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ESG Outlook: Jim Reed of YKK Corp. of America on its ‘Cycle of Goodness’

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Jim Reed, president of YKK Corp. of America, discusses how he is leveraging science and innovation to achieve personal and professional sustainability goals. 

Name: Jim Reed

Title: President

Company: YKK Corporation of America

Jim Reed YKK
Jim Reed, president, YKK Corporation of America Courtesy

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years? 

I’m most excited about the work our new Sustainability Department is doing. The department, which reports directly to the president of YKK Corporation in Tokyo, is focused on environmental stewardship, valuing all stakeholders and practicing good corporate governance. These values have been at the bedrock of YKK since our earliest days, when our founder outlined his “Cycle of Goodness” philosophy. In the past two years, YKK has signed the fashion industry charter for climate action; launched the Sustainability Vision 2050, our roadmap to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050; signed the letter to the Biden administration in support of a 2030 emissions reduction target pursuant to the Paris Agreement; and had our greenhouse gas reduction targets approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative. Our Environmental Pledge, signed in 1994, stated that “harmony with the environment” is the highest priority of YKK’s business activities. Our new Sustainability Department is holding us accountable for following through on that commitment.  

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How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

All of us as consumers have a desire and an obligation to support ‘good’ companies and manufacturers. Businesses will respond to what their customers want, so I try to be part of the consumer force sending the signal to companies to be good stewards of their influence. Understanding Levi’s commitment to social justice and learning about Patagonia’s commitment to equity and environmental governance makes me want to purchase more of their products.

What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes? 

One, if it has a zipper on it, then it better say ‘YKK!’ Two, I like higher quality, more durable products, so I buy fewer items that last longer (e.g., Carhartt pants and jackets or American Giant sweatshirts). Three, I like clothing with a story over the fashion of the day.

How do you try to minimize the environmental impact of the clothes you buy? 

I purchased a jacket for my son the other day that was made from Unifi’s Reprieve polyester. I like the idea of buying clothes made from recycled material. Of course, with three teenagers, we hand a lot of clothing down and around. If we cannot reuse it ourselves, we donate to charity or Goodwill. Clothes do not get thrown out at our house.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry? 

I used to travel by plane a lot. During Covid-19, I learned that much can be done remotely, and going forward our team will minimize travel knowing that international flights generate a lot of CO2. We are also implementing permanent work-from-home policies that will reduce daily commuting emissions.

What is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion? 

There is considerable confusion about what “sustainable fashion” means. Using recycled material is a critical step, but there is a lot more that can be done to minimize the total environmental impact of a piece of apparel.

Consumers should arm themselves as conscious stewards of the planet to understand more about the clothes they buy. How was the item produced? Was the energy used in the production process renewable? How much water was consumed in the item’s production? Were hazardous chemicals used in the fabrics and trims? Was the product packaging sustainable? Were the workers who made the item paid fair wages and treated ethically in a safe work environment? Does the manufacturer comply with local and international laws? Do they use suppliers who also manufacture in a sustainable way?

We have been using our publications, blog and social media channels to highlight the considerable effort that goes into making a truly sustainable product.  

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis? 

We need to speed up our time-to-market for new products and innovations and ramp up sustainability efforts. To achieve this, globally we are investing a total of 5 billion yen in sustainability and digitization over the next four years. Digitization efforts include creating a Technology Innovation Center, establishing a Digital Business Planning Department, and launching a Digital Showroom. Regarding sustainability, we are committed to a 50 percent reduction of emissions from a 2018 baseline year by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Our emissions reduction targets were approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) in March 2021.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

We are excited about improving fashion circularity through TouchLink, the first near-field communication (NFC) enabled zipper. YKK’s TouchLink is one of the first commercially viable solutions for durable and washable embedded physical solutions for digital enablement of connected apparel. Without a way to connect to products across their lifecycles, brands have historically lost control of their products and connectivity with their customers after initial sale. Now, by simply touching their mobile phones to the TouchLink zipper pull, consumers can instantly connect to brands online to access curated use- and care-guides, service and support, and opportunities to explore and co-create circular ways of life.

YKK has partnered with product cloud platform EON and circular sportswear brand Houdini on Houdini’s digitized One Parka, which is the first product to feature the Touchlink zipper pull and the first parka to be connected end-to-end by the EON Product Cloud. Houdini, EON, and YKK are together committing to sharing the processes and toolkit with the apparel industry, in the hopes of encouraging more brands to digitize products and create scalable systems for circular commerce.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

The industry needs to pay more attention to the sustainability of its entire supply chain to avoid greenwashing. Consumers will see through it. A growing number of multinational companies are pledging to work only with suppliers who meet certain environmental and social standards, which is key to achieving true sustainability.

We also need to incorporate more 3D digitalization into the supply chain. This will not only improve the form and fit of the garments, but also support sustainable initiatives by reducing the number of physical samples produced and shipped around the world for buyer review.