Is Uniqlo considered a fast fashion brand? Uniqlo is one of the largest clothing retailers worldwide but dismisses the term fast fashion. They claim to not make disposable clothing.
How to separate claims from the facts? Is Uniqlo ethical and sustainable? Or is the brand highly damaging to the environment and local communities like other retail giants such as Zara, GAP, and H&M?
Uniqlo is a fast-fashion brand because:
- it produces cheap disposable clothing at scale,
- it uses unsustainable materials and production processes,
- it uses cheap labor and violates local labor laws,
- it doesn't respect animal rights.
Let's have a look at the reasons why Uniqlo is a fast-fashion brand.
Uniqlo doesn't want to be called fast-fashion
Uniqlo was founded in Japan in 1949 as a textiles manufacturer. Today Uniqlo is a casual wear designer, manufacturer, and retailer. The company is owned by Fast Retailing since 2005, the second-largest global clothing retailer.
Fast Retailing owns 3,589 stores across the world as of December 2019. The group announced consolidated revenues of 2.29 Trillion Yen in 2019, up 7.5 percent and operating profit of 258 billion yen, up 9.1 percent on the prior year.
Uniqlo claims to focus on quality and comfort with their clothing, to make everyone's lives better.
"LifeWear is clothing designed to make everyone's life better. It is simple, high-quality, everyday clothing with a practical sense of beauty- ingenious in detail, thought through with life's needs in mind, and always evolving."
- Uniqlo LifeWear Website, 2020
Uniqlo wants you to build a simplified modern wardrobe, that satisfies your everyday needs. And the brand doesn't want to be called fast fashion.
“The center of LifeWear is [the concept of] ‘made for all.’ It’s the elements of style and clothes that suit your values. [...] Uniqlo is often mistaken as fast fashion, but we will never, ever offer disposable clothing.”
- Tadashi Yanai, Uniqlo founder
The green movement is booming. And more consumers want to buy from companies that minimize their social and environmental impact.
Like many other fashion brands, Uniqlo is making efforts to offer products that are more sustainable to appeal to conscious customers. Uniqlo claims to be committed to making sustainability a priority.
"One type of sustainability is technical - it’s about things like recycled fibers and reducing water usage. The second is how much we can provide a product that will last."
- Yuki Katsuta, Uniqlo Global R&D Head
"Our commitment to making great clothing begins with sourcing ethically produced materials, minimizing environmental impacts, putting workers first, and developing new materials and technologies with better futures in mind."
- Uniqlo Sustainability Website, 2020
Uniqlo offers timeless basics and doesn't follow the latest trends. This is one big step toward sustainability, away from the fast-fashion business model.
A more simplistic look is easy to style. Basics don't need much time to combine to create amazing outfits. Plus, you can wear them for a long time without going out of style.
Check out my ultimate guide to the minimalist fashion trend if you would like to keep it simple with your outfits.
Uniqlo is profiting from changes in the market and the fashion industry (cultural shift, new technologies, and innovation).
They develop simple clothes, for people that want to incorporate more basics in their wardrobe. They are attempting to eliminate all waste and plastic in their supply chain, along with many other sustainability initiatives.
Uniqlo is beginning to represent values such as affordability, quality, style, and status. Uniqlo is becoming very successful as a very large competitor in the global fast fashion retail market.
Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing wants to become the largest clothing retailer by 2020. They currently have a sales target of USD 27.6 billion and are planning to expand in the United States, China, and online.
Understanding fast fashion
Fast fashion has become very popular in the last 20 years. It enabled retailers to grow rapidly and become large corporations. The most popular fast-fashion retailers in the world are Uniqlo (21%), H&M (18%), and Zara (18%).
Fast fashion brands push new collections to high-street stores in a very short time. They provide new trendy clothes inspired by runway shows to consumers weekly at an affordable price.
Fast fashion garments are made to be cheap and disposable. Retailers want you to consume more, and replace old items with new trends rapidly.
Fast fashion contributes to the throwaway culture. Clothing has become a commodity. New clothes are now so cheap that they become single-use.
Fast fashion, the overproduction, and overconsumption it promotes have a disastrous social and environmental impact. It is unethical and not sustainable at all.
The fast fashion industry extracts large amounts of natural resources and sends clothes to landfills every day. More than USD 500 billion is lost each year due to a lack of reuse and recycling, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017).
Clothing demand is still growing rapidly, especially in emerging markets. Clothing sales will reach 160 million tons worldwide in 2050, which is more than three times what it is today.
"My grandmother has only one shirt in her wardrobe. My mother has three. My daughter’s generation, 50. And 48% of them, she never wears."
- Jack Ma, Alibaba founder
Fast fashion is responsible for massive waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Toxic chemicals in dyes, fertilizers, and pesticides pollute the air, land, and oceans, damaging the health of farmers and workers in garment factories.
Shopping the latest trends for just a few dollars is fun but has an enormous cost. During the last 15 years, apparel production has doubled globally to meet consumers' demand.
