Is Japan Catching The Green Wave?

Is Japan Catching The Green Wave?

I'm in Tokyo this week having given a presentation on my newly published book, The Gort Cloud. As the presentation's title is "Building Brands For The Age of Sustainability", I decided to do a quick audit to see if Japanese business is catching the green wave.

The first indication is on TV. NHK, the national broadcaster here, has been hosting a series of shows on the environment under the theme NHK Eco 2009. Eco, by the way, is the catchall word for things green, natural, organic, environmental or sustainable over here. NHK has been pushing this theme because Japan is currently in the "First Promise Period" of the Kyoto Protocol during which the nation has committed to reducing emissions to 6 percent lower than they were in 1990. Many economic planners also believe that sustainable technology presents one of the few opportunities for Japan's business and manufacturing future, a point NHK makes clear in their interviews.

However, when I visit the local grocery store, I'm amazed to see that clerks are still individually wrapping things that are already in packaging. When I get back to my room, I end up with more bags and boxes than product. Happily, I noticed that the local Muji store and the McDonalds have signs by the cash register begging customers to forgive them for not triple wrapping purchases. This appears to be part of the Team Minus 6 percent government program to reduce CO2 emissions by 1 kg per person per day.

I noticed that Panasonic had a large display at the fashionable Tokyo Midtown shopping center showcasing its Eco Ideas initiative. They are demonstrating super energy efficient household appliances that contribute to an ambitious plan to produce an Eco Ideas House that uses "advanced technologies for saving, creating, and storing energy, and utilizes natural elements of wind, light, water and heat… with virtually zero CO2 emissions...". I had an opportunity to visit one of their model homes today, and it is impressive. They are prefabricated in a factory and assembled on site complete with solar panels, electrical systems, appliances and even high efficiency lighting all manufactured by Panasonic.

On a similar note, there is the newly launched "Fukuoka Hydrogen Town" project that is using two model communities to demonstrate state-of-the-art hydrogen fuel cell technology to generate both electricity and hot water for individual residences. "This system can cover about 60 percent of the power consumption and about 80 percent of the hot water supply of typical households," according to Japan for Sustainability. The number of companies involved in these CGC or cogeneration projects reads like a who's who of Japanese business.

In addition to the speaking engagement, I'm also here to work with a Japanese vertical apparel maker. My client is known for their dedication to environmental stewardship, which leads me to the example of Teijin, the best-known maker of sustainably sourced textiles. Teijin recently announced the addition of the 100th participant to their closed-loop polyester reclamation program called Eco Circle. Teijin receives used polyester clothes from its partners, like Patagonia, to make new polyester at the molecular level. The original source of Teijin's polyester is plastic bottles so it is both sustainably sourced and reclaimed. wrote that Teijin will be supplying some of their blended polyester fabric to Sears to make eco-friendly men's suits.

Of course, word of GM's impending bankruptcy has everyone debating the future of cars over here. Will hybrids, with sagging sales, win out against EVs or hydrogen-powered vehicles? Who will come up with the most desired battery: the Koreans, the Japanese or the Chinese? And then there is news from Treehugger that Mitsubishi will be ramping up production of their i MiEV compact electric city car. The vehicle is available in Europe and Japan, but not yet in the U.S. In a case of assault and batteries, AutoblogGreen reports the i MiEV is being used in the Kanagawa Prefecture as a stealth police car. Like most EVs, the i MiEV uses lithium ion technology, like in laptops. Meanwhile Japanese and American automakers have been working to establish battery standards that could give them an edge over other countries in the quest to corner the auto battery market, according to Greentech Media.

Evidence of other changes in Japanese transportation can be seen in the number of hybrid buses and delivery trucks that are already on the road. The Japanese postal service has announced plans to move toward fuel-efficient vehicles, and I even saw a three-wheel motorcycle taxi today.

Japan has been the world's largest producer of solar cells and modules for some time. The big players are Sharp, Kyocera, Sanyo and Misubishi. The largest buyer, however, has been Germany. This may be changing as the Japanese government applies more pressure to use renewable energy. I'm seeing evidence all over: A solar powered rail station just opened in Osaka prefecture. Daido Steel is planning to install a sun-tracking solar system that will focus energy onto highly efficient power cells. While Kyushu University is planning solar collectors that will float on the ocean like water lilies. Yes, there is a lot going on.

It's beautiful this time of year in Japan. We're at the height of Sakura, the annual budding of the cherry blossoms. It's a time when Japanese are especially conscious of nature, and nowhere is nature more revered than in Kyoto, a city that has become a center for environmental action and a source for local, handmade and organic products. It's a bit like Burlington, Vermont or Portland, Oregon in that sense. The center of this ancient town is full of little craft shops and restaurants touting something they call, Slow Eco. Crafts, slow food, regional style – these are all things embedded in Japanese culture, so it's nice to see how these traditions are connecting to global environmental awareness.

To wrap this up with some finality, I can report that Tri-Wall K.K., a Japanese maker of packaging materials, has come up with an eco-friendly coffin, called, as you might guess, "Ecoffin". "The main material of the product is triple-layer board, while the fabric for the inner and outer packaging is 100-percent-rayon or 100-percent-cotton, which is a natural material. Furthermore, natural adhesives are used. In addition, the company plants 10 trees for each coffin used. For one funeral, about 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted, but this tree planting offsets these CO2 emissions."

I should point out that my book, The Gort Cloud, reveals how the green community is powering the development of new green brands and products in America. Is there a similar network at work here in Japan? The answer is yes. There are a number of green news organizations, government agencies, advocacy groups and green lifestyle promoters that contribute to a kind of Japanese gort cloud. Japan For Sustainability is one of my favorites with lots of short, up-to-date news items. Alterna is another green news source as is Sotokoto. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment is the ultimate source for all national environmental programs. is a bit like Treehugger, while channels information including videos to viewer's computer screens. A group called the Japan Environment Association sponsors a Green Purchasing Network, promoting eco-friendly goods and services. My Japanese partner and myself through our company, The Brand Architect Group, are also at work promoting green brand and marketing programs in Japan.

There is little doubt: Japan is building brands for the age of sustainability. They may have been a little late getting started, like the U.S., but Japanese business has heeded the call and is ramping up.

Richard Seireeni is president of The Brand Architect Group, Los Angeles, a strategic brand consultancy with affiliated offices in Tokyo and Shanghai. Richard Seireeni is the author of The Gort Cloud, a book that chronicles the marketing experiences of over two-dozen US green companies and describes the invisible network that is powering today's most successful green brands.