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At Uniqlo, sustainability is in its jeans

Staking a claim in the competitive retail industry is not as simple as attractive price points anymore, says its CEO for Singapore and Malaysia

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Mr Yamada says Uniqlo's quest to create a new digital consumer retail industry and become the world's top brand also incorporates a commitment to a sustainable society.

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Uniqlo's South-east Asia flagship store located at Orchard Central, spans three storeys.

Singapore 

AS one of the largest apparel retailers in the world with new stores opening at a fast pace, it may come as a bit of a surprise to hear that Uniqlo - the popular Japanese clothing brand - is not solely focused on growth.

According to Yuki Yamada, the chief executive officer of Uniqlo Singapore and Malaysia - the company's quest to create a new digital consumer retail industry and become the world's top brand also incorporates a commitment to a sustainable society.

The word "sustainable" comes up quite often during the 41-year-old's interview with The Business Times, and Mr Yamada stressed that the business exists to "enrich the lives of our customers and make our society a better place".

"We have a strong responsibility to lead the sustainable development of global society through our core clothing business," he said. "It is our duty to proactively respond to society's needs and help resolve pressing social issues."

Take the simple pair of jeans - a staple in almost everyone's wardrobe these days - as an example.

Tokyo-based Fast Retailing Group, Uniqlo's parent company, announced recently that it has developed a washing process for jeans that can reduce the use of water by as much as 99 per cent, with an average of more than 90 per cent.

Last year, some 10 million pairs of jeans of Uniqlo and J Brand (another subsidiary of Fast Retailing) was produced with this process.

This total accounts for nearly a third of Fast Retailing's total production. The plan is to use the new technology on all jeans made and sold by Fast Retailing in 2020.

Mr Yamada said that apart from optimising the use of valuable resources in Uniqlo's products, the company is also committed to reducing single-use plastic by 85 per cent globally (including Singapore) - the equivalent of 7,800 tonnes of plastic - by the end of 2020.

On March 2, Uniqlo Singapore will become the latest brand to stop giving out plastic bags. Shoppers can either bring their own or purchase eco-friendly paper bags at 10 cents each, or get a tote bag at S$2.90.

The existing stock of plastic bags will also be sold at 10 cents apiece, with the supply expected to be phased out by the middle of March.

"Our ambition is to redefine what sustainability means in the apparel industry and to leverage the scale of our business to have genuine meaning and impact," said Mr Yamada.

"Through our sustainable initiatives, all our customers can be part of a more sustainable world, without any special effort on their part and without any compromise on quality or value," he added.

Since its first store opened in Japan back in 1984, Uniqlo now has about 2,200 stores in 24 markets around the world including Singapore.

Uniqlo celebrated its 10th year of operations in Singapore last year, and the company currently has 28 branches across the island and one online store, with some 1,400 people on its payroll.

The Lion City is also the home of its first flagship store in South-east Asia, a three-storey branch located at Orchard Central. Among the new openings last year were stores at PLQ Mall in Paya Lebar and at Jewel Changi Airport.

"Singapore is a growing global city. It's the gateway to Asia and one of the most important markets for us," said the Singapore-based Mr Yamada, who has spent 19 years of his career at Uniqlo and was promoted to his current role last year.

Asked how the brand works to stay ahead of others in the highly competitive retail industry, Mr Yamada said Uniqlo's advantage is that it takes care of everything from the planning to manufacturing, developing of materials, logistics, to sales.

"We are able to take risks and have more control," he said, adding that there has been a shift in the retail landscape from a product-centric to a more consumer-centric environment.

"Staking a claim in such an ever-competitive market is not as simple as attractive price points anymore," he noted. "We don't chase high-fashion trends but instead seek to become an essential part of our customers' everyday life."