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A new way of making Jeans

We went to Los Angeles to discover how Uniqlo has made sustainable the manufacture of jeans

A new way of making Jeans  We went to Los Angeles to discover how Uniqlo has made sustainable the manufacture of jeans

On the boulevards of downtown Los Angeles, where palm trees cut the blue sky and the golden hour reflect on the skyscrapers, Uniqlo took us to visit the Jeans Innovation Center (JIC), the laboratory that takes care of the research and development into the denim's field for Fast Retailing, the group holds various brands like Uniqlo and J Brand. As soon as you step into the warehouse, you have the impression to be in the factory of the future: on one side, there are gigantic machines made of metal that look like washing machines, and on the other side you have automatic robot machines with lasers. In the centre of the room stand Masaki Matsubara, Yukihiro Nitta e Veronique Rochet - heads of Fast Retailing - they are about to explain to journalists from all over the world how and why manufacturing jeans at JIC is a small revolution in the field of Fashion Sustainability.


The issue about the denim production

The Jeans is in the top ten of the most iconic garments of contemporary fashion. Like the Hoodie, the cultural meaning behind the jeans changed throughout various eras: since 1950 it was synonymous of style, teenagers made theirs a piece of clothing that was made for mines' workers and started wearing it casually so that they could emulate the big movie stars like John Wayne and James Dean. In the '60s, with the Hippie movement, the trend of denim gets to another level, under the influence of the movement it goes under a cultural transformation: from being men-only apparel, the jeans become unisex. The garment has evolved during the '70s and '80s, changing styles, forms, and meaning but firmly staying anchored to the concept of streetwear, rebellion, and youth.

About the history of denim, we could talk infinitely, since it's something that never disappeared from our closets for over half a century, but something that is often left behind is how expansive and polluting the process of making denim is. According to the study of Stephen Leahy, author of the book "Your Water Footprint", you need normally up to 75 litres of water to produce a pair of jeans, especially in the "washing" process, where the textile needs to soften but it produces an enormous waste of water.

Fast Retailing and JIC have as a goal to eliminate water from the washing process, which today is reduced by 99%. The washing machineused at JIC, compared to the traditional machines, these machines do not soak the garment in the water, but they use the nanobubble technology which reduces the water usage almost completely. Another innovative solution adopted is the replacement of pumice stone, which with time deteriorates and produces powder waste, in the washing method with an eco-friendly and artificial stone. 


A Sustainable approach 

The zero-water goal hasn't been reached yet but is where JIC is directed, as stated by Masaaki Matsubara, Chief Operating Officer of JIC who intervened at the event: 

“We never intended to reduce water used for jeans washing by only 10% or 20%. Ultimately we want to reduce water usage to near zero – only this can be considered true innovation.”

JIC not only reduced the waste of water but it also has reduced the manpower for the realization of jeans to a minimum, especially in the case of the finishings like the vintage wash effect and rippings which are not done by hand anymore, or like stripes and smudges that needed chemicals to be realized. Now, these processes are going towards a more sustainable direction. 

Uniqlo, from the collection FW18, has begun to sell regular fit jeans for men realized with new sustainable technologies of JIC. The centre now is aiming to have more impact on the environment by 2020. The goal is to produce all the jeans from the Fast Retailing group - one of the biggest group in the fashion industry - using the new production process on a large scale so that prices will stay accessible and the environment respected. 

It's a very ambitious target that becomes part of the policy of the group, which made eco-sustainability one of the guidelines for future growth and the reducing of plastic use in the production process by 85% within 2020.

“Our ambition is to redefine what sustainability means in the apparel industry. We want to make sustainable choices effortless and anxiety-free for our customers everywhere and to leverage the scale of our business to have genuine meaning and impact. Through initiatives like these water-saving jeans, and other examples, like our commitment to using only sustainable cotton or fully ethical down, Fast Retailing customers everywhere can be part of a more sustainable world, without any special effort on their part and any compromise on quality or value”.
Veronique Rochet, Sustainability Director of JIC


Beyond the Factory: Uniqlo denim's in schools

From the JIC of Los Angeles towards all the factories around the world, Uniqlo and Fast Retailing are aware that sustainability in the fashion field is first a cultural battle, besides the manufacture, the change has to come from big brands and retail groups, but most of all it has to become part of the consumer philosophy in the way to reach eco-sustainability a new added value to a garment.

To get the new generation closer to the goal, Uniqlo has launched a contest for students of LA fashion school, who have the possibility to bring alive their designs by using denim produced by the Jeans Innovation Center, to show how a sustainable approach can be shared with Design, so that it brings alive something new and unexpected. Nss had the chance to see some of the results, some of the collections realized by the students are shown inside the store in downtown LA and some of them inside the JIC.