UNIQLO is among one of Japan’s best exports, along with their ubiquitous technology, anime, manga and J-Pop. For me UNIQLO signalled a welcome sense of familiarity when I first stepped into Japan- a country which managed to confound all my senses upon arrival.
And when I say ‘first stepped into Japan’ I mean this in the strictest sense of the word; since my interest in clothes shops rapidly waned upon realisation nothing fit me there. Perusing the clothes rails only heightened my feelings that I was in fact a giraffe-hippopotamus hybrid trying to sneak past security in a covert attempt to wriggle myself into beautiful, and very much coveted miniature clothing. Even international chains in Japan failed me quite catastrophically, leaving me resigned to the fact that clothes was not to be the focus or even on the radar during my time in Japan. Yet I still tentatively persisted in my hunt for shoes until my penultimate day in Japan, fully aware that Japanese size XXL was far too petite for my, what I always thought, modest UK size 6 feet…
It was of no surprise that my attention wandered one day whilst browsing the rails of tiny clothing in UNIQLO and my eyes fell upon a white and green leaflet displaying UNIQLO’s ‘All-Product Recycling Initiative’. A quick glance on their site informed me that all Japanese Uniqlo stores accept used and worn UNIQLO clothes which are then donated to refugee camps, or recycled to produce electricity or manufacture industrial fibres. This immediately piqued my attention- here is a company thinking about the whole life cycle of their product, and not simply considering Point-Of-Sale as the end point. It got me thinking about the ethical background, principles and actions of this international low-cost retailing brand. Does UNIQLO’s self-proclamation as a ‘Unique clothing’ brand define itself not just through its style but also through the incorporation of strong ethical principles?
UNIQLO is part of the group Fast Retailing which claims to be ‘a group of companies willing to stand up to challenge with strong conviction and clear vision in order to create an even better world’, this already sets the context for a socially responsible company. They are among one of the biggest retail stores in Japan, with over 800 stores in Japan alone, plus over 100 worldwide, mostly in China, South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK. It traces its early roots back to 1949 where is traded under several names and formats until in 1984 it became known under its present day name of UNIQLO.
All-product recycling initiative:
This initiative began back in 2001 when UNIQLO offered the collection and recycling of UNIQLO fleeces from its customers, expanding the program to all its products in 2006 on a twice yearly basis. It was only in March 2010 that this became a permanent all year round programme and the focus has now shifted from recycling of clothes for fuel, to re-use of clothes for refugees worldwide, although any clothes which are of an unsuitable condition to re-use are sent for recycling into industrial fibres.
The donation of clothing is distributed via 3 international organisations:
- the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
- the Japan Relief Clothing Center (JRCC)
- the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning (JOICFP)
When reading about this programme it is reassuring to see that it is a very well structured initiative in which all eventualities have been planned for. UNIQLO only deliver clothing to where there are shortages, and take into consideration the levels of demand, seasons, sizes, and religious and cultural context when donating clothing. This ensures that there are no surpluses and unnecessary deliveries. Since UNIQLO work closely with UNHCR in the distribution of clothing by going to the refugee sites themselves this avoids any theft or reselling of clothing during transit.
Food, drink and shelter are often considered as the essential elements for survival, so naturally the focus lies upon these resources for refugees. However the UNIQLO scheme contributes in another important way to refugees’ lives- it takes the focus off the struggle for survival and as UNIQLO state themselves-it enriches refugees’ lives through enabling self-expression; something not necessarily obtainable through the basic elements of survival. In fact several photo galleries hosted by UNIQLO stores in Japan depicting the harsh realities of refugee camps, and the many actions which still need to be taken, have equally illustrated how refugees have blended their own styles with UNIQLO clothing they have received.
Like many initiatives this one is not perfect, ideally it could be expanded worldwide across UNIQLO stores, but perhaps this is something in the pipeline among UNIQLO CSR strategies. And it is not a company which rests on its socially responsible laurels: UNIQLO constantly seeks to improve by acting upon local feedback as well as customer feedback on this initiative. Upon learning of this programme my immediate feelings was that this was just another ‘handout’ scheme, one which would contribute to a culture of dependency. However UNIQLO are one step ahead again and have reported of their intention to teach transferable skills of sewing enabling refugees to make their clothes independently.
And not forgetting…
UNIQLO has also been involved in a number of activities to tick under its CSR activities; it places much emphasis on what is considered as quite a unique employment programme in Japan- the integration of disabled people into the workforce. In Japan life can be tough as a disabled person: even physical disabilities which do not affect the intellectual and mental capacities of a person are often met by reluctance by companies to employ very skilled individuals.
Within its broader activities its mother group ‘Fast Retailing’ recently created a joint venture with the Bangladeshi bank Grameen in order to establish a social business and new subsidiary in Bangladesh; the objective being ‘to solve social problems, including those related to poverty, sanitation and education issues, in Bangladesh through the planning, production and sale of clothing’. Grammeen Bank, which was founded by Nobel laureate Muhammed Yunus is already the largest microcredit institution in Bangladesh with over 8 million borrowers, of which 97% are female. With this new joint venture Fast Retailing intend to generate jobs for 250 people with a target of 1500 within 3 years.
Low-cost in the clothing industry tends to be associated with sweatshop labour and a focus on minimising costs. It proves very difficult to find out anything about the manufacturing conditions of UNIQLO threads, except that over 90% of their products are manufactured in China. So I can only draw upon speculations, rumours and mutterings about UNIQLO’s labour conditions.
So kudos to UNIQLO for their very unique and innovative recycling initiative, but it’s a shame they haven’t devoted equivalent resources to the marketing and transparency of their productions processes. In my eyes, to gain true ethical credentials there needs to be traceability and transparency from start to finish.
- Japanese fast fashion whale cooperates with Grameen – sustainable commitment or PR stint?
- Fast Retailing CEO Message
- Fast Retailing CSR & Environment
- Fast Retailing CSR report
- 6 Reasons Why Uniqlo Is Better Than American Apparel