Photo/IllutrationA warehouse of Shoichi in Osaka is full of boxes of unsold clothes. (Mari Endo)

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A mountain of corrugated boxes filled with knitwear, hoodies, skirts and other garments from popular brands among leading retailing websites is stored at a warehouse of Osaka-based inventory clearance agent Shoichi.

The unused clothing items that would otherwise be thrown away are part of a huge volume of the unsold inventory in Japan that is produced as more fashion products are supplied to the market at much cheaper prices.

According to Shoichi officials, 300,000 to 400,000 garments are usually kept at the storehouse.

“Those goods came here for various reasons, such as being unsold and slightly frayed,” said Shoichi Yamamoto, president of Shoichi. “Some of them have never hit the store shelves.”

Shoichi purchases 5 million items at around 10 percent of their original prices from 600 apparel firms, manufacturing plant operators and other businesses a year. After removing their tags so consumers cannot identify the brands, the garments are sold on Shoichi’s website, event venues and elsewhere.

Although Shoichi makes promotional efforts such as showing photos taken to make the fashion goods appear to be more appealing, the leftovers can be sold at only 17 to 18 percent of their original prices.

However only very lucky garments can arrive in resale agents like Shoichi. Most of the unsold clothing items are simply disposed of without ever being worn.

Hundreds of millions of new fashion items are disposed of annually without being used in Japan, leading to the country’s rampant exploitation of foreign workers.

Behind the trend is a recent tendency among apparel companies to follow suit and provide a vast amount of products at unreasonably low prices, which threatens the lives of those working in the sewing industry.

An industrial waste processing company in Tokyo was recently asked to discard the dead inventory of a famous brand that operates a retail shop in the capital’s posh Ginza district.

“We accepted three truckloads of clothes, footwear, bags and other items,” said a company official. “We were told to pulverize and incinerate all of them.”

The firm was also asked to show photos of the disposal processes so it could be confirmed that all the unsold goods were properly processed.

“If the products are resold through illegal channels, it could damage their brand image,” said the official. “If they are stored at warehouses, they are regarded as assets and subject to being taxed. So they should be incinerated.”

Although there are no statistics on how many new garments are left unsold and discarded annually in Japan, the amount of those articles can be estimated by deducting the number of purchased garments from the total market supply.

The difference between supply and demand is more than 1 billion. As some of the leftovers are resold, garments that are discarded by various means, such as being incinerated as well as pulverized and mixed with plastic for use as fuel, are estimated to total 1 billion a year.

LABOR EXPLOITATION

The fast fashion business model spread in Japan since the 2000s, providing fashionable but cheaper items to the market and enabling consumers to enjoy stylish garments at inexpensive prices.

It has become more common for people to buy clothes through online sites as well.

An economy ministry estimate released in June shows the domestic supply of garments rose to 4 billion items over the past 20 years.

While the figure is double the 2 billion in the bubble era (Japan's asset-inflated economic growth around 1990), the ministry also stated that households’ per-garment spending dropped 40 percent.

Facing increasing competition, apparel corporations began manufacturing their products in Bangladesh and other countries where workers can be employed at lower costs as part of efforts to slash expenses.

Kensuke Kojima, president of Kojima Fashion Marketing, which analyzes the fashion industry, said the overseas expansion has resulted in a surge in the garment supply in Japan.

“Factories in those countries (like Bangladesh) have large-scale facilities and equipment, so they can divide work into many processes to allow even unskilled workers to find jobs there,” Kojima said. “Apparel firms thus have to make large orders. Due to that, the supply has increased drastically though the demand has not grown so much.

“Rival companies’ releasing similar products could lead to a large stock of unsold goods, but it is difficult (for clothing businesses) to reduce the amount of orders later because such orders are signed a few to six months before the sales. Expenses associated with the leftover goods offset the low production costs.”

As a result, workers in the sewing industry not only abroad but also in Japan are forced to work longer hours at further lower rates so clothing firms can curb price increases.

In the Meigi region, which straddles Aichi and Gifu prefectures, and is known as Japan’s leading garment production area, the number of sewing companies dramatically declined as more apparel corporations manufacture their products overseas.

Most workers at plants that can still continue operations there are technical trainees from China and Southeast Asia. Those foreign interns in the sewing industry are more often subject to labor exploitation than in other businesses.

Among such victims is a 32-year-old female intern from Vietnam, who said she “used to dream of working in Japan” while sobbing.

The Vietnamese woman came to Japan three years ago. She borrowed 800,000 yen ($7,188) from a bank and paid it to a broker to work in Japan as a technical intern.

After arriving in Japan, she was ordered to sew one-piece dresses, jackets, T-shirts and other garments for women.

As the president of her company urged the woman to hurry her work, saying the products being sewn have to be “delivered tomorrow,” she worked from before 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later every day.

She had only two or three days off a month.

She initially thought she “can pay back the debt soon if working in Japan” and intended to send a certain amount of money to her family each month. However she received only 30,000 yen in wages for her first month.

Although her monthly salary rose to 110,000 yen in the second month, no wages were paid for two consecutive months from the third month. She told her mother that “the president did not pay her salary” but her mother did not believe that.

The sewing firm went bankrupt last autumn, and the woman returned to Vietnam in July this year. Although she is calling on the Japanese government to pay her an amount equivalent to the unpaid salary, whether she can receive the wages is still unclear.

The technical intern training program was introduced in 1993 to transfer skills and knowledge to developing countries through on-the-job training. But the mechanism is criticized for being used to secure cheap labor.

According to the Justice Ministry, the number of foreign interns continues rising every year to 274,000 by the end of last year, 26,000 of whom were involved in the sewing industry.

While 183 trainee employers were accused by the ministry last year of not paying wages, forcing interns to work excessively and engaging in other improper acts, sewing firms accounted for about half of those malicious businesses.

A man who runs a sewing corporation in Meigi cited financial difficulties as to why he exploited interns.

“As clothes are now available for lower prices, there is no choice but to take advantage of low-wage trainees so we can make products based on the cheap fees apparel firms provide,” the man said.

His company was accused by the labor standards inspection office last year of forcing trainees to work below the minimum wage. Although the interns received only 400 yen per hour, they had to work 200 hours of overtime a month in busy months.

The man’s firm was commissioned to produce garments for fashion businesses through a broker, but the number of orders drastically decreased as apparel companies moved their production outside Japan.

“I want both apparel makers and consumers to consider how much costs manufacturing requires,” he said. “Someone is sacrificed when garments are sold at much cheaper prices.”

RESPONSIBILITY OF APPAREL FIRMS

Calls are growing globally for questioning the social responsibility of clothing companies.

After a sewing plant in Bangladesh collapsed five years ago, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, the issue of terrible working conditions in the industry came under the spotlight.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2017 called on apparel companies to take measures to address risks associated with work conditions and environmental protection so the target of “decent work and economic growth” in the United Nations' sustainable development goals can be achieved.

Yoko Ohara, who has long been involved in the fashion industry and famous for having introduced the words “fashion business” in Japan, said the current business model of apparel firms is not sustainable.

“It is impossible to continue producing and discarding a large amount of low-price products forever,” she said.

“Consumers are becoming interested in not only how much products are but whether they are produced in a proper way. Companies, to continue their business, need to seriously think of how to realize better methods for employees and the environment.”

(This article was written by Kazuyo Nakamura and Satsuki Fujita.)