Editor’s note: This commentary is written by YKK Corp. of America President Jim Reed and published as part of the company’s annual sponsorship of Global Atlanta’s Japan coverage.
The Business Roundtable, America’s most influential group of corporate leaders, made headlines last August when it redefined the purpose of corporations, saying they should exist not only to profit shareholders but also to benefit all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers and communities.
This “radically different” statement got quite a bit of press coverage, but at YKK, our question is: “What took so long?”
For the past 85 years, we have been guided by our founder Tadao Yoshida’s philosophy that “No one prospers without rendering benefit to others.” We call this the Cycle of Goodness.
Rather than simply making money, YKK’s goal has always been to use our ingenuity to create new value for our customers, which will lead to their success and allow us to reinvest in our employees, our company, and the local community.
Since becoming one of the first Japanese firms to invest in Georgia in the 1970s, we have put our money where our mouth is, as it were.
One major test came in the 1990s, when the textile industry in the South was uprooted in the face of changing global value chains. We faced the question of whether to leave behind our vertically integrated factories and hundreds of Georgia employees. We chose to adapt and stay, largely because we felt responsible for supporting our community and because we had confidence our employees’ abilities to overcome these challenges of change.
But even before the 1990s, tracing back to the factory’s origins, we had already embraced sustainable design and manufacturing principles.
‘Factory in a Forest’
Indeed, in addition to Georgia’s friendly business environment and supportive then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, Mr. Yoshida’s attraction to Macon came from his dream of building a “factory in a forest.”
YKK first purchased 54 acres of land in Ocmulgee East Industrial Park and 250 wooded acres of land in Chestney Park to create a factory environment in harmony with nature.
YKK issued its first “Environmental Pledge” in 1994, which states that harmony within the environment is YKK’s highest business priority. In that same year, YKK launched the NATULON® zipper made from recycled plastic bottles.
We continue to be a pioneer in eco-friendly fastening products, recently launching GreenRise™, the first zipper in the industry to use plant-derived polyester made from molasses, and the NATULON® Ocean Sourced™ zipper, the first zipper made from ocean-bound plastic.
YKK also works to continuously reduce carbon emissions in its manufacturing processes. For example, YKK’s ECO-DYE® dyeing technology has completely eliminated the use of water in the dyeing process, and in 2015, we installed solar panels on the roof of our Anaheim, Calif., facility, which to date has offset 1,614 tons of CO2.
Just a few weeks back, YKK became one of the 100+ signatories to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which supports the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement while enacting specific commitments from the fashion sector, including cutting industry emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Innovating During Tough Times
Controlling emissions from a working a factory is never easy, even when times are good and sales are strong. When external shocks rock the industry and sales slow, a company’s commitment to sustainability is even more challenged.
YKK realized Mr. Yoshida’s dream of a vertically integrated manufacturing facility in Macon. Having grown from a zipper distributor in New York City in 1960 to an assembly operation with multiple small-scale assembly plants around the U.S. by the mid-1970s, the Georgia complex became one more manifestation of the “Cycle of Goodness,” enabling YKK to serve the local community and deliver the highest quality at the lowest cost.
But it was not all smooth sailing. When YKK first was considering building a factory in the United States, approximately 95 percent of the garments sold in this country were made here. With a U.S. textile agreement with China in 1993 and its entry into the WTO in 2001, the global supply chain shifted, and most of YKK’s apparel customers left the region.
Some corporations would have packed up and left, but the “Cycle of Goodness” again guided us to do otherwise. We asked our employees to join us as we pivoted in a new direction, creating industry groups and reassigning our sales, marketing, and product-development staff in new directions.
Today, YKK is a primary provider of highly technical products and solutions to such diverse industries as automotive, space, personal protective equipment and tactical gear. Our products save people’s lives.
Our growth in these high tech industries helped us recover from the loss in the apparel sector. YKK’s plants in Macon now manufacture more than 65,000 miles of fastening products annually and export products to 40 countries.
And we have expanded beyond the fastening industry. In 1992, we began extruding aluminum products for commercial office buildings in our Dublin, Ga., facility and vinyl windows and doors for residential use in Macon. YKK AP America has over 1 million square feet of manufacturing space in this state and ships to all 48 states in the continental U.S.
A Happier Society
The Cycle of Goodness has shaped our company to drive for a higher purpose. We are making the best zippers in the world to fulfill the purpose of “manufacturing to contribute to a happier society.”
That notion of this broader role in society is resonating today, with business groups all over the world now realizing that our vision of capitalism must look beyond the imperatives of quarterly financial statements.
Society, and our employees, expect us to do more than merely make quality products. We must add value to our customers’ lives, while at the same time help our own employees find their higher purpose. We must strive to be a good corporate citizen and better the lives of the people in our communities, driving sustainable in every area of our operations, not just in our products and in our processes.
In doing so, we will more fully realize Mr. Yoshida’s vision of the “Cycle of Goodness.”
Jim Reed serves as president of YKK Corporation of America, the parent company of YKK Corporation’s North and Central America Group. There, he is responsible for YKK’s businesses operating in North America and Central America, which consists of 12 dynamic operating companies spread across five time zones covering Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America and Colombia, South America. Since the company’s founding in Tokyo in 1934, YKK has continuously set industry standards for quality, service, value and innovation in the production of fastening products such as zippers, hook & loop fasteners, plastic buckles and notions, webbing, and snaps & buttons, and architectural products such as storefronts, curtain walls, entrances, sun controls, windows and doors.