How Green Is Uniqlo?

Uniqlo Co., Ltd. is a Japanese casual wear designer, manufacturer and retailer. They were founded in 1949. Uniqlo’s revenue for 2018 was ¥2.1300 trillion. Their parent company is Fast Retailing (yes a very shady name I know).  

In June 2019, Tadashi Yanai, the founder and CEO of Fast Retailing, was ranked as the 31st richest person in the world by Forbes, and the richest man in Japan, with an estimated net worth of US$24.9 billion

(All sources for this article are linked below)

FACTORIES

In 2015, 2 of Fast Retailing factories were investigated. Together the two suppliers employ more than 50,000 workers in China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. 

The investigation found evidence of: 

  • Excessive overtime. On top of a 11-12 hour work day, workers were working between 112 and 134 hours of overtime on a monthly basis, which is not in line with labour law that prescribes a maximum of 36 overtime hours and at least one day off per week.
  • The factories have poor ventilation – the ventilation system was entirely switched off in one of the investigated factories during the time of the investigation – and there was a high density of cotton fibre in the air, with a risk of causing serious lung disease (byssinosis). Furthermore, cotton dust is combustible and explosive, which has resulted in serious fatal incidents at textile plants in China in the past.
  • You can read more on this here.

In October 2016, the company was found guilty of dangerous conditions for workers and forced overtime within its supply chain, and was called out by both War on Want and Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), two non-profits. After labor watchdog actions, the company released its full list of suppliers for increased transparency and transitioned to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) HIGG Index, which benchmarks success on sustainability reforms throughout the supply chain. As a part of their mission for increasing transparency, Uniqlo released a list of 146 suppliers. This shows to us that nothing has changed from 2015 to 2016. 

From their sustainability report for 2019, we can see that in June 2018 they announced the Fast Retailing Group Human Rights Policy in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other international standards. The policy describes their vision for addressing potential human rights violations, educating employees, and communicating with external stakeholders. So this policy shows that they are aware and working towards fixing their supplier/labour issues.

From the picture above we can see they monitor 612 factories. Out of those 612, 318 factories (Grade C, D, E) are considered unacceptable to Uniqlo and so they will conduct follow-up audits on those factories. 

Fast Retailing is a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which promotes responsible labor standards. FLA conducts investigations into Fast Retailing’s factories and gives them feedback on how to improve. I read one of the investigations and found that Fast Retailing continuously receives poor ratings on labor treatment, which proves to me that they have much to improve on in this section earning them a 0/2.

EMPLOYEES

From Fast Retailing’s website: “Fast Retailing has established an Employee Engagement Policy to ensure that every employee can make the most of their abilities and grow with the company. This policy has three pillars: equal opportunity and diversity; education and development; and healthy, secure, and safe workplaces.”

In 2013 a Japanese business magazine, Toyo Keizal, ran a feature article on Uniqlo with the headline: “Hihei suru shokuba” (“the worn-out workplace”). According to an English summary of the article by the Japan Times, Uniqlo perpetuates the worst stereotypes of Japanese rank-and-file corporate culture. Workers have little decision-making capacity and are expected to follow the company manual to the letter, with harsh punishments for minor infractions. They are regularly expected to contribute “service zangyo,” or voluntary overtime with no pay, even though the practice is forbidden and employees can be demoted or fired if found out. As a result of these and other restrictions, a staggering 53 percent of employees leave the company within three years.

To get more recent data I checked employee reviews/ratings online and found this:

By the ratings we can see that their rating is quite average, not the best but not the worst. Due to this and the article I’ll give them a 0 / 2.

ENVIRONMENT

What they did already:

  • In 2018, Fast Retailing joined Better Cotton Initiative – an organisation which educates cotton farmers on the use of water and agricultural chemicals. Fast Retailing is working to procure all cotton from sustainable sources by year end 2025. 

It’s great to see that Fast Retailing is taking initiative on switching to sustainable cotton. However, if there are already smaller companies using organic cotton (such as the ones in my store), it could lead us to question how authentic Uniqlo and their parent company really are about sustainability. Since Fast Retailing clearly has a lot of money, with their founder having 24+ billion dollars, it may lead us to question if this is greenwashing and why they cannot speed up the process. 

