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Revolutionary materials made in Japan

Article - April 27, 2017

Textiles and chemical companies develop next generation materials that aim to promote a more sustainable future


Japan’s efforts to revive a stagnant economy have encompassed sectors across all categories, from food and beverages, to technology and infrastructure. The apparel fashion industry is faced with the same challenge of diversifying and innovating to meet changing consumer needs. An aging population has put a focus on more comfortable and casual clothing, presenting a challenge for designers who are geared more towards fashion.

Japan has been a leader of style on the runways for decades already, inspiring trends around the world. As Sidney Toledano, Chief Executive of Christian Dior reminded us earlier this year, “It was the Japanese clients who launched the vogue for accessories in the 1970s and 1980s, by buying bags on their journeys to Europe.”

Designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe and Issey Miyake have influenced fashion in Paris, Milan and New York. But in Japan, the ageing population trend means that fewer people are interested in buying fashion forward clothing or need to buy new work attire.

Changing trends however leave room for innovation and noticeable efforts like the ‘Cool Biz’ campaign, which encourages people to wear lightweight clothing in summer to reduce the need for high consumption of air conditioning, are seeing the day. Less energy use in offices saves on cost for companies and has been especially useful after natural disasters, like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused electricity shortages. The campaign has been effective and emulated by entities like the United Nations in 2008.

Monozukuri: craftsmanship engrained in Japanese DNA

Japan’s textile industry is also making positive changes with a longer-term focus. Business leaders in Japan know the importance of innovation for a sustainable future and are pushing for a concentration on more environmentally efficient materials. Using all components of the materials and improving on the production process to reduce waste are also part of the new process introduced.

What’s more, companies are working to optimize technology and make production more cost effective. The WholeGarment system is patented by manufacturing company Shima Seiki and has the ability to create a seam-free garment in a half an hour by just pushing a button. Now, one worker can operate ten machines, lowering the labor costs in an economy that is struggling to find workers.

Keeping production in Japan means designers can work with confidence that their designs will be carried out to the desired perfection. The idea that Japanese quality cannot be beat is very strong within this sector too. Knitware designer Motohiro Tanji told Agence France-Press, “It’s easier for me to work with Japanese manufacturers. My designs are complicated and demand a high level of technical skill which I can find here.”

This may explain why the knitwear sector, which has experienced a 40% upturn in exports since 2006, is capitalizing on this kind of technology and seems to be stabilizing while others struggle to reinvent their products and designs.  
Through the new technology and development of innovative materials, companies in Japan are influencing the scope of apparel and textiles for more sustainability that will hopefully have an impact. Around 800 companies now use the WholeGarment system, including manufacturers in Italy. Implementing the use of new machinery has earned Shima Seiki nearly 60% market share globally for knitting machines.

Innovative technology is only increasing the potential for diversified exports from Japan as impressive new materials are being released. Compared with other water retentive blocks marketed currently, ‘Greenbiz’ is a material that is capable of absorbing water, then slowly releasing it to evaporate. This process cools athletes like runners in an effective way and will hopefully be seen at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games. The fabric dyeing company in the Ishikawa Prefecture responsible for producing this sustainable, energy conserving material is Komatsu Seiren.

It develops fabrics for sportswear, fashion clothing and household goods and many of their materials may be in some of the items you used today. The company’s annual production of rolled fabric with a width of one meter is five times the earth’s circumference in length and with 15% share in the market of Japanese textile production, their innovative materials are being utilized in numerous products.

‘Greenbiz’ is a foam ceramic material that is made of the biomass cake that is discharged during the cloth dyeing process. For the purpose of achieving zero emissions, Komatsu Seiren is using plenty of water in the production processes such as textile dying. By repurposing these leftovers, it has created a material that is used completely, even putting the residual pieces and dust to use as soil improvement agents.

President and Chief Operating Officer Tetsuo Ikeda explains, “For us, our technologies should allow us to tackle old problems from new angles. In this regard, we have created for instance a new material for umbrellas, which makes our umbrellas the most water repellent umbrellas in the world. It is quite amazing actually: the umbrella gets wet, you shake it off once and it’s completely dry! It is presently a luxury item and sells for about 5,000 yen ($50) on the market.”

