A leotard from Yumiko is something nearly every dancer wants and almost serves as a status symbol in the dance world. From choosing one of dozens of styles, seemingly endless colors for separate parts, the cut of the leg, and the sleeve length, crafting one of these leotards can be a serious and daunting task. Once these decisions have been made, you wait 2 months for your new favorite creation that has been sewn to order. Finally, you get to show off your hard work and creativity to your fellow dancers. This is a process I have been through a few times, and it is quite exhilarating. The idea of a made to order leotard sounds so exclusive, but the environmental benefits of eliminating mass production should be equally as enticing. The fact that the consumer can know exactly where in Spain this leotard is made and that it is manufactured ethically is another great element. Unfortunately, the excitement ends here. The negative social and environmental impacts of the conventional fabrics used start to distract from the good being done through their other practices. The most important next steps would be to switch to alternative fabrics that are less damaging and then lower the price so that more people can afford sustainable leotard options. Nearly 20 years after the company’s founding, it is time to make some more drastic changes that really improve their sustainability. There is no doubt that they have enough of an audience and the ability to make a noticeable impact.
The large majority of leotards are made of either nylon or cotton, but Yumiko allows dancers to choose from nylon, techni, microfiber, and velvet. Techni is just nylon with a matte finish, so there are really only three distinct materials used here. Depending on what the customer has chosen, it may be comprised of any combination of these fabrics. As half of the options are nylon, let’s begin with an assessment of its environmental impacts. The production of nylon starts with oil, which is then converted into a polymer and later a sheet of nylon. This sheet is cut, melted, and shaped into fibers that can be woven into fabric. This process not only supports the coal and petroleum industries, but also emits nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide. This also requires an extreme amount of water and energy. This leads to contamination, pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming. After it has been used, nylon products are not biodegradable. Although not as common as nylon, microfiber and velvet have their downsides as well. Microfiber is made of oil or natural gas that is turned into plastic, spun into fibers, and weaved into fabric. Due to the fact that it is made of plastic, small fragments called microplastics are released into the water system when microfiber is washed. These pieces cause pollution and are swallowed by marine creatures. Additionally, microfiber is not biodegradable. Regarding velvet, it can be made from many different materials, so its impacts vary. One possibility is polyester, which is derived from oil and made of plastic. This is a water intensive process and the product is not biodegradable. Once manufactured into velvet, it is usually covered with stain repellents. This and the dying of polyester involves many chemicals that can be damaging to the environment. Velvet can also be made of viscose (a cheaper alternative to silk) or bamboo, but these have their own negative impacts. If velvet is manufactured by the traditional method that uses silk, it is still not sustainable. There are issues that arise around the ethics of silk and the treatment of silkworms, and child labor has been present in the silk industry. There are effective alternatives to all of these fabrics - nylon, microfiber, and velvet - but Yumiko does not use these. They mention not using fabrics with unsustainably-produced inks or dyes, but their sustainability could be drastically improved by replacing these harmful materials.
The production process itself is a little more redeeming than the materials used. Yumiko sells pieces that are ready to wear, but much of the draw to this company is their made-to-order pieces. Even the products that are ready to wear are part of limited collections, so there is no mass production. All of these collections are designed by the founder Yumiko Takeshima, and are created in their workshop in Southern Spain. This is a relatively small workshop that contributes to the local economy and runs on 100% green energy. They have been awarded the Business Innovation Award from the Andalusian Provincial Government Delegation of Seville, and the Employee Training Award by the Seville Chamber of Commerce. Social sustainability appears to be one of the company’s biggest priorities. A benefit to only having one workshop is the ability to ensure that practices are following their standards. Having employees in the United States, Europe, and Japan, they do not allow any part of the production process to be outsourced to countries that do not protect workers’ rights or the environment. They state that all of their employees are paid fair wages, work appropriate hours, and have full healthcare and pension benefits. The people who actually make the pieces are under contracts that comply with European labor laws. Additionally, these workers are given holiday time off, paid leave time, and a percentage of company profits. It is nice to see that they are sharing this information, but elements such as fair wages and hours could be subjective, and there is no published report that could prove that these are not just broad statements. In terms of the actual fabric used, all of them are chosen from EU suppliers who work under European Union standards. These standards mostly apply to transparency of what materials the fabric is composed of. Any garments and waste fabrics that are leftover are recycled or donated to dance schools. Finally, shipping is the last major step in the production process. Their packages use 100% recycled or compostable materials. They also have cornstarch pouches for the product, plant-derived tape, and 100% recycled mailers.
The Daria leotard is just one of many styles of leotard made by the company Yumiko. Former professional ballet dancer Yumiko Takeshima founded the company in 2002 with the goal to create high quality, long lasting, and great fitting dancewear. The prioritization of longevity is reflected in the price, which they try to keep competitive with other leotard producers. They also recognize, though, that the human and environmental costs of clothing production should be reflected in the price of the item. The Daria leotard can range from $75-105, depending on the desired fabric combination and additions like a bust panel or front lining. This is certainly on the more expensive side for a leotard, but at least the consumer knows they are purchasing an item that will last for many years. Beyond the quality, the price would be more justified if the fabrics were made of sustainable materials. They have taken more direct action towards social responsibility as opposed to environmental sustainability, but they are taking some small steps and have plans for future improvements. For example, in 2018 Yumiko stopped printing annual catalogues in order to reduce waste, and created keepsake style books instead. They know where they could be doing better, and are researching how to deal with the waste and by-products from the production of nylon. They are also trying to find the most efficient use for their pieces of fabric waste. This is great to hear, but it would be even better if they discussed wanting to replace their traditional fabrics with sustainable alternatives. The company does have two certifications that are worth mentioning. The first is a Platinum Certification by the Green Business Bureau. This means they have completed enough greening initiatives to reach 400 EcoPoints. These initiatives are rated on environmental impact, in addition to implementation cost and effort. Yumiko is also a member of 1% for the Planet. This is a global movement of more than 3000 members who give 1% of their sales to nonprofit partners who align with their values and help protect the earth.