“How is the world transforming itself, and how is that going to be linked to corporate activities? We need to achieve symbiosis with that.” — Akihiro Inatsugi, Bridgestone
After being held mostly online over the past three years, due to the pandemic and Japan’s strict border control, Sustainable Brands Japan returned to welcoming people in person at its yearly event in late February.
For the first time, the event was in Tokyo — in the Marunouchi business district. While, in keeping with post-pandemic protocols, the conference was fully hybrid, the majority of the more than 5,000 estimated attendees joined in person. It was the largest conference ever organized by Sustainable Brands in Japan, with 87 sessions featuring 272 speakers and at least 932 brands and organizations from around the world represented.
The location was also chosen for a good reason. Marunouchi is one of Japan's — and Asia’s — largest business districts, located alongside the second busiest train station in the world, and home to some of Japan's biggest businesses. Held in three spaces, with several events open to the public, the event engaged the surrounding community on the conference’s main theme: preparing for our future by recentering ourselves, and reminding ourselves of the lessons from past failures and successes.
Attendees included some of Japan’s most well-known brands — including Suntory, Hitachi and Bridgestone — along with local branches of global giants such as Nestlé and Unilever. Many were attending for the third, fourth or fifth times, showcasing the progress made in Japan on mainstreaming sustainability. In fact, it was not too long ago that sustainability was only seen through a financial-risk lens, according to Nick Kimura — formally with Casio but now with sustainability consulting firm Nick’s Chain.
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“In the early stage, we were responding to compliance concerns, to threats to deterioration of corporate value — a more reactive approach,” Kimura said — adding that it was only around 2010 that Casio and other Japanese companies started to think proactively.
Throughout the conference, experts and sustainability professionals shared how they’ve gotten their companies to embrace sustainability. One common theme was the need to integrate sustainability from the top of an organization — something easier said than done.
“If we are trying to do sustainability management from the top, the president and heads of department need to have a common understanding, and exert leadership,” said Makiko Ono, Senior Managing Executive Officer at Suntory Beverage & Food. “Those below have to be led on sustainability.”
This was echoed by Norio Masuda, a Senior Manager at Hitachi, who spoke about the company’s ongoing shift from purely financial accounting metrics to a more holistic view of business.
“In 2019, we started doing triple-bottom-line management,” Masuda said. “Not only economic value, but also social and environmental value. The response was that this won’t work if this is not ingrained into the company's evaluation and remuneration system.”
While a lot of progress has been made since the first SB Japan was held back in 2017 there’s much, much more to do. Kimura highlighted one key challenge — expanding the network, and the need to bring in smaller and medium-sized companies, which play a huge role in Japan.
“99.7 percent of Japanese companies are small or medium-sized; and it's the smaller companies who are really supporting the economy,” Kimura said. “They might have the will to be sustainable; but they don’t know where to start.”
One example of a smaller brand leading on sustainable innovation is Sea Vegetable Company — a 7-year-old startup founded by Yuichi Tomohiro, with a clear mission to protect marine ecosystems, as Japan is facing a seaweed crisis due to warmer ocean temperatures.
“Because we have higher water temperatures, that means fish are more active and eat seaweed in the winter, which is why we see less and less seaweed,” Tomohiro said. “Each year, 2,000 hectares of seaweed is disappearing; and this affects the entire ecosystem in the ocean.”
This has huge repercussions for marine biodiversity and the livelihoods of farming communities across the country, with many losing livelihoods due to the inability to fish or harvest seaweed. Tomohiro’s company is aiming to address that by finding ways to grow seaweed and restore these ecosystems across Japan.
There was a clear recognition at the conference that companies in Japan — large and small — have much more work to do to integrate sustainability in their operations; and shift the country towards not only net zero, but towards a regenerative, net-positive economy.
One oft-mentioned challenge is that, compared to markets in North America and Europe, Japanese brands are, in many ways, behind on the sustainability front.
“Japan is still lagging when it comes to understanding sustainability,” said Shinsuke Suzuki, country director for Sustainable Brands Japan. “When it comes to sustainability implementation, it is necessary for us to try and have people transform their behavior through the strength of brands.”
One way to do that is through better communication. Masaki Yamabe, a PhD at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance known in Japan for his innovative use of data visualizations to tell stories in the media, called on attendees to share data in ways that empower and motivate consumers.
“Data visualization is extremely important for the sake of sustainability, because the future is unclear and unpredictable,” Yamabe said. “By showing the actual situation, people will be motivated to take ownership of sustainability.”
Akihiro Inatsugi, Executive Director for Corporate Sustainability at Bridgestone, called on companies to really think ambitiously and to transform their way of thinking and acting.
“We have to look at what the world is striving to achieve — a better life and symbiosis, living well within planetary boundaries,” he said. “How is the world going to transform itself, and how is that going to be linked to corporate activities? We need to achieve symbiosis with that and our business activities.”