Masaaki Matsubara

LOS ANGELES Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. threw open the doors to its Jeans Innovation Center in Gardena, Calif. Monday and Tuesday for reporters from around the world to learn about the company’s greener denim efforts amid a continued push throughout the region for more sustainable denim production.

Fast Retailing and J Brand linked for a major press event to highlight the company’s various sustainability techniques developed at the Gardena center.

Those efforts shown to reporters included use of lasers to create whiskered and vintage effects on denim replacing the use of chemicals, a water recycling system that’s reduced water usage by more than 90 percent and nano-bubble spray wash that cuts water use by as much as 99 percent. Media — totaling some 70 reporters from 17 markets throughout Europe, Australia, Asia and the U.S. — then traveled to the offices of J Brand in downtown Los Angeles for a look at the sustainable elements in the line’s fall collection.

“The goal [of the Jeans Innovation  Center] is of course we want to develop the best jeans, but it’s difficult,” said Jeans Innovation Center chief operating officer Masaaki Matsubara. “We want to [offer] always [the] best jeans, designing or development. And [from a] sustainability point of view, we want to achieve also the best.”

Fast Retailing opened the doors to its Jeans Innovation Center in November 2016 as a way to study efforts that could pair sustainability with marketable designs. Today, work across Fast Retailing’s portfolio of brands is done out of the nine-person Gardena facility with denim across Fast Retailing brands set to use the new wash process.

“These jeans are the early fruit of our sustainability efforts incorporated in our corporate philosophy,” Veronique Rochet, Fast Retailing Group sustainability director, said before reporters Monday.

She went on to say even with all the innovation happening on the back end with production, customers won’t be impacted when it comes to price or design.

Top of mind is water management, Matsubara said of the denim industry’s greatest challenge when it comes to sustainability efforts.

“We are washing garments to make them look better, using a lot of water, a lot of individual people [for manual work] and also chemicals,” he said. “So we should have the responsibility for that.”

There’s also the duality, he pointed out, in what not only the Jeans Innovation Center is tasked with, but the broader industry. That is, more and more consumers demand transparency and greener efforts while being unwilling to sacrifice design. A good chunk of that lies in the distressed and vintage effects that require denim to go through various wash and chemically infused processes. So the center is tasked with not only development on the sustainable front but also ensuring good design continues.

Jeans Innovation Center

Laser technology at Fast Retailing’s Jeans Innovation Center. The technology allows for whiskering and distressing on denim. 

“The most important thing is we have to make better quality and that’s why we are using sustainability techniques,” Matsubara said. “Our approach is, the customer wants to have a vintage look for jeans. We want to provide that and that’s always our challenge. Of course, no wash is best, but the customer wants [distressed treatments]. Whatever the customer wants, we have to produce. That’s always challenging, but I think we can achieve that.…It’s not just marketing. We are doing real concept[s] with this facility. Jeans Innovation Center is not just developing new things taking a long time. That’s not that kind of facility. This is real development. We make samples for every [Fast Retailing] brand. So actual development we are doing. That’s very important and that’s very rare in R&D centers.”

The Japan-based fashion company’s efforts continue to solidify Los Angeles as the denim capital as the local market evolves to include greater efforts across brands looking to hit higher sustainability targets. Among the area’s greener efforts in addition to the Jeans Innovation Center include:

• AG Jeans’ installation in the spring of a water filtration system in its South Gate and Mexico factories that recycles all water used in the production of denim and ready-to-wear. The system was used for the first time with AG’s summer 2019 collection.

• Denim manufacturer Saitex, which has plans for a Los Angeles area facility this year, became B Corporation certified in June. The company works with brands such as Target, Eileen Fisher, Outerknown, Everlane and Madewell.

• Upscale brand Atelier & Repairs continues to upcycle vintage and overstock denim, khakis and other garments, while continuing to serve more and more as a consultant to larger companies seeking greener pastures, including its most recent pairing with Dockers.

Despite the plethora of efforts, companies for the most part appear to be working solo on their research and development. The Jeans Innovation Center is specifically for Fast Retailing’s portfolio. Matsubara pointed out there’s enough of them — a total of eight — to keep the facility busy.

“Of course, our approach is for the jeans industry, but we have enough brands: Uniqlo, J Brand — eight brands — and all [those] brands have denim,” Matsubara said when asked if there would ever be consideration of opening up the R&D to the broader industry for the sharing of techniques.

“The biggest issue our industry [faces] is sustainability,” he continued. “Everybody focuses [on] that point. That’s why we have this event and we open up our technology to show everyone for all the jean industry.”

Executives on Monday, for the first wave of media outlets to walk through the Jeans Innovation Center, outlined further sustainability initiatives for the company that include a focus on worker rights, continuing to cut its use of hazardous chemicals, use of only sustainable cotton in a goal expected to be hit by 2025 and transitioning from plastic to paper shopping bags across the company’s global fleet of more than 3,500 stores in September with the goal of reducing plastic bags and packaging in its stores by 85 percent next year.

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