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It takes 15 gallons of water to distress a pair of jeans. Uniqlo is trying to change that

Creating a stonewashed or distressed look on a single pair of jeans requires 15 gallons of water. Uniqlo, which makes upwards of a million pairs every year, wants to cut down on this water consumption.

Last year, the Japanese retailer opened a Jeans Innovation Center in Los Angeles to develop more eco-friendly approaches to manufacturing jeans. Today, it unveils its first major innovation: BlueCycle, a new manufacturing process that uses 99% less water in the finishing process, which softens and distresses denim. Given Uniqlo’s enormous scale—its parent company is the world’s most valuable clothing retailer—this new approach could have a large impact. Still, given the perilous state of the planet, it’s worth asking whether incremental improvements like this are enough.

BlueCycle is Uniqlo’s effort to catch up to its peers. At the Jeans Innovation Center, technology and materials experts have been experimenting with equipment that will cut down on water usage throughout the finishing process. Fast Retailing is a $5.96 billion company with a complex global supply chain, which means the company needs solutions that it can quickly and realistically apply across its factories, according to Jean-Emmanuel Shein, Uniqlo’s director of corporate social responsibility. “We’re focusing on what is feasible at scale,” he says. “We’re interested in approaches that do not require highly specialized resources to achieve and can be done in different countries.”

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