Uniqlo Executives Hold 'Sustainability' Breakfast
I went and asked questions.
Last week Uniqlo rolled out the green table cloth and reusable coffee cups for a sustainability panel held for reporters at their Fifth Avenue flagship in New York City. Billed as a “two-way discussion” between the press and executives from Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing, the invite read, “We see great value in an opportunity to engage with experts like yourself regarding the future of sustainability — a topic that affects us all — in the apparel industry and beyond.”
Uniqlo reported revenue of around $14.5 billion for the fiscal year ended August 31, 2022. If you figure that the average cost of a Uniqlo item is, say, $35, that means the brand sold upwards of 400 million items in that period. Even if my average price guess is off, it seems safe to assume they’re selling at least tens of millions of clothing items each year. We know that each piece they make has an environmental impact, so it makes sense that the company — like many of its customers — would be doing some soul-searching around its relationship to the planet.
Reporters trickled into the store prior to opening hour to hear, over quiche and kiwi, how Uniqlo planned to be more “sustainable.” Signage boasting about “THE POWER OF CLOTHING” was green and sprigs of leaves in tiny vases occupied tables for guests. That this event was even happening at all signaled a new norm for clothing marketing and consumerism. The last time I went to a Uniqlo press event was one night after work in 2009 for the launch of the Jil Sander collaboration +J. I was early in my tenure as a writer for The Cut, and I have hazy memories of frenzy as my colleagues and I hurried to pick something out. I seem to recall the stock being limited and press being allowed to select a free item.
It was all very breathless and exciting and none of us were thinking about the sorts of horrors young consumers regularly consider now, like where the goose down comes from or fish choking on micro-plastics or waste colonialism. We just wanted cool clothes, ideally as many as we could afford. I cannot imagine that Uniqlo would have been able to get a critical mass of reporters to go to a 9 a.m. fruit platter event to hear about their efforts to be more “sustainable” in 2009.
Fast forward 14 years and there I was along with a dozen or so other reporters, many of whom cover sustainable fashion as their entire beat. I sat at my own leaf-adorned table, ready to take in corporate slides heavy on graphics meant to harken the recycling symbol.
A moderator opening the discussion said, “What brings me here with excitement is that brands can be a transformational force in society.” We were told about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that had come out the day before. It said that the earth would warm by 1.5 degrees celsius from pre-industrial levels by the first half of the 2030s if we stay on our current course. The apparel and footwear industries are estimated to contribute to up to an average of 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions annually. (A 2021 report from the Rhodium Group estimates the U.S. is responsible for 11 percent.) So this is very much the fashion industry’s problem.
Then we were regaled with statistics about marketing’s hottest target, Gen Z: 72 percent of them are interested in products made from recycled materials; 61 percent of people under 30 feel personally guilty about climate change; and 78 percent of the under-thirties have personally felt the impact of climate change. Unsaid was this: Since our elected representatives are not doing enough to slow climate change, we as consumers feel like we must alter our behavior, and this is what brands like Uniqlo want to tap into with sustainability marketing, otherwise known as green-washing.
The presentation centered around a chart with arrows and circles and symbols about something called LifeWear, introduced in 2021, which is Uniqlo’s line of basic everyday clothing that you’re supposed to buy and keep for a long time. The purpose of hawking this seems to be to distinguish Uniqlo from “fast fashion.”
Fast Retailing Senior Executive Officer Kazumi Yanai told us, “We don’t consider ourselves fast fashion because we don’t try to just follow the trends and turn it, turn it, turn it, and sell, sell, sell.” (Counterpoint: all of Uniqlo’s collaborations designed to capitalize on the zeitgeist and create a scarcity mindset in shoppers.) His point was that Uniqlo wasn’t anything like Shein. (Fashion sustainability advocate Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, told me for a previous article, “I wrote this in Overdressed, but it seems lost on people: I think the whole fashion industry, corporate fashion industry, runs on a fast fashion model. So I don't really make a huge distinction between a Nike, and a Gap, and an H&M, even a Gucci, because they all just operate kind of similarly.”)
