Behind the Label: Investigating The Social Responsibility Claims Of Uniqlo

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ColumnHow has Uniqlo managed to avoid the dreaded “fast fashion” label?

If you don’t shop at Uniqlo, you will soon. The Japanese retailer has already captivated urban centers like New York and San Francisco with ambitious plans to expand to 1,000 U.S. stores in the next decade.

Uniqlo’s specialty is cheap but quality basics, presented in a rainbow of the season’s trendiest colors. But despite the chain’s quick-moving inventory and bargain basement prices, Uniqlo has somehow managed to escape the fast fashion stigma slapped on competitors like H&M, Forever 21, Zara, and Old Navy. This week’s Behind The Label looks at why.

The Uniqlo we know today got its start when Japanese entrepreneur Tadashi Yanai evolved his family suit business into a chain of contemporary activewear stores in 1984. The first store was called Unique Clothing Warehouse, a lengthy moniker that was later shortened to Uniqlo. The chain initially sold brands like Nike and Adidas, but as it expanded, it shifted to more store-brand apparel.

Today, there are more than 835 Uniqlo stores around the world, with seven in the U.S. Over the past decade, parent corporation Fast Retailing has also added brands like Theory, J Brand, Helmut Lang, Princess Tam.Tam, and Comptoir des Cotonniers to its portfolio of companies.

The Good

Uniqlo’s first American retail presence was in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, where it quickly gained a cult following of devotees drawn by the promise of quality items at low prices. Indeed, Uniqlo’s mission is grounded in the promise of a fashion democracy; its tagline reads “Made For All.” But how is Uniqlo able to offer quality to “all” at such low prices?

First, there’s the power of buying in bulk. But Uniqlo doesn’t just work with anyone. Where some fast fashion companies work with up to 300 manufacturers, Uniqlo works with approximately 70, according to its latest corporate social responsibility report. According to Takao Kuwahara, chief executive of Uniqlo U.K., the company takes a hands-on approach in order to ensure quality. “We make a lot of our products in China but, because of our approach to manufacturing, we can maintain very good quality control,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “When we find a factory we want to work with, we commit to buying all of their product for the next five years—but only if they meet our standards. Then we send in our own team of trained craftsmen to teach the factory how we like things done. The team stays until they get it right.”

Then, there’s Uniqlo’s minimalist approach to design and construction. Design director Naoki Takizawa is an alumnus of Issey Miyake, Japan’s most famous minimalist fashion designer. Much like fellow Japanese brand Muji, Uniqlo aims to eliminate the inessential. “The only things that stay are the things you need: It has to protect you from the rain, and heat has to escape,” Takizawa told Fast Company.

And finally, there’s a minimalist approach to inventory. “We have much fewer styles, especially when you compare us with companies like H&M or Topshop or Zara,” Shin Odake, CEO of Uniqlo U.S.A., told New York Magazine. “That’s the secret of why we can get better quality. We try to consolidate the fabric buys as much as possible. H&M sales are bigger, but we have bigger orders. We take huge quantities, and we have negotiation power.”

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The Bad

Uniqlo’s minimalist approach to sourcing, design, and inventory may partly explain how the brand is able to offer $5 tees and $19 jeans. But labor is a significant part of the equation too.

Uniqlo has long produced the majority of its clothing in China, but in recent years it has expanded into cheaper manufacturing bases like Vietnam and Bangladesh. According to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, Bangladesh offers the cheapest garment labor in the world, at 21 cents an hour. Vietnam’s wages aren’t much higher: 52 cents an hour in cities and 36 cents an hour in rural areas.

Cheaper labor comes at a price, as the recent garment factory collapse and fires in Bangladesh have reminded us. The incidents have prompted major retailers like Walmart, Gap, and H&M to initiate conversations on how to improve Bangladeshi working conditions. Fast Retailing, the world’s fourth largest clothing retailer, isn’t reported to be a participant in these discussions. The company is not a member of the Fair Labor Association, which promotes responsible labor standards, nor does it participate in industry-wide environmental working groups like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Uniqlo’s apathy toward its workers is further evident in this year’s CSR report. The chapter on garment manufacturing focuses more on quality control than quality of life. The strongest statement on fair labor is that Fast Retailing “always produces clothing under socially acceptable working conditions” – hardly a revolutionary commitment.

Uniqlo has also been singled out for having an unhealthy corporate culture. It is currently suing the publisher of a scathing book called the “The Glory and Disgrace of Uniqlo,” which accused the retailer of “extremely harsh, slave-like labor conditions at overseas factories.” And earlier this year, 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.

The Questionable

My strategy since become a conscious consumer has been to build a wardrobe around high-quality staples: great-fitting jeans, comfortable tees, versatile black dresses. For this, Uniqlo is heaven-sent. Its styles aren’t driven as much by trend as they are by timelessness. In fact, its new LifeWear collection, released last month, promotes a minimalist wardrobe of 11 basic “projects” that together comprise a full wardrobe.

“We don’t have seasonal fashion themes like other companies. We are much more product focused. Year by year, we are constantly testing, improving and updating,” Yuki Katsuta, Uniqlo’s senior vice president of global research and design, told Business of Fashion last month.

This shopping philosophy resonates with many conscious consumers, which may be why Uniqlo has escaped the dreaded fast fashion label. It’s easy for ethical shoppers to justify a Uniqlo purchase by arguing for its quality, much like slow fashion proponents do.

But Uniqlo’s supply chain is still littered with the social and environmental issues representative of other fast fashion retailers. At the end of the day, Uniqlo still uses cheap labor to make cheaply constructed garments. But because of the brand’s focus on quality, versatility, and minimalist wardrobes, you hopefully won’t be tricked into buying more of them than you need.

Images: Instant Vantage, Sean Davis

Jessica Marati

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