicants were selected by a panel of experts to reach the semi-finals. The jury panel for this year’s competition includes social innovators, sustainable fashion and impact business experts. 

The 30 semi-finalists received a comprehensive online package of support from experts to further the development of their ideas. This includes the Competition’s social innovation academy, a multi-day training event that connects Semi-Finalists to a wider community of European social innovators through a series of dedicated presentations and workshops, which this year took place online. Semi-Finalists were also paired with a local coach for one-to-one mentoring and to gain access to an online pool of experts for tailored advice on specific aspects of launching a social venture.

Since then, they’ve been working on further developing their ideas. The semi-finalists submitted their development plans in August and in September the jury panel met once again to identify the ten finalists, announced on September 21st – find out who they are here! In November, three winners will be awarded an impressive €50,000 each to help make their idea happen. 

Additionally, in 2021, all 30 semi-finalists will have the chance of winning a separate ‘impact prize’ of €50,000. The Award recognises and awards the semi-finalist that can prove the greatest impact over the course of the previous year. 

The Commission has welcomed applicants who are applying imagination to any aspect of fashion’s production, consumption and end of life – from materials to manufacturing, and chemicals to consumption. This could include reducing clothes’ carbon or chemical footprint, making fashion more accessible and fair, or changing our clothes-buying habits to be more sustainable. Importantly, the ideas submitted should be scalable or replicable beyond the competition, so their impact can multiply to a local, national or international level.

In exploring the problem-solving talents of this year’s applicants, six themes emerged that can help shape how we understand a reimagined future for fashion. 

The future of sustainable fabrics

The fibres and fabrics used to make our favourite clothes hold a great potential for the transformation of the fashion industry. From water consumption and pollution, to excessive land use and synthetics that live forever, they can contribute to  issues from the beginning to the end of clothes’ lifecycle.

The 2020 semi-finalists have come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives that are also beautiful to use and wear.  They use original and wonderful raw materials like mushrooms (MycoTEX), paper (Pulp Fashion) and hemp (Hempcell).

Theresa Jentzsch founded ALMA, a vegan leather company that uses apples and algae to create a plastic-free, hyper-sustainable leather alternative. “There’s a lot of stigma around sustainable fabrics, and how they look – the options aren’t usually that great. One thing I wanted to achieve with my company was to supply ethical products that look chic, so you don’t have to sacrifice your fashion choices by also making ethical fashion choices.”

►► Listen to these five semi-finalists discuss prototyping, vanishing zippers and firemen’s uniforms.

Go for green

When it comes to updating our wardrobes, buying more, for less, more often has become the norm – a growing appetite that is met by some fast fashion websites uploading an average of 116 new styles every day. 

But there are different ways to explore the joy and expression of clothes, that doesn’t mean consuming more. The semi-finalists include Swap Shop, which sets up parties where people can swap clothes that mean something to them; a “Tinder-for-clothes” app Shuffle Swaps; a durable, rentable, circular raincoat offered by BYBROWN; and RE-NT who uses AI and blockchain to make clothes circular.

Swap Shop’s Metka Magdalena Sori explains: “Fashion shopping gives us a kind of instant illusion of happiness, a satisfaction that lasts only a few hours. With Swap Shop we try to create joyful experiences, where people can share stories about the clothes. This concept of having multiple temporary owners of clothing could completely change the relationship we have with our clothes.”

►► Listen to these four semi-finalists discuss the power of buying habits and how to keep dry, sustainably.

Techie, but trendy

Technology is not necessarily a solution in itself – but applied imaginatively, it can change the way that clothes are made, sold and worn. 

This year’s semi-finalists have come up with technological solutions that can prevent waste and shift those buying and making clothes towards ‘less’. MYFACTORI uses AI to limit excess production, while Snake uses augmented reality to reduce demand for physical clothes. To help people shop smarter rather than faster, Choozfit offers personal recommendations that help people find sustainable styles that suit them and Senstile uses AI to make online fashion tactile, so people fall in love with the clothes they buy.