In developing countries, factory workers make garments for the fast fashion industry under unethical working conditions, with low wages, no healthcare, and no food service. They are forced to work long hours, physically abused, and sexually assaulted.
The human abuse and negative impact on the environment have to stop.
If you think it's still okay to buy fast fashion, read up my article on why you should quit fast fashion.
To meet clothing demand more sustainably, fashion brands and retailers have to invent, design, and test new ways to produce and sell clothes.
"It is obvious that the current fashion system is failing both the environment and us."
- Ida Auken, Denmark Member of Parliament
How to tell if a brand is a fast fashion one
There is so much greenwash going on in the fast fashion industry. It is now increasingly hard to check if claims from fast fashion brands like Uniqlo are true or not.
To check if a brand is a fast fashion one, look at their products, website, supply chain, facilities, processes, values, and management strategies.
For someone new to conscious fashion, it's overwhelming. And very few fast fashion brands are transparent with this kind of information.
Many fast fashion brands even hide their unsafe factories, hazardous chemicals, human and animals right violations.
Learn more about fast fashion so you can protect yourself and others. Then buy quality and durable clothing from ethical fashion brands.
You have the right to know #WhoMadeMyClothes. Before buying from a fashion brand, look for:
- sustainable materials,
- high transparency,
- collections with lower frequency,
- support for social causes,
- fair product pricing.
Fast fashion brands don't:
- minimize the environmental impact of their activities,
- respect all fundamental human and animal rights,
- provide enough information to make informed purchase decisions.
To identify a fast-fashion brand, you want to:
- check the materials they use,
- read the labels to look for certifications,
- find out if they produce locally,
- lookup how often they come up with new collections,
- check their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies,
- check the standards used in their facilities,
- ask directly for more information.
You shouldn't trust every claim a fast fashion brand makes. Instead, watch what they do! Companies will often set sustainability targets but never show any progress being made.
It's a great idea to use recycled materials. But do they also support charitable causes? Do they use renewable energy, recycling in their headquarters, sustainable transport for shipping, and recycled materials for packaging?
What's wrong with Uniqlo
Uniqlo, just like Forever 21, Fashion Nova, H&M, and Zara, relies on the fast fashion business model to make profits, even if they don't want to admit it.
Uniqlo isn't a sustainable fashion brand. It offers an alarmingly high amount of cheap synthetic materials contributing to plastic and microfibers pollution.
Uniqlo doesn't use any fur to make its clothes. But they use wool goose down, and down feathers. Don't support companies that use animal products or by-products for their new collections. No animal should have to suffer to make stylish and affordable clothing.
To learn more about wool and how it's cruel to animals, read my article advising you to stop wearing wool.
Uniqlo's newest collections use highly polluting fibers such as rayon, polyester, nylon, and elastane. These synthetic fabrics aren't recycled or produced from renewable resources.
Uniqlo doesn't present any certification for its textiles. They use natural fibers such as cotton but they aren't certified organic. Cotton is grown with large quantities of water, toxic chemicals in pesticides, and fertilizers.
Are you wondering if you should prefer organic cotton? Follow my recommendations in this article on the pros and cons of buying organic cotton.
It's worth noting that Uniqlo is actively trying to make efforts in this area. Uniqlo has recently partnered with the Better Cotton Initiative to improve cotton farming globally.
Uniqlo prices aren't the lowest compared to other fast-fashion retailers. But they are low enough that many consumers still consider Uniqlo's clothes disposable.
Whoever sells a high volume of clothes for cheap prices is inherently part of the fast fashion industry. Constantly changing styles of more or less disposable clothing is very harmful to the environment.
We can appreciate that Uniqlo is promoting the well-being of every worker in their partner factories. But they show no progress toward paying each employee a living wage.
Manufacturing in overseas countries is known to be cheap because workers are often underpaid. Uniqlo doesn't disclose where its clothes are manufactured. They don't demonstrate enough transparency in their supply chain to earn our trust.
Uniqlo is a fast-fashion brand that used child labor in the past. They now use forced labor to manufacture their products in Asian developing countries.
"Uniqlo is one of the main reasons the factory faced financial difficulties and why the working conditions worsened. Uniqlo failed to take the responsibility that was promised in their code of conduct."
- Tono Haruhi, Yokohama Action Research Director
Factory workers making Uniqlo clothing are forced to work excessively long hours with very low wages, 7 days a week.
The company uses cheap labor from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and China, where workers are barely paid enough for their daily expenses.
"Uniqlo didn’t fulfill its responsibility in protecting workers from union-busting, illegal dismissals, and overtime work without pay. It had not taken necessary and simple steps to conduct due diligence before it stopped placing orders."
- Johnson Yeung Ching-yin, Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) East Asia
The Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) published a second investigative report on the poor labor conditions in China. They report overly long working hours, unsafe workplaces, low wages, and external audits cheating.
The United Nations have guiding principles for companies to prevent, address, and remedy human rights abuses committed in their supply chains. Uniqlo should follow them.
"The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises [...] seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts."
- UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 2011
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks four languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.