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Uniqlo deploys lasers and eco stones for sustainable jeans

Fast Retailing to reduce 90% of water usage at facilities across Asia

Fast Retailng use lasers to burn the jeans to create the distressed looks popular with consumers. (Photo by Naomi Hayase)

LOS ANGELES -- The parent company of Japanese retailer Uniqlo will slash water use by 90% to 99% in the production of all jeans for the apparel chain, starting in 2020.

Fast Retailing will combine water-saving technology, water recycling and lasers to create its vintage looks, rather than relying on manual labor and excessive washing to produce distressed denim for all of its jeans lines.

Such sustainable pants are being designed and produced in Los Angeles at the Jeans Innovation Center, Fast Retailing's research and development facility that opened in 2016.

The JIC's designers create a vintage denim look by computer, then use lasers to burn the jeans based on that design to create the distressed looks popular with consumers.

An estimated 70% of Asia's rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the continent's textile industry, environmental news site EcoWatch says. This includes the southern Chinese city of Xintang, where 300 million pairs of jeans are produced annually.

Rather than using traditional washing machines and tumbling with pumice stones to create further distressing, the company employs "Nano-bubble" technology along with man-made "eco stones" that can be used repeatedly without disintegrating, requiring far less water per wash.

To achieve lighter washes and clean the residual indigo dye, a water-less ozone washing technology is used. Finally, all water used is put through a recycling system. Fast Retailing plans more testing and consultation with the machine manufacturers, hoping to reduce water consumption by nearly 99%.

"The JIC was built from our desire to make denim more sustainable," said Masaaki Matsubara, chief operating officer of Fast Retailing JIC. "We are always thinking about design with sustainability in mind. Our vision is of a near future when denim production is much cleaner and less resource-intensive, and the center is helping to make that a reality for customers everywhere around the world."

Matsubara said the new process has brought no price increases for customers so far, and the executive hopes eventually it may reduce costs for consumers.

Man-made "Eco stones" can be used repeatedly without disintegrating, requiring far less water per wash. (Photo by Naomi Hayase)

"We have innovated with existing technology, figuring out how to outperform other brands at scale to achieve water savings of up to 99% in the wash process at our full production scale," Matsubara said. "We never intended to reduce water used for jeans washing by only 10% or 20%. Ultimately, we want to reduce water usage to near zero -- only this can be considered true innovation."

These techniques will be applied worldwide to Fast Retailing production facilities and brands including GU, J Brand, Theory, Helmut Lang and Comptoir des Cotonniers.

Fashion ranks as one of the most polluting industries in the world. Some retailers have made strides to be more mindful of their practices, among pressure from ecologically conscious millennial and Generation Z consumers. Big retailers like Nike, H&M and Stella McCartney as well as direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane, Rothy's and Allbirds have touted their environmentally friendly practices.

All the water used at the Jeans Innovation Center is put through a recycling system. (Photo by Naomi Hayase)

Uniqlo's denim competitor Levi's has its own water-saving technology, said to reduce usage by up to 96%. The American company says it aims to use this technology in 80% of its products by 2020.

In addition to reducing water consumption, Fast Retailing said it will switch to 100% sustainable cotton by 2025, and become certified by the Responsible Down Standard by 2020. The company also targets an 85% cut in the use of plastic by 2020, including by switching to recycled paper bags in all Uniqlo and GU stores worldwide starting next month.

Fast Retailing's laser engraving system eliminates manual distressing, which was hazardous to workers' health. The system also allows production of up to 60 pairs of jeans per hour, as opposed to 10 per hour when done by hand.

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