For every sustainable clothing brand that launches on Instagram, there’s a big apparel retailer under fire for some shady business practice. There’s a lot to unpack when discussing “sustainability,” especially in the context of the fashion industry, but it’s a very important conversation to have. Knowing about the current state of the climate emergency and its effects on our lifestyle isn’t even a matter of being “woke” — it’s a responsibility. And with big words like greenwashing, circular economy and organic farming being thrown around, it’s best to be informed — or at least try to keep yourself updated. I myself am not an expert but before this gets too complicated, it’s always a good idea to start with facts.
Did you know that on average, the production of one pair of jeans uses approximately 2,000 gallons of water? Every year, five billion pairs of jeans are produced worldwide, requiring a total of 110 billion gallons of water; 900,000 tons of chemicals are used in factories every year and two million people are exposed to materials that impact their health.
Fast Retailing Co. — parent of brands like Uniqlo, J Brand, and Helmut Lang — aims to change all of that by developing new techniques that reduce water usage and chemicals in the production process. They established the Jean Innovation Center (JIC) in Los Angeles, California back in 2016. Chief operating officer Masaaki Matsubara envisions a future where denim production is much cleaner and less resource-intensive. By 2020, all jeans by Fast Retailing brands will be produced through a more environmentally conscious process. TL;DR: the goal is to create accessible apparel that makes us feel good on the inside as well as the outside. But how exactly are they going to do that?
As part of JIC’s commitment to transparency, Young STAR had the rare opportunity to join a guided tour of the innovation hub with the team of Uniqlo. Throughout the visit, actual members of JIC took the time to explain and demonstrate each major step of the new production line. Here’s a breakdown of the things we learned at JIC.
Wastewater is cancelled
Fun fact: blue jeans were actually invented on the West Coast of LA during the Gold Rush because hard labor required durable work clothes. Denim is a very robust material and it takes a lot of washing plus distressing to make it comfortable for everyday wear. These are some of the stages in traditional manufacturing where a lot of water is used and polluted, wasting precious water that could be used for other purposes. But that is not the case with JIC.
One way they prevent water wastage is by using nano-bubble technology. Air from the atmosphere is fed into a machine that turns it into nano-bubbles, along with a flow of wet air. Instead of pure water, this magic mix is what makes our Uniqlo jeans soft.
The innovative processes in the JIC creates as little pollution as possible, which allows water to be recycled for multiple uses
In the washing stage of manufacturing, JIC also replaced traditional pumice stones with artificial eco stones. After two or three uses, pumice gradually gets pulverized and generates residue that makes the wash water not reusable. But when the artificial eco stone is put in the wash with the denim, it creates the same fade and texture that we love, minus the waste. Eco stones are so sustainable that the team of JIC even said they have not had to replace their first set since they opened in 2016.
With just about three years of doing intensive research and development, the new jean-making process of JIC has reduced the use of water by 90 to 99 percent. While that’s a lot to be proud of already, JIC continues to develop new techniques — such as ozone washing and use of an intelligent water recycling system — to prevent even more waste.
Sustainable jeans are here. But for Fast Retailing brands like Uniqlo, it should be the standard by 2020. We visited the Jean Innovation Center to know how they’re making that happen.
The future is laser
Not all jeans are created the same. The design is really in the details — the whisker bleaching on top of the pockets, the rips and distresses of your go-to pair, the fade of color and subtle difference in washes. All of those are created by hand with the help of chemicals and tools like sandpaper and cutters. Yes, your high school DIY-loving self might’ve had the best time, but can you just imagine the toll on a worker’s body having to constantly do that process over and over again? JIC is addressing that problem by introducing the laser engraving process. Using light to create patterns and textures on denim, this process increases productivity by 600 percent and considerably reduces the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals. A group of designers digitally create your favorite Uniqlo jean designs, and a group of engineers translate that into a code that the laser machine can read and carve onto the denim. It sounds simple, yes, but seeing the laser machine in action will blow your mind. That, and knowing that the Uniqlo jeans you’re wearing were made responsibly.
Old school vs. new school: Traditional manufacturers still use sandpaper and cutters to distress the jeans by hand. The Jeans Innovation Center uses lasers to achieve different detail designs more efficiently.
More than just jeans
As part of Fast Retailing‘s commitment to sustainability, they also aim to reduce the use of single-use plastic throughout their supply chain and in stores by up to 85 percent by the end of 2020. They plan on introducing eco-friendly paper bags made of Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper or recycled paper. Reusable bags will soon be available for purchase upon checkout as an alternative to paper bags. On the production end, a series of tests will be launched to eliminate individual product packaging plastic.
On a bigger scale of Fast Retailing’s ethical and sustainable blueprint, the company is championing women’s rights and empowerment in the apparel industry with the help of UN Women. Female workers account for 80 percent of the garment industry, but men occupy the majority of leadership roles. In an effort to address issues like gender segregation and pay wage gaps, FR and UN Women will provide leadership and skills training program for female workers in their main production hubs in Asia.
Bye bye plastic: FR brands like Uniqlo and GU will reduce the use of single-use plastic throughout their supply chain and in stores by up to 85 percent by the end of 2020.
At a time when we actually get to experience the effects of climate emergency firsthand, it’s now quite difficult not to think twice when making consumer decisions. The more you know about our planet’s current state, the more you cannot unsee the damage and the more you feel the urgency to do something. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, yes, but it’s also an opportunity to affect positive change in any way we can. It sounds cliché but really, it’s true. So when it comes down to picking between any two choices — say, when picking out a new pair of jeans — you’d choose the less harmful option. Wouldn’t you?