Masaaki Matsubara speaks at the Jeans Innovation Center.

Masaaki Matsubara speaks at the Jeans Innovation Center.


Fast Retailing Treating Denim Jeans in Southern California With Water-Saving Techniques


The mannequin machine

Fast Retailing, the Japanese parent company of Uniqlo, recently launched its Southern California denim innovation center to announce it is very close to eliminating the use of water from its denim-treatment process.

The $19 billion company showed off its Fast Retailing Jeans Innovation Center in Gardena, Calif., next door to the Japanese-owned Caitac Garment Processing location, which has been washing jeans for local denim manufacturers for years.

It was nearly three years ago that Fast Retailing started the center in Los Angeles to reduce water usage because L.A. is the center of the denim world. “If we had built this center in Tokyo, it would have been too influenced by vintage. If we had done it in Europe, it would have been too influenced by fashion. Here in L.A. it’s a mix of all cultures. Jeans originated here,” said Masaaki Matsubara, chief operating officer of the Jeans Innovation Center.

The 10,000-square-foot facility features laser-engraving and ozone machines made by Spanish manufacturer Jeanologia, a company whose equipment is a familiar sight in many denim factories.


A machine using synthetic stones at the Fast Retailing Jeans Innovation Center

The center developed new technologies using nano-bubble and ozone-washing machines, which were used on select styles of Fast Retailing’s 2018 line of jeans which include some J Brand and Uniqlo jeans. It cut water usage by an average of 90 percent and as much as 99 percent.

The company also dropped its use of an industrywide practice of using pumice stones for stone washes to give jeans a worn and distressed appearance. Instead, it uses synthetic stones, which help create a vintage look but don’t deteriorate as fast as pumice.

Already, Fast Retailing has shared with its overseas factories the washing and finishing processes developed at the L.A. center.

By 2020, the technology will be used for all of Fast Retailing’s denim brands, which include Uniqlo, J Brand, Theory, GU, Comptoir des Cottoniers, Helmut Lang, and PLST, which is sold exclusively in Japan.

“We have innovated with existing technology, figuring out how to outperform other brands at scale to achieve water savings of up to 99 percent in the wash process at our full production scale. We never intended to reduce water used for jeans washing by only 10 percent or 20 percent. Ultimately we want to reduce water usage to near zero,” Matsubara said in a statement.

Cutting water usage has been an important initiative for California companies such as Levi Strauss & Co., Volcom and Outerknown. Sustainability consultant Derek Sabori applauded Fast Retailing’s announcement. “At 99 percent, they are saying they’ve reduced their water footprint almost entirely. That’s huge,” he said. “You don’t often see rates that high. So for that achievement they deserve credit.”

He noted this gives confidence and inspiration to other brands. “Soon enough, cutting water usage will reach critical mass and become the expected norm,” said Sabori, who was Volcom’s vice president, global sustainability, and currently runs a sustainability consulting company called The Underswell.

Levi’s has been working on cutting water usage since 2011 with its Water

Cutting water usage was not the only sustainability move by Fast Retailing. Earlier this month it announced that by the end of 2020 it wants to reduce single-use plastic by up to 85 percent at its 3,500 stores around the world. In September, it will switch to eco-friendly paper bags. It also expects to stop using plastic packaging for its Uniqlo and G.U. products, using sustainable alternatives instead.

Recently, Fast Retailing tasked 18 students at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles to take unwearable clothing from Uniqlo’s all-product recycling initiative as well as alteration scraps to create upcycled designs. They are now being displayed at the Uniqlo store at The Bloc retail center in downtown Los Angeles.

All images courtesy of Fast Retailing.