“For us, our technologies should allow us to tackle old problems from new angles. In this regard, we have created for instance a new material for umbrellas, which makes our umbrellas the most water repellent umbrellas in the world”
Tetsuo Ikeda, President and COO, Komatsu Seiren

Komatsu Seiren produces multiple other highly functional fabrics that are used in a variety of ways. ‘Trient’, for example, is a mosquito repellent material that fends off pesky flying insects as well as fleas and ticks, while ‘Lumifresh’, is an antimicrobial material that helps prevent the growth of bacteria on fibers, so wet laundry and clothes smell better. Their ‘Aller-Beat BR’ material has anti-allergenic functions and is both water repellent and resistant to the adhesion of pollen and dust.

Founded in 2007, the new-generation biomaterial being produced at Spiber is the result of over 10 years of study of spider silks, a substance that is 340 times tougher than steel. Kazuhide Sekiyama, Founder, Director and Representative Executive Officer, comments, “Protein materials have a lot of potential in general, especially spider silk as it is the toughest known material in nature. It has the potential to replace a lot of materials that are being used right now, like nylon.”

In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face and has begun prototyping outdoor products. “We have a team called the material hunting team: they go out and find spiders and they sequence their gene responsible for the creation of its thread. Each spider can make up to seven different kinds of threads, each with a different purpose.”

This kind of research seemed like something out of the future when Mr. Sekiyama began his mission 10 years ago. He stated that, “about 60% of fiber consumption is from petrochemicals. If we do not do something about it soon, it is going to be a big problem for the environment, and we believe that our technology is one of the possible solutions for this problem.”

Technology and environmental concerns are two of the primary forces driving the evolution of the textile industry and young companies are not the only ones taking part in this movement. Many innovations in the sector are actually attributable to 75-year-old company NICCA Chemical, one of the top suppliers of surfactants for the textile industry as they continue to make efforts to reduce factory waste and carbon dioxide production.

Started by the grandfather of current Executive President and Representative Director, Yasumasa Emori, NICCA Chemical has seen many changes over the years. Mr. Emori explains, “We have developed a non-fluorinated product for water repelling. 80% of the product is made from plants and plant-related material, however, it has the best performance in the world.

“We have developed a non-fluorinated product for water repelling. 80% of the product is made from plants and plant-related material, however, it has the best performance in the world”
Yasumasa Emori, Executive President, NICCA Chemical

“Usually fluorine-based water repellants are widely used; however, some environmental organizations are saying the fluorine based products are not environmentally friendly. All the big names like Puma, Adidas, and Uniqlo have followed this opinion and decided not to use them,” says Mr. Emori.

Minimizing environmental impact is a high priority at the company and significant progress has already been made with some processes. Mr. Emori explains, “For example, to be able to dye one kilogram of textile material, it takes about 100 kilograms of water. We have been able to reduce that by 50% and we are working to reduce it further to 70%.”

As progress continues, we can look forward to perhaps seeing some of these advanced materials, like Komatsu Seiren’s ‘Greenbiz’ worn by athletes at the Tokyo Olympics or NICCA’s products in new vehicles. As Mr. Emori says, “We are selling several of our products to American car manufacturers that required our technology after seeing how well it worked with some big-name Japanese automotive manufacturers, to which we are selling our products. At this time, more than 60% of our U.S. sales are going to the automotive industry.” This could be considered quite a success considering how difficult it can be for Japanese companies to enter the U.S. market where many consumers want to buy things that are made in America.

NICCA also develops cosmetic products that have been in the market since the early 1980s when DEMI Cosmetics was launched. With years of knowledge and experience in the textile field, this business venture is poised to compete with competitors because, as Mr. Emori describes, “We are a technology related company. The founder said that we do not sell the product, but we are selling the solutions and the technologies. This philosophy is nothing but our strategy. We have a technology to gently dye silk and another to wash wool, which contain synthetic fibers as well. We have to be careful about how the materials feel, so they are not itchy or hurt the person wearing it. We have had these technologies since the foundation of DEMI, which makes our product strength very obvious to other companies regarding hair care products.”

NICCA recently began construction on their Innovation Center, a concept that consists of 40 employees that meet periodically to make changes in work style and collaborate for research about future innovations in chemicals and products. The development of a center like this is well aligned with the overall movement in Japan to concentrate on innovation for long-term sustainability, economically and environmentally.

Globally, much of the world’s textile manufacturing takes place in Asia and Japan is focused on becoming the provider of the highest quality and most forward-thinking material available in markets all over the world. Whether it’s material made from spider silk or specially designed with organic products, the textiles coming out of Japan are the next generation of innovation.