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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
How a Classic Brand Is Tackling the Marine Plastic Problem

Zipper giant YKK Group has used recycled PET yarns in the woven tape of its Natulon® zippers since 1994. But when it wanted to help address the challenge of ocean plastic, the company saw it as an opportunity to get creative.

Like many of the everyday miracles we take for granted, the zipper is an unheralded invention that is an integral part of the clothing we wear and the bags we carry. Without zippers, our belongings would be falling on the floor… and our pants along with them.

The YKK Group is the world’s largest manufacturer of zippers. The Japanese firm started in 1934, but it wasn’t until the shift from stitching zippers by hand to machine automation that the company rapidly expanded. By the 1960s, it was servicing the US market, and now it is the largest supplier of zippers and other fasteners to the US.

An environmental awakening

In 1994, YKK established the YKK Environmental Charter. This early commitment to sustainability stated: “It is recognized today as being a most important duty for all humankind that we preserve the abundantly endowed global environment and that we transfer it to the next generation in a sound condition. Striving to be an Earth-friendly company, The YKK Group proclaims that it will address and promote ‘harmony within the environment’ as the highest priority of its business activities.”

In practice, this has meant that YKK has focused as much on the environmental impact of its manufacturing process and input materials as the quality of the finished goods themselves. YKK has consistently sought opportunities to reduce energy consumption, limit carbon emissions, and leverage recycled materials. The decision to lead by being first to incorporate recycled ocean plastic into fasteners is a perfect example of the company’s commitment to transforming its business to align with the principles of the Charter.

Zipping toward sustainability

While the metal teeth and pull tabs of zippers are the most prominent part of this omnipresent fastener, zipper construction also includes the woven tape the teeth are attached to — the attachment point that connects the zipper to the garment or bag — and it is here that YKK saw the opportunity to get creative. 

To adequately withstand the stress of frequent zipping and unzipping, the woven tape must be made from a very high-quality yarn. YKK has used recycled PET yarns in the woven tape of its Natulon® zippers since 1994. Looking to address the challenge of ocean plastic, the company began to explore options to use it in its woven tape.

An aquatic endeavor

Recycled ocean plastic not only offers the energy and carbon savings of recycled materials broadly, it also averts plastic waste en route to marine environments. YKK was willing to put in the work to explore this new material and partnered with Oceanworks to identify sources and validate options. Through this partnership, YKK not only found a new recycled PET source close to its manufacturing facilities — minimizing the carbon footprint of the transportation — but also could be confident in the authenticity of the ocean plastic, thanks to chain-of-custody tracking from Oceanworks. In parallel, YKK introduced a new waterless zipper-dyeing technology called ECO-DYEⓇ, which greatly reduces the amount of water used in the zipper-dyeing process. 

The finished recycled ocean plastic zippers met YKK’s high quality standards and resulted in the successful launch of the NautulonⓇ Ocean Sourced™ Zipper at the ISPO trade show in Munich in January 2020. These innovations put YKK at the forefront of sustainable apparel and luggage manufacturing, and allow YKK to offer more sustainable options to its customers.

Setting a course for the future

2020 marked the announcement of YKK joining the UN’s Fashion Charter for Climate Action, and the launch of the company's Environmental Vision 2050. The plan commits them to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero; along with minimizing water and chemical usage, and eliminating all production waste. And, of course, this plan aligns with YKK’s continued quest to source materials as responsibly as possible, including utilizing more recycled material.