Japan's Obsession with Perfection May Be Thwarting Sustainability

Japan's Obsession with Perfection May Be Thwarting Sustainability

I just saw something amazing on TV here in Tokyo. Ito-Yokado, the Walmart of Japan, is now selling slightly damaged produce at steep discounts in all of their stores.

The reporter bit into a slightly dinged apple and declared that it actually tasted good. Her co-host was in shocked amazement.

In thirty years of coming here, I've never seen anything but perfect fruit for sale -- each neatly packaged one-by-one. And when you buy the packaged fruit, they stick it in another package, and that goes in yet another bag. The Japanese are insane over perfection.

So what happens to the produce that is misshapen or slightly bruised or marred by rubbing against the stem? Some of it goes into processed foods and juice. The rest is dumped -- and dumped all along the delivery chain. The farmer, the coop, the distributor, the wholesaler and the retailer all take turns dumping damaged goods. It's a wonder that anything gets to market except for the fact that they use elaborate crating techniques to protect their precious cargo.

The same is true in the building industry. Clients will drive contractors nuts over minor flaws. If the natural pattern in a stone tile is displeasing, they'll ask to have it replaced. Wood paneling must match perfectly to the others. Tatami mats, which can last ten years, are frequently tossed after a year or two when sunlight fades the natural fibers. All of this adds up to tons of waste -- the kind of waste that cannot be easily recycled and instead gets incinerated.

Another phenomenon that defies the imagination is the growing use of spray deodorizers, like Febreze. Kids are buying clothes at Uniqlo and spraying them with deodorizers between wearings -- instead of washing them, which would make them look less new. After two or three rounds of this, the garment, which is dirt cheap, is simply tossed out. It's the one-use, disposable chopstick phenomenon applied to everything -- even cars!

Until this latest recession, there was essentially no used car market in Japan. Used cars simply fell below their ideals of perfection, so they were shipped overseas. Most used domestic Japanese cars were shipped to China, or Africa or Indonesia after a couple years.

Well, recessions have a way of making environmentalists out of any consumer, even a fastidious Japanese consumer. Today, there are used car, used appliance and used clothing shops popping up all over Japan. And if you are Japanese and into vintage classic cars, there are armies of mechanics that will keep it in factory-spec condition. And forget about dirty cars. I've never seen one in all these years.

How about BYOB, bring your own bag? It's almost unheard of here except at a few enlightened organic groceries. The reality is that most food is bought at convenience stores where it's the packaging you're paying for, not what's inside. The stuff inside is a commodity. It's the package that's valuable -- until it's tossed, which is almost instantly.

Japan is making great strides in sustainability with their electric cars, their advanced energy schemes and their embrace of Kyoto Protocol goals, but their obsession with perfection is thwarting progress on the most fundamental understanding -- the idea that perfection is ultimately unsustainable.

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 a new book on the marketing experiences of over two dozen U.S. green companies published by Chelsea Green Publishing. The book is titled The Gort Cloud and describes the invisible network that is powering today's most successful green brands.

Photos CC-Licensed by Flickr users photocapy and dlisbona.