UNIQLO is one of the biggest fast fashion brands of today with a 4.84 billion volume of sales in 2020. Since sustainability is becoming more and more important to consumers in the wake of the current climate crisis UNIQLO like many other fast fashion brands is aiming to approach fashion more sustainably than before.
Today we want to take a deep dive into the world of fast fashion brand UNIQLO. Based on all the information we can find we want to critically ask if UNIQLO’s current efforts regarding sustainability are not just part of some sort of greenwashing scheme. Will the brand surprise us with its activities to protect the planet and the people? What is UNIQLO doing to be more sustainable and is it enough? This leaves us with the overall question: How sustainable is UNIQLO really?
UNIQLO‘S SUSTAINABLITY APPROACH AND GOALS
So first we have to take a look at what UNIQLO has been doing so far and what the fast fashion brand is aiming to do in the future. On the brand’s sustainability page consumers and anyone else who is interested can see its sustainability reports on top of other information.
The first interesting thing to pop up on that page is Doraemon, a robot cat from the Anime of the same name. UNIQLO explains ‘He is here to help us make the world a better place for all through the power of clothing’. While at first this might seem odd and quite childish it makes sense for the Japanese fast fashion brand to involve a pop-cultural staple that most Japanese people – and other people around the world – know.
In the next paragraph UNIQLO further explains that ‘for more than 20 years, UNIQLO has been on a path to sustainability’. A questionable sentence if you ask us. Did it take 20 years to get here or has UNIQLO tried to be sustainable now for 20 years? Either way the current efforts are not enough for a timespan of 20 years, but we will get into that. UNIQLO separates its goals and activities into three categories: Planet, society and people. So, let’s have a look at each one.
Regarding the category ‘Planet’ UNIQLO claims: ‘While caring for the environment and the people who make our products, we strive to make our customer’s lives better through clothing, today and tomorrow’. UNIQLO is trying to achieve this through various activities concerning the environment.
One of the main activities in this category is UNIQLO’s Los Angeles-based Jeans Innovation Center. The BlueCycle technology that is used requires less amounts of water and manual labour. Instead of sandpapering laser distressing is used which is said to improve the working conditions since the workers are not burdened with this type of hard labour. However, it should be noted here that not all jeans are made with this technology. Moreover, UNIQLO is committed to reducing single use plastics and offers a care guide for cotton garments to ensure longevity. The brand also supports the Setouchi Olive Foundation, a Japanese non-profit organisation that tries to restore the natural environment by planting trees and more.
On top of that, UNIQLO makes some clothing from PET bottles, therefore from recycled polyester. The DRY-EX Polo Shirt is made from it. While the grey and blue colour options consist of 38% rPET, the white and black polo shirts consist of 75% rPET. Further, UNIQLO uses recycled polyester for the sportswear which is designed for the UNIQLO Global Brand Ambassadors. Next to that, the brand offers a bag made from recycled nylon. The bag comes in three different colours and 30% of it consists of discarded nylon threads. To us it seems like the official ambassadors are wearing rPET for the public image of the brand and only a few actual items at UNIQLO are made from recycled synthetic fibres – not even 100% of it. Is that really enough for such a big brand after ‘20 years’?
But there may be hope! UNIQLO uses 100% sustainably sourced downs and feathers. All the partner garment factories involved in the production of down products are RDS (Responsible Down Standard) certified. Before using this certified type of down it seems that UNIQLO has used recycled down and feathers. The brand aims to ‘protect and enhance the welfare of geese and ducks’. Being RDS certified means that the removal of downs and feathers from living birds is prohibited, as well as force feeding them. On top of that, a ‘holistic respect for animal welfare of the birds from hatching to slaughter’ is a must. The whole slaughter part definitely sucks, but that’s a different topic. All in all, the aim to be more sustainable and ethical regarding animal products is a start!
In the second category ‘Society’ UNIQLO lists all its initiatives regarding cultural and social activities and support. One of them being measures to support communities in the midths of the Covid-19 pandemic. From providing masks and isolation gear in Asia, Europe, Oceania and North America to promising support for workers and partners. Some other initiatives include a recycling program, employing refugees, providing scholarships at Harvard University as well as supporting the Emergency Disaster Relief in Japan and promoting female leadership. On top of that, UNIQLO has donated money to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as to other organizations or foundations and has established projects like ‘Clothes for Smiles’ which according to UNIQLO “supports the hopes and dreams of children all over the world”.
To empower refugees ‘to take control of their own future’ UNIQLO established the Self-Reliance and Livelihood Project in 2018 in India, Iran, Malaysia, Nepal and Pakistan with the UN Refugee Agency. The program was brought to life in order to help refugees gain economic independence. Parts of the project involve vocational training to improve sewing skills and management training. So next to supporting refugees with garments UNIQLO aims to help sustainably with these types of self-reliance programs.
