An interview with Slawomir Tokarski, Director of Innovation and Advanced Manufacturing, DG GROW

Since its launch in 2012, the European Social Innovation Competition has served as a beacon for social innovators. Each year the competition takes on a different challenge facing Europe, employing a proven methodology for supporting early-stage ideas, while facilitating a network of radical innovators shaping our society for the better. We meet with Slawomir Tokarski, DG GROW’s Director of Innovation and Advanced Manufacturing, to find out how this year’s competition sets out to reimagine the European fashion industry for the better.

 What is the goal of this year’s competition and what ideas are you hoping to uncover?

Whether we think of ourselves as “fashionable” or not, we all come into contact with the fashion industry in our everyday lives – after all, we all wear clothes and shoes, carry bags and maybe even wear jewellery and other accessories. All these products fall under the “fashion” umbrella. Under the theme, “Reimagine Fashion: Changing behaviours for sustainable fashion”, the 2020 European Social Innovation Competition will promote sustainability in the fashion sector by supporting fresh ideas and early stage projects that will change the ways we produce, buy, use, share and recycle fashion items. The broader EU objective is increased global sustainability and a shift in consumer and business behaviour.

The competition is looking for innovative ideas that encourage and support a change in the way things work in the fashion system, looking for new and smart ways of producing, using and re- or up-cycling clothes and accessories. It is an important and broad topic that matters for the planet and appeals to more and more people, in particular the younger generations, so I’m very excited to see the ideas we’ll receive. 

How will the competition support these ideas?

The structure of the competition has been designed with the needs of social innovators in mind, with the aim of giving them access to the support and resources they need to transform their early stage ideas into real projects, so that our society could benefit from new and bright techniques and ideas. In the first stage of the competition, an independent judging panel will select thirty semi-finalists who will be invited to attend a 3-day residential training Academy event in July. The Academy provides the semi-finalists with further support for the development of their ideas and connects them to a wider community of European social innovators. Semi-finalists will then receive further remote training, including webinars from international experts and continued support from their dedicated coach.

In the second phase of the competition, the semi-finalists will be asked to submit their Development Plans, outlining how they intend to successfully launch and scale their idea. In September, the 10 finalists will be announced. They will also be given an opportunity to raise awareness of their project by pitching it live on stage during the Awards Ceremony, which will take place in the autumn. The three winners will be announced on this occasion and receive €50,000 each.

In addition, we will further support participants through the Impact Prize. The 2021 Impact Prize will be open to semi-finalists, finalists and winners from the 2020 competition, and will reward the project that achieves the most significant social impact over the course of the year. This extra prize is designed to ensure that the projects we support go on to implement their ideas, focusing on their social impact.

Why is this year’s theme so important?

The global fashion industry is very large and has a significant environmental impact. In the last 15 years clothing production has almost doubled, driven by a growing middle-class population across the globe. The increasing phenomenon of “fast fashion” has pushed consumers to look at clothes as disposable items. This means that we are using large amounts of non-renewable resources at a global level to produce clothes that are often used for only a short amount of time, before ending up in landfill or being incinerated.

This linear system puts pressure on resources, pollutes and degrades the natural environment and its ecosystems, and creates significant negative societal impacts at local, regional, and global scales. Although the fashion goods produced in Europe are, on the whole, of good quality and designed to last, we’re looking for ideas and innovations that will challenge and change this linear model for the better. Indeed, given the size of the fashion industry, we believe the scale of the opportunity is very large: in the EU alone, the textile and clothing sector is estimated to directly employ nearly 1.7 million people, in over 171,000 companies, with a turnover of EUR 178 million.

How does the competition fit within wider EU policy?

Of course, the competition fits into the wider context of EU policy to support a more sustainable European industry and facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon and circular economy, as set out in the European Green Deal.

Indeed, the fashion industry can play a major role and contribute in reaching climate neutrality in the second half of the twenty-first century, as agreed under the Paris Agreement. Moreover, the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, promoted under the auspices of UN Climate Change, contains the vision to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

What is the EU already doing to tackle the issue?

Even though companies in the EU respect the highest requirements in terms of human and social rights, safety for consumers and environmental protection according to EU and national legislations, they still can play an important role to facilitate the transition to more sustainable production and services in the fashion industry. The EU and its Member States have adopted measures to reduce emissions and facilitate the transition towards a circular economy under the Circular Economy Package. Among others, these measures require that textile waste is collected separately in all Member States as of January 2025.

The integration of new technologies and new business models into traditional companies is crucial to minimise the environmental impact of the sector and increase its competitiveness. Collection, sorting, reuse, sharing, recycling and energy efficiency are important elements of the transition towards a sustainable and circular fashion industry. This transition is dependent on enabling technologies, sustainable product design and creativity-based innovation.

As part of its effort to transform Europe’s economy into a more sustainable one, the European Commission has implemented a number of actions targeting textile, footwear and retail, such as: 

  •     Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF) for leather, footwear and t-shirts and retail sector
  •     The Eco-management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) for Retail trade
  •     EU Ecolabel scheme for textiles products and footwear
  •     Environmental Technology Verification (ETV)
  •     Green Public Procurement (GPP) for the textile sector
  •     European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform

What is your hope for this year’s competition?

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. This is evidenced by the fact that well-known brands and retailers have started their own reflection on how to improve fashion’s environmental footprint and are setting up strategies to turn to a circular model. We want to add to the conversation and support this shift towards sustainable consumer behaviours: with the launch of the 2020 European Social Innovation Competition, we want to provide support to ideas and early-stage solutions that will help us to reimagine the fashion industry of the future.