Denim With a Cause: How a Fast-Fashion Brand Is Working Towards Sustainability

We got a fascinating look at how Uniqlo jeans are made.

by Jamie Sanchez
Jul 27, 2019

(SPOT.ph) Let’s play a drinking game: Take a shot every time you see someone in denim pants—you’d probably get wasted faster than you could say “jeans!” Since their invention over a century ago, a reliable pair of denim jeans has become a closet staple. Part of the blame for its rise to popularity is on pop culture: James Dean made it look badass in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) while Audrey Hepburn proved blue jeans can look chic in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). And do we even have to talk about Danny Zuko and the T-Birds in Grease (1978)?

Grease (1978)
PHOTO BY 
IMDB
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Apart from their versatility (and your favorite superstars sporting a pair), jeans are popular because they’re one of the most durable fashion pieces you could ever own. It makes sense because denim jeans were originally designed for miners and farmers in the early 1900s. Those rivets you see on the pockets? They’re there for a reason. They make each pair even sturdier by keeping the fabric from ripping at the seams. It might take years for your favorite pair to look a little distressed, but even then, you’d probably still keep wearing them. 

What Does It Take to Make a Pair of Jeans, Anyway?

It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce one pair of jeans. That's about 50 bubble baths...or 11,520 Venti cups of coffee. Plus, the traditional way to get that indigo color is through chemical dyeing, which increases that water footprint even more. Then, to achieve a certain blue shade, increase softness, and improve flexibility, jeans require stone-washing—which, you guessed it, requires even more water. After this step, workers manually hand-sand or sandblast the pairs, which can be hazardous to the workers’ health. 

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Denim jeans are timeless, but the traditional production process can be harmful to the environment, and even people.  
PHOTO BY Fast Retailing

While denim jeans are undeniably considered a wardrobe staple and are well worth an investment, the production process puts a big red question mark on sustainability. It uses a lot of our natural resources and poses a threat to the health of those who produce it. In fact, Forbes writes that one river delta in China was dyed blue from all the denim factories around the area. Additionally, BBC reports that manually sand-blasting denim can cause an incurable lung disease—not such a surprise when you learn that the process involves blasting jeans with sand from a hose. They do this to soften the fabric and achieve that “worn” look. 

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The Initiative to Improve Sustainability

It's a good thing that more and more clothing companies are making the effort to become more sustainable. For starters, major fashion brands have banned sand-blasting from their production since 2010. There are also garment-collecting initiatives which encourage customers to donate clothes they don’t wear anymore in exchange for discount coupons—some brands do this specifically for denim pieces. It’s also good to know that multiple brands are finding different ways to be sustainable, like using all organic materials, adopting laser technology, and repurposing scraps into bricks, to name a few. Apart from these initiatives, there’s also an effort to reduce the amount of water used to produce denim.

Uniqlo's largest store in Manila can be found in Makati.
PHOTO BY Majoy Siason / SPOT.PH ARCHIVES
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One brand that puts a premium on sustainability is Uniqlo. The Japanese fast-fashion brand has put up a recycling program through which customers can donate clothes they no longer wear—items that are still usable are set aside for donation to refugees, the homeless, and others in need, while the rest of the items are upcycled into industrial fibers and other items.

Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, has been developing new ways to allow Uniqlo and its sister brands to produce jeans in the most sustainable way possible, and SPOT.ph got to see exactly how with a quick visit to Los Angeles, California.

The Jeans Innovation Center

The Jeans Innovation Center (JIC) opened in 2016, equipped with facilities that make use of laser technology, bio-washing, nano-bubbles, and more, all helping to reduce the amount of water used in producing denim jeans. It takes a number of washes and different washing methods for denim to achieve its color and be comfortable to wear, but the JIC was able to reduce the amount of water used by as much as 99%, according to Masaaki Matsubara, the center's chief operating officer. “The goal is to make that number 100%,” he tells us.

