Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo may be under a parent company called Fast Retailing, but don’t assume that it’s a fast fashion brand.
“Part of the frustration we have in marketing is that Mr. Yanai [Tadashi Yanai, chairman, president and CEO of Fast Retailing] wanted to say, I’m going to build a company that moves very quickly in being innovative,” said John C. Jay, Fast Retailing’s president of Global Creative, “So he called it Fast Retailing. But the press look at Fast Retailing and go, Aha, so you are fast fashion. But we are not. So the first step I will tell people…it’s not fast fashion, because we will never make disposable clothing.”
Uniqlo doesn’t just want you to think that its clothing isn’t fast fashion; it wants you to think that it is a way of improving life with the concept of LifeWear, which the brand introduced to the public through an immersive exhibition, The Art and Science of Lifewear: New Form Follows Function, in London’s Somerset House from September 16 to 21. LifeWear, according to brand, “is the Uniqlo concept that expresses simple, high-quality, everyday clothing with a practical sense of beauty and designed to make everyone’s life better.”
It only makes sense that Yanai chose London for the location exhibition; it was the city where the brand’s genesis started, after Yanai paid a visit to the British retailer Next in 1987. “Back then, Next embraced a concept of affordable lifestyles, incorporating the latest trends at a time in which classical and contemporary fashions happily coexisted,” he told a group of media. “It was on visiting the NEXT store that I resolved to create something similar in Japan. I wanted to create and sell top-quality clothing that would be affordable to all worldwide, incorporating fashion that would match the style preferences of wearers rather than simply following the latest trends.” In the ‘80s, Uniqlo existed as Unique Clothing Warehouse, and then, it was registered as what was supposed to be Uni Clo, but was accidentally changed to Uniqlo due to a misunderstanding that stuck in 1988. Now it has more than 2,000 stores across 23 markets around the world that yielded 2.3 trillion yen in sales [$21.4 billion] for the fiscal year ending in August 2018, making it the world’s third-largest clothing retailer.
Uniqlo develops clothes that are simple, yet stylish and comfortable. Silicon Valley engineers, Wall Street bankers, college students, fashionistas, and suburban soccer moms can all incorporate its pieces into their wardrobe effortlessly. As Yanai said, “We believe that individuality comes not from clothes, but the people wearing them.” Uniqlo’s technological innovations with Toray have made it the reason why consumers flock to its HEATTECH, thin underlayers that hold the body’s warmth in, every winter, and its AIRism line in the summer. Its Ultra Light Down items are also wintertime staples. Fashion insiders rely on the brand for well-designed basics, like soft cashmere sweaters, warm fleece jackets, and wool skirts. Its design team, led by global creative director Rebekka Bay and artistic director Christophe Lemaire, who is behind its elevated Uniqlo U line, knows what they’re doing. In addition, the brand recruits heavyweights like Jonathan Anderson, Inès de la Fressange, and Alexander Wang for capsule collections. The brand also introduces the masses to art, through its collaborations with MoMA and the artist KAWS. Uniqlo, for many, has become an integral part of people’s wardrobes—and as the name LifeWear implies, their lives.
Mr. Yanai emphasized Uniqlo’s approach and the three pillars under which it operates: people, the planet, and community. “Our mission is to create clothes that are non-disposable, long-lasting, and which function as perfect components, providing the ultimate in everyday wear. That is our approach to sustainability.” In a world where 150 billion garments are produced annually for a population of 7.5 billion people, and where some 50 percent of fast fashion items are disposed of within a year, retailers need to rethink their business strategy, and Uniqlo’s approach is refreshing.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some 12.8 billion tons of clothing is sent to landfills every year. Greenpeace reports that 92 million tons of solid waste are produced each year with 98 million tons of natural resources. In the Ellen Macarthur Foundation report A New Textiles Economy, 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions come from textile production. Something’s gotta give, and Uniqlo is trying to do its part. Yanai is fully aware of the impact of the clothing industry on the environment. “I understand that this planet’s environment is at risk,” he said. “You gotta be in a hurry and try to do something to alleviate the situation, [otherwise] this planet will be disastrous.”
The brand announced two sustainability initiatives on September 16 in London—that it will collect used Ultra Light Down items from customers, which, thanks to its partner textile innovation partner Toray, will be extracted through a system it developed, cleansed, and turned into new products made with recycled material. In addition, Uniqlo will be use fibers recycled from reclaimed plastic PET bottles to produce its sweat- and moisture-wicking Dry-Ex pieces.
Uniqlo is also attempting to eliminate single-use plastics from its supply chain. “We want to eliminate any waste at all and also the use of plastic material to eliminate so, we are using paper that for example instead of plastic bags,” said Yukihiro Nitta, group senior vice president of sustainability at Fast Retailing. Uniqlo invites customers to bring any unwanted Uniqlo clothing to its stores to be recycled and donated to its partner, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It works carefully with merchandisers to ensure that clothes don’t go unsold, anything that isn’t sold goes to the UNHCR. To Bey, the often confusing and complicated term sustainability can mean a number of things. “It’s much more complex, it can be in creating a product that will last a long time,” she said. “It can be creating a product that is using pre or post consumer waste. Or it can be really interesting product that you can continue to be new.”
But, says Mr. Yanai, “I’m afraid going after 100 percent sustainable production could mean an extra load on the environment. We truly care about the environment, rather than numbers, we wanted to make sure whatever we do is good for the environment.”
With its ethos of LifeWear, its sustainability initiatives and plans, and its emphasis on keeping its clothes in your closet for years to come, Uniqlo’s example is one that should be followed by the other clothing giants.