JEPLAN: changing the face of sustainable fashion
In the latest in our series profiling graduates of the Unreasonable Impact programme, we talk to Masaki Takao, Co-Founder and CEO of clothes recycler JEPLAN, about how the company is changing the face of fashion, its mission to achieve a circular economy – and how a scarf made using its technology became an official Japanese government gift at the G20.
Where we’re going, we don’t need roads, but old clothes will certainly be useful. At least that’s the message that clothes recycling group JEPLAN gave when it created a replica of the DeLorean time-travelling car used in the 1980s film Back to the Future – but this time powered by recycled t-shirts rather than weapons-grade plutonium.
“The DeLorean project contributed to us building our presence in the market,” says JEPLAN Co-Founder and CEO Masaki Takao. He adds that Back to The Future fans were only allowed to sit in the car if they brought some old clothing along to fuel it – illustrating the core value of JEPLAN itself: ‘Circulate Everything’.
With interest in recycling and sustainability at an all-time high, JEPLAN’s founders do not need to time travel to find success. The company was founded in 2007 to recycle clothing into biofuel. Although the initial model involved changing cotton into bioethanol, its main concern now is breaking down polyester molecules from old clothes and recycling them into pellets that can be used to make new products.
The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and fast fashion expansion wouldn’t be possible without the rising use of polyester, which is relatively cheap and easily available and is now used in 60% of the world’s garments
Co-Founder and CEO, JEPLAN
“We switched from cotton to polyester to minimise our dependence on fossil fuels,” Takao explains. “The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and fast fashion expansion wouldn’t be possible without the rising use of polyester, which is relatively cheap and easily available and is now used in 60% of the world’s garments. Emissions of CO2 for polyester in clothing – at 282bn kg in 2015 – are nearly three times higher than those for cotton. We believe recycling polyester is key to minimising textile waste and CO2 emissions.”
The company has grown from two founders with 1.2m yen and a dream of ridding the world of textile-related trash into a US $24m dollar company with 80 employees, recycling clothes in thousands of stores across Japan. Now JEPLAN hopes to take its technology across the world.
JEPLAN is a successful graduate of Barclays’ Unreasonable Impact programme, a worldwide network of accelerators dedicated to scaling growth-stage entrepreneurs whose ventures have the potential to employ thousands worldwide while solving some of our most pressing societal and environmental challenges.
Takao says the programme has been vital for the company in terms of securing contacts and investment for expansion.
“I met so many other entrepreneurs from around the world who do different and amazing things. It was a great experience to talk to them regarding startup management. I made friends from India, China, Dubai and the US. So I now have a network of friends who are entrepreneurs around the world. I also met senior people working in investment banking at Barclays, which was really exciting.”
He adds: “By connecting me to a number of mentors and strategic partners, Barclays has helped us to build a wide network of supporters. These relationships are really important at the scale-up stage of a company because if you have a problem, you can call another entrepreneur who's also had the same experience.”
Eventually, we hope to achieve a circular economy. We believe this continuous system, including collecting, recycling, producing and selling, could lead the way as a future sustainable business model for the fashion industry and, eventually, all other industries
Co-Founder and CEO, JEPLAN
Never in the trash
While JEPLAN is yet to become a household name in the UK, followers of fashion in Japan are already familiar with the company’s ‘Bring’ clothing collection boxes, which are now in thousands of stores.
The BRING Project uses the clothing donated by consumers to create new clothes, thanks to its chemical recycling process.
Explaining the technology behind the process, Takao explains: “We depolymerize polyester using ethylene glycol, and have monomers called BHET to purify it which is a breakthrough technology. After purifying the BHET, we polymerize and produce recycled polyester pellets.”
BRING already works with over 80 brands, including Muji, The North Face and Patagonia, where ‘post consumer’ clothing is donated to be recycled.
“We strongly believe the more people join BRING, the more our society can be sustainable,” says Takao. “The products will keep circulating and never end up in landfills and incineration.” The company has also worked with McDonald’s in Japan, where it recycled the company’s Happy Meal toys into new trays for the restaurants.
“Eventually, we hope to achieve a circular economy,” Takao says. “We believe this continuous system, including collecting, recycling, producing and selling, could lead the way as a future sustainable business model for the fashion industry and, eventually, all other industries.”
JEPLAN on the world stage
Through Unreasonable Impact, Barclays leverages its ability to convene people from around the world and provides a gobal platform to support participating companies.
JEPLAN presented at the first ever Unreasonable Impact World Forum and it seems the company’s philosophy is already striking a chord with world leaders, as they grapple with the climate crisis and the impact of plastic waste in the oceans.
Japan’s first lady, Akie Abe, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs presented a scarf made from marine waste by JEPLAN as a gift to fellow First Spouses at the G20 in Osaka this June. Takao presented the same scarf to the French President, Emmanuel Macron.
The company also gave a presentation to the G7 in France about its chemical recycling, as one of the representatives of Japanese companies with cutting-edge technology.
The company’s plans to grow overseas will be helped by the contacts Takao has made during the Unreasonable Impact programme. JEPLAN is planning to establish recycling factories in France, Taiwan and the US: “We want our company to become global and impact not only Japan but the US, Europe and Asia,” says Takao.
The JEPLAN Co-Founder said the Unreasonable Impact programme has given the company the chance to think global. He has already visited several of the other participants of the Barclays programme in their own countries, and now believes that his company’s global expansion could have a huge environmental impact worldwide.
“If we can expand our business and change the supply chain of fashion, we believe we can reduce the dependence on petroleum in the fashion industry.”
That’s an aim that even Back to the Future’s Doc Brown would be proud of.