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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.
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.
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.
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
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
In parallel, YKK introduced a new waterless zipper-dyeing technology called
ECO-DYEⓇ, which greatly reduces the amount of water used in the
The finished recycled ocean plastic zippers met YKK’s high quality standards and
resulted in the successful launch of the NautulonⓇ Ocean Sourced™
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.
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.
Published Aug 4, 2020 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Rob Ianelli is founder & President of Oceanworks, the global marketplace for recycled ocean plastic products and materials.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.