What they are doing now:

  • In July 2019, Uniqlo announced that they would replace all their plastic bags with recycled paper in order to cut annual plastic usage by 85 percent by the end of 2020. 
  • From September 2019, UNIQLO began switching to environmentally-friendly shopping bags, made from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified paper or recycled paper. 
  • As part of its eco-friendly initiative, they debuted a new sustainable paper shopping bag made of 40 percent post-consumer waste in conjunction with supporting non-profit organization, charity: water. When purchasing this bag (for 10 cents) 5 cents goes towards the charity. The charity helps bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. 
  • From 2019 Fall, UNIQLO started eliminating the use of plastic in packaging of certain items such as room shoes. Meaning certain items won’t be wrapped in plastic anymore. 

What they will do in the future:

  • UNIQLO will begin verification testing aimed at switching from plastic packaging for HEATTECH, AIRism, and other innerwear to more environmentally-friendly materials.
  • UNIQLO stores collect used UNIQLO down items from customers to extract then cleanse it before it is repurposed for new UNIQLO down merchandise. In-store collections of the pre-owned UNIQLO down items will start later this year initially only in Japan, and some down products from the 2020 Fall/Winter season will employ this recycled material. 
  • UNIQLO is considering eliminating the use of single use plastic in its hangers, size seals and packing material used in logistics. Where the characteristics of plastic are still necessary, UNIQLO will consider switching to eco-friendly substitutes.

We can see that Fast Retailing has begun to take action in 2019 through limiting their usage of plastic. Furthermore, they announced that they will be cutting down their plastic usage in July 2019, in 2 months they already took the initiative to replace their plastic bags with FSC certified paper bags. And so I will give them a 2/2 for this section.

TRUST/TRANSPARENCY

At the moment Fast Retailing is a part of the following groups: 

Joined in 2018:

  1. Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
  2. Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC)

Joined in 2019:

  1. The Microfibre Consortium (TMC)
  2. CLOMA (Clean Ocean Material Alliance)
  3. Fair Labor Association

These facts above show that Uniqlo is moving in the right direction towards becoming more sustainable. However, in the previous paragraphs I mentioned that even after reassessments and feedback on their supply chain/ working conditions, Fast Retailing still did not show a significant improvement in these areas. Therefore it is a bit hard to know for sure if they actually will be implementing the changes suggested by these groups.  

2018 Report

I skimmed through 2 of their sustainability reports (2019 & 2018). From the images above we can see that they provided more detailed information in the 2019 report such as revealing the number of factories they have and which grades they are in.

Since Fast Retailing has become more transparent in their reports it does show that they are progressing in the right direction. However, due to their previous and current relationship with feedbacks from the groups they are a part of, I will give them a 1 / 2.


My Opinion

I think that Fast Retailing has a lot to work on in treating their workers and factories better as well as improving the grades of those factories. However, I do think that they are doing a much better job since they’ve already taken initiatives and have gotten certifications/joined groups in order to improve. 

When I think about their competition such as Zara, H&M and Everlane (2 of which I have done research on), I immediately saw a difference between the contents of my research. Both H&M and Everlane have no certifications for all the claims they make on their websites. Whereas for Fast Retailing I could find groups and certifications verifying that they are at least trying to be sustainable.

Would I buy from Uniqlo? No. Uniqlo has much to work on as I said in terms of labor. But I do think that they are doing a decent job in terms of environment. So, I would recommend Uniqlo  over other fast fashion companies but not over other sustainable companies. 

Score: 1 / 2.

Final Score: 4/10


If you want more sustainable alternatives to Uniqlo check out my Pinterest (@econaki) for suggestions.


Want me to review your (favorite) product or company? Just email me at info@econaki.com or leave a comment down below!

Want to know more about fast fashion? Here’s a trailer to a well-made documentary all about it. If you like the trailer I highly recommend watching the documentary.

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Saran

Founder at Econaki
Hi! My name is Saran and I am the Founder of Econaki. My goal with the business is to provide in-depth information about the sustainability of popular products/services so that we can combat climate change amongst other problems.

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