The third category ’People’ is all about the workers and partners of UNIQLO. From who makes the clothes, to local shop employees, global partners and marginalized groups in need of amplification and empowerment. In this category UNIQLO shows who makes the brand’s clothes, but when clicking on it you only get to read a few sentences that leave you wondering who is behind the clothes and the fabrics we are wearing. A good thing is that UNIQLO also ensures consumers on this page that it is employing people with disabilities in Japan, which is a great and inclusive initiative from the brand. Further, UNIQLO established a Global Partnership with the UN to empower women and assures on the website that diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity is accepted and respected. UNIQLO conducts trainings and other awareness activities to deepen the company’s understanding of LGBTQ+.
LET’S DIVE DEEPER
However, now we have to talk about what sources that don’t come from the inside of the company are saying about the brand. UNIQLO has been involved in an ongoing workers’ rights case for around six years now. In some of the factories UNIQLO produced in workers experienced labour rights violations. Instead of trying to solve issues to help the workers who are the foundation of any fashion company UNIQLO decided to abandon the factories leading to the bankruptcy of them. Therefore 4.500 garment workers lost their jobs at that time. Most of them are still fighting for what UNIQLO owes them – around 5.5 million dollars in severance pay. This is not even the only issue concerning UNIQLO having to pay up to its garment workers due to wage theft. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world the #PayUp initiative was brought to life by Remake since big fashion brands including UNIQLO stopped paying the garment workers even though they had already produced the clothes. Thankfully UNIQLO later decided to #PayUp to the workers. However, the KeepWorkersSafe part of the campaign from Remake is not being supported by UNIQLO.
On top of that, it has to be noted that back in 2019 UNIQLO proudly used the term ‘Xinjiang Cotton’ for garments that were produced in Xinjiang. What’s the issue with that you ask? Maybe the city Xinjiang rings all your alarms. Those cotton pieces made in Xinjiang were made by Uyghur slave labour. Therefore, the brand possibly supported and profited from the mass interment of Uyghur Muslims in China. While it is not fully clear if the garments were actually made by Uyghurs there have been many concerns about them being linked to the camps. The issue is not even over since it was recently reported that a French unit of the fashion giant UNIQLO was accused of still profiting from this slave labour by an aid group for Uyghurs. The aid group that filed the legal complaint is a collective of Ethique sur l’Etiquette, the Uyghur Institute Europe, the NGO Sherpa as well as one private person.
Lastly, we can’t help but notice that many of the items at UNIQLO are made from mixed materials. You can read more about the pros and cons of mixed materials in our Fabric Index. One example for this is the polo shirt we have already talked about which is only partially made from recycled PET. There are also other items which at first seem quite sustainable – the UNIQLO’s linen products, to be more specific linen mix products. Once you start clicking through most items you will realise that many of them are made from linen and rayon, also known as viscose. We have talked about the many environmental disadvantages of it before. Further, even the products made from animal fibres like wool and cashmere seem to be very cheap regarding the fact that especially sustainable cashmere is way more expensive. How is it possible that 100% lamb’s wool only costs 30 Euros? What conditions do the animals live in? How much are the workers paid? Are the working conditions safe? We can only assume.
HOW SUSTAINABLE IS UNIQLO REALLY?
This has obviously been a lot of information all at once. So let us summarize and give our opinion. Unfortunately, UNIQLO’s website is simply not giving us enough valuable information. It feels more like the fast fashion brand is trying to dump so much information on consumers that we are overwhelmed. And how could a brand ever be bad if they provide so many different sections and do so much for charities and UN partnerships? Well, it has to be said that often the sections UNIQLO offers on its sustainability site are quite unsubstantiated since not much deeper information is given. So it just sounds like some PR ‘bla bla’ for the image. There is no real information provided on how things work behind the scenes. While it is nice that UNIQLO only uses cruelty-free downs and helps the local community in Japan and even people all over the world we have to ask ourselves if we can take these efforts seriously while the workers are treated the way they are.
To summarize, based on UNIQLO’s own website in addition to the articles we have linked here we are not able to say that UNIQLO is truly sustainable. While it has to be noted that UNIQLO is part of some amazing initiatives regarding the support of marginalized groups, and even some nice things are being done for the environment the overall efforts regarding sustainability are not sufficient to us. It is simply not enough in the year 2021 – especially after ‘20 years’ – to be at what seems to be the very beginning of a sustainability journey as one of the biggest fast fashion players out there. We want to be hopeful that UNIQLO will increase its efforts to be more environmentally friendly and to keep workers safe.
Overall this is based on our team’s opinion on UNIQLO and the research we were able to conduct. Of course other people’s opinions may differ and we advise everyone reading who is interested in learning more to have a look for themself.