Behind The Label: MUJI

Sustainability through simplicity.

For minimalist shoppers, MUJI is the holy grail – an emporium of Japanese-inspired simplicity offering everything from hangers to notebooks to striped cotton tees.

MUJI’s mission is similarly minimalist: “to offer the opportunity of a Pleasant Life to people around the world.” Its products are simple, well-designed, and built to last using streamlined manufacturing processes. Though MUJI doesn’t specifically brand itself as a sustainable company, the sustainable principles of simplicity and self-restraint are a key element of its operations, along with a “no-brand” philosophy that discourages excessive consumerism.

MUJI got its start in 1980 as an in-house brand for the Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu. Initially called Mujirushi Ryōhin, which translated means “no-brand quality goods,” the company specialized in consumer products that were well-made but affordable. Using the tagline “lower priced for a reason,” the company was able to offer cheaper prices to consumers through careful material selection, streamlined manufacturing processes, and simplified packaging, according to the company website.

At that time, Japan enjoyed a prosperous economy, and expensive international brands were all the rage, while at the other end of the spectrum, cheap inferior products hit the market. The MUJI concept was born as a criticism of this state of affairs – a fresh look at quality and price of truly useful quality goods with a no-label philosophy.

Now owned by Ryohin Keikaku Ltd., MUJI produces more than 7,000 products and operates more than 400 retail outlets worldwide. The company has four U.S. stores, all based in New York City, and also sells products through the MoMA Design Store.

The Good

In MUJI’s messaging, social responsibility seems less a marketing stunt than a simple approach to doing business.

The basic principle of MUJI merchandise development is to create products that are fundamental, practical and really necessary in daily life, and to ensure efficient and minimal manufacturing processes.

In true minimalist form, the company outlines just three viewpoints for product development – “problem solving through design, examination of materials and processes, and simplification of packaging” – and three criteria for manufacturing – quality standards, a code of conduct for business partners, and a list of major materials to be eliminated or controlled.

Much of MUJI’s innovation springs from its focus on the traditional Japanese values of simplicity and self-restraint. In a published conversation, MUJI President Masaaki Kanai said that MUJI operates under the principle of “this will suffice” – a concept that he says is vital for consumers to adapt in this rapidly changing world.

Now, the world’s population has risen to a little more than 6.8 billion people, and it is said that the number of people who enjoy the same level of life as we do has increased to approximately 2 billion people. It’s also reported that a further 2 billion are waiting in the wings. If the number of consumers hits 4 billion, the earth’s thin skin will be blown off. When we had this discussion, we thought again about the ‘simplicity’ that had been prized by the late creator Ikko Tanaka, who built the MUJI concept. That is, the way of thinking that says ‘this will suffice.’ Simple is good. Resources should be used as little as possible. It’s not a matter of being resigned to something, but rather of wanting to make things that ‘will suffice’ while being full of self-confidence. Since ancient times, Japanese people have specialized in holding back personally for the sake of their surroundings. This is the ‘this will suffice’ concept.

Putting the concept in practice, MUJI says that it aims to exercise self-restraint at every point in the design and manufacturing process, constantly asking itself: “Is this necessary?” or “Is this going too far?”

Some of the results of this questioning process were recently displayed as part of MUJI’s recent Product Fitness 80 exhibition, which debuted in Tokyo in March and is currently traveling through Asia. The exhibition takes a look at select products and examines the long-term implications of rethinking products to minimize waste. Cotton buds, for instance, “don’t have to be that long,” nor does tape have to be that wide or toilet paper rolls that thick. And credit cards? Simply halving them could have profound impacts on plastic usage if the practice was adopted worldwide.

The Bad

While MUJI incorporates many sustainable principles into its operations, there’s still a long way to go before it can be labeled a truly environment-friendly brand. Its products are composed primarily of unsustainable materials like plastic and polyester, and most of its product manufacturing is done in China, Indonesia and Vietnam, countries with controversial labor practices.

On its website, parent company Ryohin Keikaku outlines a 41-point outline of the corporate social responsibility initiatives it has in place to “create a Pleasant Life,” but many of them strike me as soft.

For instance, to ensure that outsourced manufacturing partners understand Ryohin Keikaku’s standards, the company says that it includes the “Ryohin Keikaku Environment, Labor and Safety Management” document in contract paperwork and checks on implementation twice a year through questionnaires. Judging from these statements, compliance with ethical standards is enforced through little more than a pamphlet and a questionnaire.

As for the standards themselves, the company says that it has established its own Ryohin Standards that are stricter than current laws, but it fails to mention what those standards are.

To be fair, Ryohin Keikaku also has three separate website sections dedicated to corporate social responsibility that are available exclusively in Japanese: a Laboratory for Discerning Living, which discusses environmental themes and initiatives; an Articles section, with posts from an Environmental Team staff member; and an Environment Atelier, with reports from different partners from around the world, compiled between 2005 and 2010.

The Questionable

It’s often said that in order for true change to occur in the consumer goods sphere, the approach to sustainability needs to be holistic and integrated into every aspect of business. MUJI seems to be a great example of this. By embracing the Japanese value of self-restraint, MUJI exhibits many of the trademarks of a sustainable brand, even though its cotton is unorganic and its plastic unrecycled. Its focus on simplicity naturally leads to less waste. Its focus on quality means that products don’t have to be replaced as much. Its “no-brand” approach to marketing means that less is expended on packaging and advertising – which incidentally leads to greater customer loyalty from people who dislike being marketed to. It’s social responsibility, without all the fuss.

Looking at MUJI also raises the question: if a company designs responsibly and focuses on quality, does that also make it somewhat sustainable? As it stands, customers are often forced to choose between a recycled fair trade wallet with cheap zippers and too many pockets, and a more functional, long-lasting wallet made from high-quality materials that may not be sustainable. When considering the cradle-to-cradle impact of a purchase, it’s unclear which is the better option. Similarly, one has to wonder if MUJI’s pared-down approach to product development and marketing is more impactful than that of brands like Levi’s and Puma, with their highly-publicized, large-scale social responsibility campaigns. In this case, less might be more.


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Image: Soon Koon

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.