June 13, 2012
Innovation comes in many forms and in the case of Ikeuchi Towel, the company specializes in making probably the world’s most eco-friendly towels and related items. Each Ikeuchi product is woven from fair-trade organic cotton, with all electricity used in the manufacturing process supplied by wind power.
Over the past 60 years, Ikeuchi Towel Co., Ltd., based in Ehime, Shikoku, has built an impressive reputation for its pure, high-quality towels, bathrobes and other items both in Japan and abroad. While it may seem like there is a limit to just how much innovation can be applied to the manufacturing of towels, Ikeuchi continues to push the envelope, as can be seen from its current lineup of green products.
This innovation extends to the company’s use of electricity, 100% of which is sourced under Japan’s Green Power Certification System from Noshiro Wind Farm in Akita in the north of the country. Ikeuchi has calculated that one of its bath towels requires around 1 kW of electricity to weave, generating 473 g of CO2 if the power is produced by a conventional facility. Given that it uses up to 400,000 kW of electricity a year, this represents a significant reduction in CO2 emissions.
Obviously no item can be considered truly “green” unless it is produced in an eco-friendly process using sustainable organic materials. While Ikeuchi naturally conducts its own testing to ensure safety, it has taken the extra step of gaining Class 1 certification under the Oeko-Tex Standard, the only uniform global testing system that assesses all elements of the textile manufacturing process from the raw materials through to the end product.
Sourcing organic cotton
Although Ikeuchi has full control over production quality in Japan, the process must start with the procuring of certified organic cotton
from the international market. This is essential as standard production techniques for cotton use high volumes of chemicals both to grow the raw fiber and then later to bleach and prepare it for weaving.
To ensure its yarn is free from harmful substances, Ikeuchi has partnered with Remei AG, one of the world’s largest organic cotton distributors. Remei set up BioRe Tanzania, an organization committed to improving the livelihood of small-hold farmers by training and supporting them as they grow certified organic cotton. The farmers are given a premium on standard market prices as well as a purchase guarantee, in an effort to create long-term financial security.
BioRe Tanzania is part of the larger BioRe Foundation, which also operates a variety of farmer support programs. These include employment creation, in which the foundation provides the machines and workspaces for setting up sewing businesses, and provision of clean water, in which it drills wells and supplies pumps and storage tanks. The foundation also actively promotes education and is involved in constructing teacher housing and locating qualified instructors. It also helps to build kitchens with adequate smoke ventilation, a major health issue in developing countries.
Maintaining genuine quality
The Ikeuchi company is fully committed to the policies of Remei and the BioRe organization. It consistently purchases its cotton through this supply chain and the company’s current president, Keishi Ikeuchi, has himself traveled to Africa to visit BioRe Tanzania. Mr. Ikeuchi has also recently developed the idea of selling limited edition towels made with 100% Tanzania organic cotton to both support the famers and promote environmentally friendly production.
At the heart of Ikeuchi’s approach is the Japanese concept of “monozukuri,” or manufacturing with craftsmanship. According to Mr. Ikeuchi, “Whenever I work abroad, I always feel the idea of monozukuri still holds great value. Japanese themselves are extremely demanding consumers so I’m sure if we can produce quality items that meet their standards, they will be welcome around the world. It is just that our confidence is a little shaken at the moment and we lack the power to make a serious commitment.”
With this in mind, Mr. Ikeuchi has been actively promoting the idea of overseas expansion to other business leaders. He has also drawn on his company’s considerable resources to support recovery efforts in areas crippled by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. This could all seem rather “traditional” in today’s business environment – if it were not for Ikeuchi’s innovative use of green energy and procurement. However you categorize it, it is an approach that has seen this cutting-edge traditionalist prosper where many others have failed.