By Jessica Ocheltree
At the bottom of your drawers or in the back of your closet, you probably have some perfectly good clothes that you haven’t worn for ages. Whether they’ve gone out of style, faded a little or just no longer fit, they’ve been cast aside until the day they end up in the trash or are reincarnated as cleaning rags.
But there’s a more eco-friendly and socially conscious option — for some of those unwanted items, at least. Since March 1, Uniqlo stores throughout the country have been accepting donations of any of their clothing for recycling.
The company first started the program in 2001, and initially only accepted specific items at scheduled times. The operation has since been vastly expanded in the hope of increasing customer participation and giving products a longer life cycle. Officially titled the All-Product Recycling Initiative, it’s more commonly known by the catchier moniker of Uniqlo Recycle.
“We strive to reduce the environmental impact of our business activities in a sustainable manner because we produce more than 500 million [units] per year,” explains Eiko Sherba, from the Corporate Social Responsibility department of Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing.
Such prodigious output is a recipe for a whole lot of landfill, so the company started looking at other options. Their first plan was to process the used clothes as fuel, but then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed an interest in sending them to refugee camps.
Aid workers often have difficulty ensuring that refugees have proper clothing to protect against the elements, so Uniqlo began by collecting items from their popular fleece line. This initiative was so well received that they expanded to include all Uniqlo items in 2006.
After clothes are collected, they are sorted. The roughly 10% which aren’t in sufficiently good condition are sent for conversion into industrial fiber or fuel, and the remainder distributed with the cooperation of the UNHCR, Japan Relief Clothing Center and Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning. These groups make sure that the deliveries to camps are suitable for local weather, meet the demographic needs of the population, and are culturally appropriate.
Last year, the program collected a record 2.62 million items and provided emergency clothing aid to victims of violence and natural disasters throughout Asia and Africa. Now that it has begun collecting items year-round and can ensure a larger and more consistent flow of clothing, Uniqlo hopes to reach more of the estimated 30 million refugees and internally displaced people in need this year.
“We place brochures and posters in Uniqlo stores, and we report to our customers what we have seen and felt at the refugee camps through our website,” says Sherba. They may not have to try very hard to promote the program, mind you, as the response so far has been extremely positive.
“Customers aren’t rewarded for bringing clothing back to the store, but they support our initiative,” says Sherba. “They are so happy to bring clothing in to the store, because they have a lot of clothing at home that they can’t dispose of.” Uniqlo only asks that the donations be laundered and not stained or torn.
Even with the increased responsibility of year-round collection, Sherba is already looking forward to the next step. “In the future, we would like to expand this to overseas stores and we are thinking about expanding to our sister brands.”
While Uniqlo Recycle is an admirable example of corporate social responsibility and cradle-to-cradle thinking, it’s a program that can’t work without the participation of its customers. Sherba encourages Metropolis readers to bring in unwanted items, even if it’s only one.
“That one piece of clothing you don’t need may be the one piece of clothing somebody else does.”
To find out more about Uniqlo Recycle, see http://meturl.com/uniqlorecycle
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).