Irene Lionetti, who runs Edith – an app that helps users make the most of their existing wardrobe instead of buying more, says “I believe that technology can play a key role when it comes to fair fashion because it can help, first of all, with reducing [fashion’s] environmental impact in different ways. With our technology we want to make sure that what already exists will be used enough.”

►► Listen to these five semi-finalists discuss creativity, personalisation and the infinite possibilities of digital clothes.

Transparent tailoring

This year’s applicants have looked at how clothes can fit better into a lifecycle that is circular rather than linear – that can be part of a regenerative, rather than a destructive process. Ideas range from the futuristic to the traditional: Fairbrics’ technology converts fabric manufacturing’s CO2 emissions into new synthetic fabrics, while Vintage for a Cause upcycles textile waste and deadstock while empowering women over 50 through sewing clubs and workshops.

WhyWeCraft is exploring how to bring traditional textile techniques and designs back into contemporary fashion. Monica Moisin explains more: “Our project wants to rewire the emotional connexion between people and their clothes by drawing inspiration from the relationship that our ancestors had with their garments.”

►► Listen to these three semi-finalists discuss science, social purpose and starting a positive spiral of change.

How to wear waste

No, not dressing up in a binbag – though that can be chic too. Of the millions of tonnes of clothing that’s burned or landfilled, much has the potential to be recovered and reused. 

Existing recycling processes go some way in saving clothes from incineration, but there is potential for much more to be rescued. Ideas from semi-finalists include Kleiderly’s new recycling process that produces a durable material that can replace oil-based plastics; Love your Denim, which repairs old jeans or transforms them into a recyclable yarn; and Woolways, who are finding a home for Romania’s wool waste.

Rodica Savulescu is behind WasteLess Fashion, a sustainable education program that connects fashion designers with schools. “Sustainability is usually viewed as an add-on or something nice to have rather than as the starting point,” she says. “And this is where we intend to change things. Zero waste design should be the norm, not the exception in fashion. We think that someone’s trash can be someone else’s treasure and that waste is probably a design flaw that can be prevented. So why not do that?”

►► Listen to four semi-finalists discuss chemical engineering, staying local, and the truth about upcycling.

All eyes on dyes

The dyes used to brighten up our clothes can leave more than just colour behind. They can damage ecosystems by turning rivers inky blue, and the chemicals can harm workers’ skin – all while creating a huge water footprint

But by combining science and nature, another way is possible. Vividye have developed a way to re-dye clothes to give them new life, while Dyeluxe turns food waste into bright coloured dyes and Novel Dyes for Water-free Dyeing of Biofibers can dye clothes without water.

Dian-Jen Lin is from Post Carbon Fashion, who are using microbiology to dye clothes in a way that is zero waste and climate positive. She highlights that addressing the problem of dying has to be about more than just sticking plaster solutions. “We are trying to answer the question: what is the ecological role of fashion? And come at it from a more positive side – not just trying to mitigate and offset the footprint and the possible waste by planting trees elsewhere. We’re trying to justify the existence of the sustainable colouring industry.”

►► Listen to these four semi-finalists discuss chemistry, closing the loop and the power of natural pigments.

Both the fashion industry and civil society recognise the need to turn to a more sustainable approach in the way fashion products are produced and consumed. There are so many details that can go into making one garment, as shown by the various projects and areas the semi-finalists are working on. 

As the competition shows, changing the fashion industry calls for ideas that are as creative as they are practical. And we can only make progress if we use a wide lens – that takes in the many facets of a system that includes the environment, human rights, the economy and culture. Above all, it’s our capacity to imagine better that will show us new ways for fashion to operate. Click here to share your own idea with us

AtlasAction: Sign up to the Competition newsletter to be the first to hear who this year’s winners are. And if you’re a fashion pioneer, innovator, entrepreneur or changemaker, check out the Playbook for Social Innovation.

The European Social Innovation Competition is run by the European Commission with the support of a consortium of organisations. The consortium is led by Nesta Challenges and includes Kennisland, Ashoka Spain, the European Network of Living Labs, and Scholz & Friends.