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Masaaki Matsubara talks to us about Fast Retailing's sustainability initiatives at the Jeans Innovation Center. 
PHOTO BY Fast Retailing

“Jeans have a very long history. There’s quite a lot of things that’s been a norm [in the production of jeans],” Matsubara shares. “[There] is a lot of manual process. Stone washing is one of them. To lighten the color [of the jeans], the industry uses chemical sprays. Those processes have been replaced [here in the JIC]. We [wanted] to create something better than what we had.” 

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The Lean, Mean, Green Machines at the JIC

Producing jeans traditionally relies on a lot of manual work, so the quality depends on who made the particular product. This is something they've managed to do without at the center. “[At JIC], the process is not dependent on manual [labor]. We are able to improve the quality [with the help of the machines],” Matsubara shares.

The Laser-Engraving System is where they can create a worn look without the use of water. PHOTO: Fast Retailing

One of the first machines in that process is the Laser-Engraving System, which makes it quicker to produce jeans while keeping the quality consistent. For comparison, the Laser-Engraving System can yield 60 pairs of jeans in an hour while manual labor can only produce 10 pairs in the same amount of time.

The machines use actual fire to make rips and tears to get that on-trend distressed-jeans look.
PHOTO BY Jamie Sanchez
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Distressed denim is also made using the Laser-Engraving System. The machine literally burns areas of the jeans with fire based on the design uploaded into the system to create the cool ripped jeans we all know and love.

The Nano-Bubble Technology reduces water use by up to 99%.
PHOTO BY Fast Retailing
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The next step in the process uses Nano-Bubble Technology. This washing machine-type contraption uses a spray technique instead of the traditional stone-washing method and is responsible for reducing the amount of water needed to produce jeans. 

The Nano-Bubble Technology employs artificial ecostones made from polymer, which can be reused longer than pumice stones, making the process even more sustainable.
PHOTO BY Fast Retailing
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This is what the water looks like after it's filtered and purified—ready to be used again.
PHOTO BY Fast Retailing

The water that is used in this machine comes from a Water-Recycling System which allows them to purify and reuse water, so not a single drop goes to waste.

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Ozone Washing technology is used to achieve a bleached look without the use of water or chemicals.
PHOTO BY Jamie Sanchez

The JIC has also developed an Ozone Washing technology which is a way to wash the denim to get that bleached look. Fun fact: Ozone (yes, as in the layer that protects us from UV rays) is a naturally oxidizing agent and it’s something that can be produced synthetically—which is what the JIC has done to be able to use it as a bleaching agent for their denim. This way, they are able to create bleached denim without the use of chemicals or water. Not only is it non-polluting and eco-friendly, it also improves the strength of the fabric and prevents bleached denim from yellowing.

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The Next Step to Sustainability

While Uniqlo currently uses the technology available at the JIC for their all jeans, Matsubara confirms that by 2020, all jeans by Fast Retailing brands will be produced using their new systems. “Ultimately we want to reduce water usage to near zero—[only then can this] be considered true innovation,” he shares.

By 2020, Fast Retailing brands will be using eco-friendly paper bags reducing the group's plastic usage by 85%.
PHOTO BY Jamie Sanchez
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Apart from innovating new technology, Fast Retailing is also committed to reducing their disposable plastic bag usage by 85% in 2020. In the Philippines, Uniqlo provides reusable paper bags , but that is not the case for all the stores in other countries. The company's long-term plan is to cut down their use of plastic (in their packaging and shopping bags)—to avoid around 7,800 tons of plastic waste every year. Additionally, eco-friendly tote bags will be available for purchase for a minimal amount to encourage shoppers to minimize waste.

The Future of Jeans

With the eco-conscious lifestyle on the rise, denim brands (and all fashion brands, for that matter) have a huge responsibility towards the environment. Whether it’s by looking for ways to produce clothing pieces sustainably or coming up with initiatives that encourage people to close the loop, brands can’t ignore the fact that traditional ways may be damaging to the environment and it’s time to find ways to be greener. While it’s safe to say denim won’t be going anywhere any time soon, brands need to find the perfect balance between style and sustainability. Luckily, it seems you can have both without compromising quality—that’s how your old blue jeans will last you a lifetime.

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