Creating a stonewashed or distressed look on a single pair of denims requires 15 gallons of water. Uniqlo, which makes upwards of a million pairs yearly, desires to lower down on this water consumption.
Final yr, the Japanese retailer opened a Denims Innovation Heart in Los Angeles to develop extra eco-friendly approaches to manufacturing denims. Immediately, it unveils its first main innovation: BlueCycle, a new manufacturing course of that makes use of 99% much less water within the ending course of, which softens and distresses denim. Given Uniqlo’s monumental scale—its mum or dad firm is the world’s most valuable clothing retailer—this new method might have a giant influence. Nonetheless, given the perilous state of the planet, it’s value asking whether or not incremental enhancements like this are sufficient.
Shoppers are increasingly aware of vogue’s devastating influence on the planet, and plenty of are trying to find extra moral choices. Quick Retailing—Uniqlo’s mum or dad firm, which additionally owns Concept and Helmut Lang—hasn’t fared effectively in latest sustainability stories. Enterprise of Trend‘s sustainability index, which was most just lately printed in March, ranked Quick Retailing final amongst mass-market manufacturers, falling behind H&M, Levi’s, Hole, and Inditex, Zara’s mum or dad firm. It scored poorly in each class BoF tracked, together with its administration of water.
BlueCycle is Uniqlo’s effort to catch up to its friends. On the Denims Innovation Heart, expertise and supplies consultants have been experimenting with tools that may lower down on water utilization all through the ending course of. Quick Retailing is a $5.96 billion firm with a advanced international provide chain, which implies the corporate wants options that it might rapidly and realistically apply throughout its factories, in accordance to Jean-Emmanuel Shein, Uniqlo’s director of company social duty. “We’re specializing in what is possible at scale,” he says. “We’re involved in approaches that don’t require extremely specialised assets to obtain and will be carried out in numerous international locations.”
The staff settled on three sustainable methods which are already available on the market. First, slightly than washing denims in industrial machines for hours to soften the exhausting denim, Uniqlo is utilizing ozone fuel and tiny bubbles that percolate into a froth. This has a comparable softening impact, whereas solely requiring a small cup of water per pair.
To create a stonewashed look, Uniqlo beforehand used pumice stones, however they might rapidly break down, producing a residue, so the model switched to synthetic stones that final for much longer. Lastly, Uniqlo had relied on staff to sandpaper denims to create a distressed look, however the model will now use lasers that may precisely create this look with far much less time and labor.
To some consultants, these modifications aren’t formidable sufficient. “It’s actually exhausting to learn the analysis coming in concerning the environmental and social crises that the trade is wrapped up in and to be greeted by these incremental enhancements,” says Maxine Bedat, the founder of the sustainable-fashion suppose tank New Requirements Institute and the creator of the forthcoming guide Unraveled. “I don’t need to discourage what manufacturers are doing, however we’d like to push for—and obtain—a lot higher features.” Finally, she believes the issue lies with the sheer quantity of clothes that the style trade is churning out—making issues extra eco-friendly received’t matter if that doesn’t change.
On prime of that, many of the methods that Uniqlo is unveiling are already being utilized by its friends. In 2011, Levi’s developed a ending methodology that solely requires a thimbleful of water to end denims, and in 2018, it began utilizing lasers to distress denims. By 2020, the corporate had utilized these methods to greater than 80% of its denims. “The equipment is not distinctive to us,” Shein acknowledges. “The key formulation is the rigorously calibrated mixture of instruments we’re utilizing and disseminating throughout our provide chain.”
Shein says Quick Retailing is working to apply this expertise throughout all of its manufacturers, however its supply chain is unfold out amongst 51 factories and 84 mills internationally. This implies working intently with every of these services to assist them purchase these extra sustainable machines. Nonetheless, “it’s not at all times completely up to us,” Shein says. “We’re not completely vertically built-in so we don’t have 100% management.”
Whereas Bedat acknowledges that it’s difficult for companies to reconfigure their provide chains, she believes it’s important to do that work. “These giant firms set these provide chains up,” she says. “It’s a little odd to then flip round and say that they’re so large it’s exhausting to change these techniques.”