Drapers goes inside Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing’s Los Angeles denim-manufacturing hub, where it hopes to become top of the pack in the race to create sustainable jeans.
Though it might be best known to the rest of the world as the home of film and fame, to those within the fashion industry, Los Angeles is synonymous with denim. Although the fabric was invented in San Francisco in the wake of the California Gold Rush, the plethora of wash houses and brands who have set up shop in the City of Angels on America’s west coast – including leading lights AG Jeans, Mother and Paige – have put Los Angeles at the heart of all things denim.
The city is also rapidly becoming a hub for the denim sector’s mission to create greener, cleaner jeans.
Earlier this year, premium denim label AG Jeans, which counts Harrods and Net-a-Porter amongst its stockists, unveiled a new filtration system that allows it to recycle 100% of the water used in the manufacturing process at its factory in the South Gate district of Los Angeles.
Vietnamese denim manufacturer Saitex, which works with Madewell, J Crew and Everlane, also plans to open a sustainable denim factory in Los Angeles later this year.
Japanese retail giant Fast Retailing, which owns international retailer Uniqlo and denim-focused brands J Brand and Theory, among others, is also looking to harness Los Angeles’ long connection with denim with a desire to work more sustainably.
The focus at the centre is how we can incorporate sustainability into everything we design
Masaaki Matsubara, Fast Retailing
The group, which was founded by its entrepreneurial founder Tadashi Yanai in 1963, now has more than 3,000 stores around the world. It is a titan of the high street, reporting record revenues of ¥555bn (£4bn), up 7.3% on the previous year, for the three months to May 2019. Fast Retailing opened its Jeans Innovation Center in downtown Los Angeles in 2016. Nicknamed the JIC by the Fast Retailing team, the facility acts as a denim production and innovation nerve centre, allowing the retail group to test and develop new ways of creating jeans. Sustainability – and particularly how Fast Retailing can create jeans using less water – is a key focus. As its efforts begin to bear fruit, Drapers was invited into the JIC to learn more about the Fast Retailing approach.
“Los Angeles has a long history of denim production and there are still many jeans factories in the city, so it made sense for us to open the JIC here,” explains Masaaki Matsubara, chief operating officer of the Jeans Innovation Center. “The focus at the centre is how we can incorporate sustainability into everything we design – that’s something we’re always thinking about.”
Fast Retailing declines to reveal how much it has invested in the JIC, but describes it as a “considerable commitment”. The machines and technology on offer at the centre are being introduced to the group’s partner factories around the world, while engineers from the retail group will also visit suppliers and instruct them on how best to utilise the new technologies.
Creating sustainable denim for a group that includes brands as large as high street staple Uniqlo is no mean feat. It is the biggest brand within the Fast Retailing group and has more than 1,200 stores around the world, including 13 stores in the UK. Denim is a core part of its offer for both men and women – the brand sells everything from selvedge men’s jeans to compression fit jeans that sculpt the body for women.
Uniqlo started selling men’s regular fit jeans, which retail at £34.90, made using this sustainable technology last autumn, and all denim produced by the Fast Retailing Group will be made in this way by 2020. The group says that despite the innovation there will be no impact on prices for consumers.
Our customer wants a vintage look … but we need to find ways to achieve that look sustainably.
At the heart of the centre’s innovation is a new washing process, which reduces the amount of water used to wash jeans by up to 99% – with an average reduction of 90%, depending on the style – when compared to conventional washing methods.
During the process, air is passed into an electro-flow reactor where it receives an electromechanical shock. This creates nano-bubbles and a flow of wet air, which is then fed into a tumbler containing the denim. The process creates soft denim and also stops shrinkage. Pumice typically used in the washing process has also been replaced with artificial stones that last longer, can be reused multiple times and don’t create powder that can potentially pollute water supplies. Fast Retailing is also working on introducing systems across its factories that reuse any water that is still wasted during the washing process.
“Jeans are one of the only products – unlike, say a T-shirt – where we continue to finish and wash what is already technically a finished item,” says Matsubara. “Our customer wants a vintage look, they want a distressed finish, so we have to produce that, but we need to find ways to achieve that look sustainably.”
Other technology on offer at the centre includes lasers to recreate a pre-worn look, replacing traditional hand processes such as sanding or the use of chemicals to create a distressed finish.
This also replaces the use sandblasting on denim, which creates dust that can damage worker’s health and the environment.
As well as being more sustainable, the lasers also reduce variations in the end result and are considerably quicker. Fast Retailing says that it could take up to twenty minutes to finish a pair of jeans using legacy processes, compared to just two minutes to achieve the same effect using lasers. The lasers can also finish 60 pairs of jeans an hour, compared to 10 pairs achieved manually using the old techniques.
Beyond denim, Fast Retailing has also made a number of other sustainability-focused promises. It has pledged to reduce the amount of plastic used within its supply chains and in stores, which includes shopping bags and product packaging, by 85%, or the equivalent of 7,800 tons annually, by the end of 2020.
The group has also set itself the goal of procuring all cotton from sustainable sources, which it defines as coming from regions which have made traceable improvements when it comes to water use, chemical use and fair pay for workers, by 2025. Ensuring all factories involved in down processing become Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certified – which ensures down comes from birds that have not been subjected to unnecessary harm – by 2020 is another ambition.
As Fast Retailing moves away from legacy finishing processes that were once completed by human workers, it is also taking steps to ensure the progression of women within its supply chain. It has partnered with gender-equality organisation UN Women and has invested $1.6m (£1.28m) into a programme for women working in factories across Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, where the group does the bulk of its production.
“Introducing new technology improves working conditions, but it can also widen the pay gap between genders, because men tend to occupy more skilled roles,” explains Veronique Rochet, director of sustainability at Fast Retailing.
The programme will include leadership training to help women reach more senior positions, opportunities for women to acquire new skills, such as using new machines, and raising the awareness of gender equality within workplaces.
Both retailers and consumers are waking up to the fact that the way clothes are made matters. Creating lasting change at scale – as Fast Retailing has done by ensuring all its denim will be made using less water by 2020 across Uniqlo and its other brands – requires an innovative mindset and a commitment to investment. A long-term view and willingness to experiment are key to creating better denim for all.
Join the world’s leaders in the field at Drapers Sustainable Fashion 2020 in London on 11 March.
The event is for fashion brands and retailers, clothes manufacturers, supply chain experts, innovators and anybody for whom sustainability matters. We are creating a programme of hard-hitting talks, projects showcasing sustainability in action, and start-up innovation that is pushing the boundaries of the possible.