How sustainable is uniqlo?
You guys asked for this one. So let’s take a look at how sustainable Uniqlo is.
Uniqlo is a great staples brand. And because a lot of their items are pretty timeless or basics, people assume they aren’t fast fashion.
News flash: they are.
And for that reason alone they’re going to rate pretty low on my sustainability scale. But you know I give brands the benefit of the doubt before I start researching. I like to let their websites and public-facing data do all the talking (or lack thereof).
So what did I find? Let's dive in.
Who they are: Uniqlo is a Japanese multinational retailer that was originally founded as a textiles manufacturer by Tadashi Yanai in Yamaguchi, Japan in 1949. It is now part of the Fast Retailing group of brands, which is also owned by Yanai.
Its emphasis is on low-cost, everyday fashion that doesn’t go out of style. While its styles are considered timeless, Uniqlo does operate on a fast fashion business model.
Where are they made? Uniqlo clothes are manufactured in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia, and India. Uniqlo does not list where its garments are manufactured in the product descriptions on their website, but some information about where products are manufactured is available on Fast Retailing's website.
What are they made out of? Uniqlo’s garments are made of a wide variety of materials, with a large majority being made from cotton and polyester. Other fabrics they use include rayon, nylon, spandex, wool, cupro, down, and linen.
According to their sustainability report, they have a goal to increase their use of recycled materials in their products to up to 50%. Although they don’t provide numbers of what percent they are currently using. They also mention hoping to achieve traceability through their supply through certifications, but do not mention the use of third-party certified materials or aims to increase their use of certified materials.
Do they have a sustainability policy or manifest on their website? Does it include targets and actions to meet those targets? Yes. Their customer-facing site has a sustainability section, and the Fast Retailing site has publicly available data on its sustainability strategy. They also release an annual Sustainability Report and an Environmental Policy. However, in all of these materials, some goals are general with no targets or target dates and some do have targets. And while there is some information on the progress that Uniqlo has made over the past few years, a lot of this information is vague and spread over dozens of pages across various sites.
Do they educate their customers on proper care for their garments? They do the standard basic care instructions like “Machine wash cold. Tumble dry low” and “Handwash only. Line Dry” on each product page. For any products with synthetic fibers, they make no note of microplastics that shed during wash nor do they suggest the use of mesh bags or filters to collect these microplastics.
There is a page about proper garment care in their sustainability section of their site (that does include a section about microplastics), but it is not prominent or easily findable.
Do they publish a supplier list or factory sites? A production partners list is published on Fast Retailing’s website. This list includes garment and processing factories and fabric mills. However, it is not specified which factories are utilized for each of Fast Retailing’s brands. So it is unclear which of these factories work with the Uniqlo brand. This list contains information on country, factory name and address, product type, number of workers, ratio of female workers, and parent company name (if any).
Do they track their scope 1-3 greenhouse gas emissions and calculate their carbon footprint? Yes. They complete a full supply chain analysis of their GHG emissions and waste. This data is publicly available on Fast Retailing’s website.
Do they pay all of their supply chain workers a fair wage? Fast Retailing has a Human Rights Policy all its brands must abide by. It states they “manage employment conditions such as working hours, overtime and wages in accordance with local laws and regulation and/or international standards.” Other than this, there is no mention of wages, claims that their workers make fair wages, or certifications that would guarantee fair wages.
Do they have any social impact/environmental impact/give back initiative in place? Yes, it actually has quite a lot (these are a few of the most prominent, but you can view them all here). Fast Retailing has had a global partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, since 2011. This partnership helps to “support self-reliance assistance programs for refugees, such as employment opportunities in global Uniqlo stores, educational programs, skill acquisition training, and clothing donations in refugee camps.” They also have a partnership with the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, supporting more than 200 women with $2.95 million in scholarships and $5 million for the construction of new school buildings since 2013. Uniqlo has also provided disaster and crisis support across the globe for natural disasters (like providing temperature-controlling clothing for those in frigid temperatures in Texas in 2021) and health crises (like providing over 500,000 meals across Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic).
Do they have sustainable packaging? In fall 2019, Uniqlo started phasing out plastic shopping bags throughout all its stores and plastic packaging for certain products. Their next goal is to eliminate single-use plastic in hangers, size seals, and logistical packing materials, but there are no targets listed.
What certifications, if any, do they hold? Uniqlo itself holds no certifications. The only third party certification that any of their products carry are Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certified, which applies to their down jackets.
What is their production capacity? Uniqlo releases new items every week in-store and on their website. Their U.S. website alone has over 3,000 currently available. Because of their fast production schedule and release, they would be considered fast fashion.
Are they inclusive of people of all sizes and colors? In some ways yes, in others no. Uniqlo’s American website, marketing, and social media feed does somewhat well at featuring people of color, although they could improve on including more people of darker skin tones. There is also some inclusion of plus-size individuals, but not much. Their other global sites and social media, generally speaking, feature little diversity in size and color. When it comes to their apparel itself, their sizes range from a XXS to XXL (3XL for Men’s), which is somewhat inclusive.
According to their website, Uniqlo in Japan has a “Partnership Registration System that enables same-sex partners to access welfare benefits such as congratulatory and condolence leave and payments, by registering their partnership with the company.” That being said, same-sex marriage is banned in Japan and same-sex couples are ineligible for many legal protections.
Other notes: Uniqlo has a take-back/recycling program called Re.Uniqlo “with the goal of reusing and recycling almost all our products.” Although their website says this has been around since 2006, it also states “As a first step, we are collecting old down products and progressing with recycled down products. In addition, we are also recycling our products into materials other than clothes, such as alternative fuel and soundproofing materials for cars.” So although they’ve had this program in place for years, it doesn’t seem like much of their clothing is reused at all and is downcycled rather than recycled.
They also tested out their “Second Life Studio” offering clothing repair services in one Uniqlo store in Germany in August 2021. However, their website currently lists the only location that provides repair services is their Soho flagship in New York City. There have been no further announcements to expand this initiative.
Sustainability Grade: D-
Uniqlo does put a decent amount of information out there. On Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index they scored a 40%. But, and a big one at that, they really try to make it super hard for you to find the info you’re actually looking for. Finding specific facts or statistics often takes clicking through 4-5 pages across 2 sites (their own and their parent company’s). This is one of my biggest criticisms against them.
I also was not a huge fan of how even if I did find numbers, it was all about targets they want to hit in the FUTURE. There were very few numbers about where they are at CURRENTLY, so we’re kind of left in the dust if they’re going to meet their targets.
I also noticed a lot of “we started this initiative in X year,” and then since then they have provided no update on if they’ve expanded the initiative or what its current status is. This reads to me a lot like “we want to be able to check off some boxes saying we did something” and then not doing anything after that.
I was also kind of shocked by how little they are doing to try and switch to more sustainable materials. I found no instances of organic fabrics and very few items made out of recycled fibers. I find this surprising because most other fast fashion brands have started utilizing these materials, making them much further behind their counterparts in regards to materials.
And there’s also the fact that the brand has been caught up in an ongoing worker’s rights case for years, and apparently owes Indonesian garment workers $5.5 million worth of severance pay.
So yea, um it’s a no for me on sustainability for Uniqlo.