It occurred to me that if Uniqlo supported The Fashion Act on the docket in New York — a bill that has been widely covered in the press — the whole leaves-on-tables event for people like me might not be necessary at all. Instead of leaving standards of things like carbon emissions up to the discretion of the Uniqlos of the world, the Act would mandate certain practices for companies with $100 million of global revenue or more, and thus affect just about every large clothing company globally. If passed (and it could pass as soon as next month), brands would have to map their supply chains and make disclosures about those supply chains to consumers (clothing brands do not know where their clothes are made and therefore have no idea what working conditions are like in their factories or what their true environmental impact is). Brands would also have to enforce a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of keeping global warming to no more than 2 degrees celsius from pre-industrial levels, in line with the Paris Agreement. The Act has attracted support from brands including Eileen Fisher, Everlane, and Patagonia, and celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Rosario Dawson.
“The Fashion Act is a critical piece of legislation that will create a universal floor for apparel production, setting environmental and social standards. Fashion brands share suppliers, so they can’t achieve sustainability alone. We need government to step in and ensure that the industry can thrive within the bounds of the planet,” said longtime sustainable fashion advocate Maxine Bédat, who runs New Standards Institute and has been working on the bill, in an email.
During Uniqlo’s presentation, executives didn’t bring up this legislation. Instead, they told us about their plan to increase the amount of recycled materials used to 50 percent by 2030, at which time they aim to reduce emissions in part by using 100 percent renewable energy. They talked about a repair service so shoppers get more wear out of their purchases. And they emphasized how, when customers are done with their Uniqlo pieces, they can put them in store donation bins for Uniqlo to give to refugees or turn into recycled down jackets. And we heard about Uniqlo implementing a system to approve all factories in its supply chain and working with auditors to ensure the factories meet certain standards. (Generally speaking, the auditing system in the fashion supply chain has a long history of being deeply flawed.)
Director of Sustainability Communications Eiko Sherpa told us about “a major turning point with our fleece jacket,” which is that it’s now made with 100 percent recycled polyester derived from used plastic water bottles. However it’s unclear that this is actually good for the planet and in fact might be worse than what they were doing previously; plastic water bottles can be recycled up to 10 times in a closed-loop system, but exit that loop once they are used for clothing that won’t be recycled.
After the presentation, reporters asked questions. I wanted to know if Uniqlo was supporting The Fashion Act. “I don’t know that specific law that you’re talking about, I don’t know, does anybody know?” said Yanai, looking to the back of the room for someone who might have an answer. Yanai said that if it becomes law, of course they would follow it. I said that Everlane was supporting it proactively and Uniqlo could too. Did Uniqlo believe sustainability was better managed by companies than the government?
“No, no, no, that’s not what we are saying,” Yanai said. “We are saying that we have our way of dealing with sustainability and we identify our responsibilities and our vision. And if that aligns with the regulations, of course we’ll do it. If it’s initiations that align with our philosophy, we’ll do it. But if it becomes true legislative rules or regulations that all companies must follow, we are not going to go against it, of course we’ll follow. But before it becomes regulation, it depends on whether we have the same philosophy or the same initiatives.” He added, “There are many different companies that we can work with, and we have to be very selective about which companies we work with. And that’s why it is important for us to lay down these philosophies and visions, so that we can have a dialogue with these companies.”
Yanai talked about his 16-year-old daughter, who buys secondhand clothes. “We feel this is required by the market, by consumers, and frankly by employees,” he said of the company’s commitment to “sustainability.”
He’s right. The market does demand these sorts of lofty things from corporations, probably because many consumers have given up on the government taking meaningful action. Uniqlo arguably needs to do these events and brag about its environmental bona fides, however murky they are, to reporters. However it’s also abundantly clear that a patchwork approach to sustainability, where each company does what it thinks is right, isn’t working. The Fashion Act is enormously promising legislation that would shift the onus for making responsible purchasing decisions from the consumer to corporations, which is where it belongs. No one should have to conduct copious research before buying a pair of leggings to ensure they weren’t made in a sweatshop or a factory leeching chemicals into the local water supply.
On my way out of the event, I chatted briefly with other reporters. A Uniqlo rep offered us cotton tote bags filled with goodies, which we all declined. One reporter told me that sustainable fashion was her entire beat. I said she must have been to a million of these and feel like she’s constantly banging her head against the wall. She replied, “That’s why they never seat me near a window.”
Earlier in Back Row: "Sustainable" Fashion Is a Luxury. It's Also a Lie.