This article has originally been published on the Messe Frankfurt’s Textpertise Network, and is republished in amended form and with permission.
Cotton fields in Japan? What at first glance seems somewhat surreal, does in fact have its roots in history and a basis in science. Ever since cotton found its way to Japan in the Middle Ages, it has been cultivated in areas where it was impossible to grow rice where the soil contained too much salt to grow rice. Cotton was the ideal alternative, because it can be cultivated up to a salinity of approximately 0.6% – sometimes more depending on the soil – whereas rice only tolerates a maximum salt content of 0.2 %. Apart from this consideration, cotton being a highly valuable textile fibre is of course, also an attractive alternative in its own right.
Cotton instead of rice – an attractive alternative in regions hit by the tsunami
Ever since the earthquake and the tsunami last March, the farmers in Japan’s north-east have been confronted with precisely this problem: the tidal wave has made the soil salty, and made in the Sendai area alone some 235 square kilometres of land non-arable. This then led to this improbable rediscovery of old historic knowledge. In May, for the first time after a long period, cotton was planted as an alternative to rice as part of the Tohoku Cotton Project. The harvest was expected to yield about 2 tons in total. This is of course in international comparison very little, but, once that the feasibility of the project is proven, the harvest could already be considerably larger next year. And: In a region in which agriculture contributes in no small way to the economic equilibrium, both the social and agricultural impact of this project cannot be underestimated.
The Pre-Organic Cotton Project
Also of interest are the project partners: Kurkku Ltd. and the ITOCHU Corporation. In 2007, the two companies launched the ‘Pre-Organic Cotton Project’ (POCP) which provides support for international cotton projects transitioning from conventional to organic certified cultivation. The aim is to create additional incentives for cotton farmers to shift to organic farming practises. This year’s harvest is estimated at 1000 tons. Promoters of the project and purchasers of the ‘changeover’ cotton are brands like Aigle, McGregor, The Suit Company, Lee, Urban Research or United Arrows.
This and similar initiatives to support the commercialisation of organic cotton have stepped up the pressure on the Japanese Government to codify a legally binding definition of the term organic cotton, resulting in the enactment of a body of legislation governing the labelling of organic cotton in May 2010.
Textile companies are investing in research and development
With regards to the globally important vertically integrated Japanese textile and clothing manufacturers, the topic of sustainability is also more than a temporary phenomenon. Some of them are investing considerable amounts in research and development as a special report published by the the “The Senken” reported last August.
One impressive example from the textiles field is the market strategy of the textile and clothing manufacturer Chori Ltd, which is based on a mixture of high-tech and tradition.
The company has developed a technology branded and registered as ‘DAICHI Natural Dyes’, and which in fact is an innovative method to imrpove the bonds between the colour pigments of natural dyes and textile fibres, so that they can also be used in industrial dyeing processes. The technology uses plant extracts and minerals.
A successor of this product, branded ‘DAICHI Vegetable Natural Dyes’, was created in a collaboration with Delica Foods, and extended the technology to be applicable to vegetable dyes specifically.
When it comes to the topic of recycling, the company’s activities are equally innovative. For example, Chori has developed a method for producing high-end polyester (e.g. polyester satin) from recycled PET bottles, which the company acquires bottles from the national waste recycling system.
And if that were not enough, Chori is also giving people something to talk about with a new technology for indigo dyeing denim fabrics. With this method, the cotton fibre core does not absorb the indigo completely, but remains white. This makes it relatively easy to imitate the popular ‘worn look’ without impairing the integrity of the denim fibres and without the use of chemicals or sandblasting.
The five categories of Green Fashion in Japan
Unlike Europe and the USA, the Japanese look at the topic of sustainability from at least three different angles: the key phrases are ‘Back to Nature’, ‘Tradition in Modernity’, and ‘Innovation’. These three umbrella concepts are equally found in the fashion industry, also (!) by non-sustainable fashion labels. In the field of sustainable fashion, there are two further categories, namely ‘Fair trade’ and ‘Classics Made in Japan’.
One example that is representative of each of these five categories is described below:
- Fair Trade
People Tree Japan stands for Fair Trade in Japan. The Japanese brand is, by the way, a decade older than its European sister. The label’s activities focus on socially sustainable production in countries like India, Nepal and Bangladesh, incorporating local textile hand-crafted traditions. People Tree Japan sees itself not only as just a fashion label but importantly also as a pioneer for fair trade and fair production conditions.
- Back to Nature
NADELL is a ‘classic’ green Japanese fashion label. Organic cotton and natural fibres are at the centre of the design philosophy, and the label has dedicats itself entirely to the objective of manufacturing elegant feminine fashion ‘in harmony with nature’.
- Tradition in Modernity
Araisara started out as a couture label but meanwhile also offers ladies ready-to-wear collections. Araisara cooperates closely with traditional hand-dyers who used to work exclusively for the kimono industry. Today, these dyeing and weaving techniques are rarely used and about to die out. The designer’s aim is to modernise the traditional hand-dyer’s craft and thus give it a place in the world of contemporary fashion.
ECOMACO is the pioneer among Japan’s sustainable fashion labels. Established in 1989, it held its first fashion show at a waste incinerating plant and has since made a name for itself as a pioneer in the use and development of new materials: silk-quality linen; variations on the linen theme using the stems of sugar cane, vine and bamboo; or fibres from corn starch. True to the Cradle-to-Cradle concept – all of the above are compostable.
- Classics Made in Japan
The ReRacs concept is based on the idea of one single ‘design classic per season’. Design classics are taken apart, reconstructed, then put back together again into a new design and integrated into the collection. Everything from the material to the finished product is produced in Japan. ‘Made in Japan’ is an important part of the brand’s identity.
High-tech and tradition, together with the obligatory pinch of nationalism, are the three most important characteristics in the discussion about sustainability in textiles in Japan. Although what has been achieved at the technological level is ground-breaking, manufacturers as well as designers have to battle an almost a complete lack of public recognition and appreciation especially among consumers in the shopping malls.