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Tuesday, April 17, 2001

ECO-FRIENDLY TACK

Makers won't throw in towel amid cheap import threat


By ASAKO MURAKAMI
Staff writer

KUMATORI, Osaka Pref. -- In a bid to survive fierce competition from foreign makers, some towel manufacturers and related firms here have joined forces to launch eco-friendly towels next month.

Seeing little chance to win the price battle, 44 towel producers and subcontractors have formed the Green Towel production club to produce towels in less polluting ways and market them under their united brand.

The move was prompted by an acute sense of crisis shared by all the firms, which are threatened by a massive inflow of cheap imports from other parts of Asia.

With its century-old history as Japan's major towel production base, the Senshu region, which spreads across southern Osaka Prefecture, boasts some 200 towel makers and subcontractors, including dyeing and sizing firms.

Accounting for some 40 percent of domestic production, the Senshu area is Japan's second-largest production base, following Imabari in Ehime Prefecture.

Hideshi Matsufuji

"We are facing a critical situation where cheap imported towels are overflowing the market, far exceeding demand," said Hideshi Matsufuji, vice chairman of the 200 member-strong Osaka Towel Kogyo Kumiai, an industrial group based in the region.

"As we cannot compete with imported towels on price, we need to produce value-added towels to differentiate ours from imported ones," he said.

Japan's towel imports grew 34 percent from 48,333 tons in 1998 to 64,997 tons in 2000, while the market share of imports increased from 45 percent to 57 percent. Roughly 80 percent of the imports come from China and 15 percent from Vietnam, according to the Japan Towel Industrial Association.

In February, the association filed a petition with the state to invoke import restrictions to combat the steep increase in towel imports from China and Vietnam. The government launched a formal probe Monday to decide whether to invoke such curbs in line with a textile safeguard clause under the World Trade Organization.

Still, prospects for the domestic industry remain gloomy, according to Matsufuji, president of Matsufuji Terry Co., a textile manufacturer and initiator of the Green Towel project.

"Even if the government actually implements safeguards, it will not fundamentally solve the problem," he said. "We need to make our own efforts to survive."

Thus, last November Matsufuji introduced the idea of eco-friendly towels, putting a trial product on display for association members.

As his firm produces textiles for baby clothes in small lots based on specific orders from manufacturers, Matsufuji said, he has been well aware of trends in consumer preference, such as a growing inclination to pick environmentally friendly products.

Green Towel's green efforts target an early stage of the production process.

In the old days, natural starch was applied in the weaving process to make threads stiff. When mass production began in the 1960s, however, natural starch was replaced by chemical adhesives to make thread resilient enough to be woven by high-speed machines. To remove the adhesives, chemicals are again used in a later process.

Although some purifying measures have been taken, the use of chemicals means the waste water can cause pollution, and it is possible chemical residues remain in the final products.

To make the weaving stage cleaner, Matsufuji's group has improved a starch adhesive so that thread can withstand the high speed of the existing machines.

"Discharging cleaner waste water not only reduces the purification costs but also contributes to the local environment," Matsufuji said.

In marketing, the group will use a unified brand for their eco-friendly towels to differentiate them from ordinary towels, and will distribute leaflets explaining their products' characteristics.

"Until now, we've provided little explanation on our products. But we're planning to provide more information to better appeal to consumers," he said.

On top of conventional marketing through wholesale dealers, the group will try to directly reach consumers by selling their products online.

How the new towels will fare is still unknown, but Matsufuji said the project has already brought one benefit: enthusiasm among the participating companies.

"We never had such enthusiasm before," he said. "It is important to gather our skills and knowledge in order to survive this critical situation."



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