Where are the ethical consumers in Japan?
European and Japanese ethical consumer experiences compared
In March 2015, Rob Harrison from Ethical Consumer travelled to Japan to compare European and Japanese ethical consumer experiences.
When you look at the chart below of Fairtrade sales around the world (2013 in Euros), the contrast between the UK and Japan is stark. And walking round Japanese shops feels, at first sight, a bit like the UK twenty years ago. Ethical products were there if you looked hard – but they were much more niche than mainstream.
At a seminar of academics, businesses and campaigners on March 20th the participants exchanged ideas about how this variation might be explained.
Ethical Consumer has long argued that the engine that drives the growth of ethical consumer behaviours is the activities of of civil society groups like PETA and Greenpeace.
There was widespread agreement that this sector is much less developed in Japan. A culture of polite, reserved, behaviour and a dislike of confrontation was suggested as a cause.
Could this mean that a boom in ethical consumerism of the type witnessed in the UK might never happen in Japan?
If you scratch beneath the surface though, there is a counter-narrative to be found. It is possible that ethical consumer behaviours are actually much more prevalent than they seem, but because they don't look quite like those elsewhere, we are just not counting them.
Three areas are worthy of mention here:
1. Solidarity buying with northern Japan following the 2012 Tsunami
According to Mari Nakamura, a researcher at the conference, following the 2012 disaster post Fukushima, there was a wave of solidarity buying across Japan to help support businesses and individuals in the affected areas.
The effectiveness of these actions, especially when compared to what was, for some, an imperfect government response, has also helped consumers to gain a new understanding of their potential power.
2. High end fashion
In a fashion conscious and relatively wealthy society, ethical brands are doing well where quality is less important than price.
- Patagonia (an organic clothing brand featuring in many EC product guides have a big presence in Japan and has developed local projects – such as buying rough organic cotton from Japanese farmers.
- Motherhouse, fairly trading with Bangladesh, is a homegrown Japanese designer bag company growing fast in Asia.
- And People Tree – a long-time Ethical Consumer Best Buy is originally a Japanese company trading over here. Neither of these last two use the mainstream fairtrade certification schemes we are familiar with in Europe.
3. Organic and local
Japanese concern over food quality and environmental impact of pesticides has a long history and has generated a home grown organic movement. Flourishing direct trade arrangements between farmers and consumers such as “teikei” and Seikatsu Clubs mean that organic certification schemes like our Soil Association accreditation are less significant.
Japan also has an organic town at Ogawa – where the success of one organic farmer has led to neighbours and local businesses converting too. Indeed, at one organic restaurant in the town each vegetable has a named supplier, in a display of homogeneity that even Totness in the UK would find hard to match.
What of the future?
There are four reasons I feel optimistic about the growth of ethical consumerism in Japan.
The first is that ethical consumerism is not a fashion but a response to serious problems caused by globalisation and unregulated international trade. The effectiveness of consumer actions means that they make sense for all human societies.
The second is that ethical campaigns in other countries mean that consumer facing multinationals are bringing their ethical stories into the Japanese market anyway. From the excellent Patagonia and Lush on the high street, to the less perfect Body Shop and even less perfect Nestlé (utz-certifed Kit Kat), some conversations about markets and ethics are coming anyway.
The third is that, as we have seen above, there might be much more going on than we have learned how to measure yet.
Fourthly, I have been meeting with enthusiastic people who are exploring the idea of setting up some kind of ethical consumer magazine Japan. We can never know the extent to which the big growth of ethical markets in the UK would have happened without Ethical Consumer. But it is unlikely to have acted as a brake!