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October 23, 2020

Moving toward a Sustainable Society: Ethical Consumption in Japan

Moving toward a Sustainable Society: Ethical Consumption in Japan

Copyright 2020 Ethical Association All Rights Reserved.

Japan is said to lag behind other countries in terms of catching the wave of ethical consumption, but the concept has been spreading gradually across the country since 2015 when the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this issue of the ISHES Newsletter, we introduce the current situation and future prospects for the promotion of ethical consumption in Japan, based on an interview with Rika Sueyoshi, president of the Ethical Association. Junko Edahiro, president of ISHES, spoke recently at a seminar on systems thinking organized by the association, where she also serves as an adviser.

SDGs Boost Ethical Consumption

After the SDGs were adopted by the UN in 2015, Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency established the "Ethical Consumption" Research Committee to define ethical products and promote them among not only consumers but also businesses. Thanks to various initiatives, ethical consumption has been spreading gradually in Japan. School education also helps to raise awareness.

At schools, children learn about and become more familiar with the SDGs. Kids who are interested in something tend to tell their parents about it, so in a sense this becomes child-to-parent education. Parents cannot ignore what they've learned from their children and may be more likely to take action.

Government and Citizen Organizations Promoting Ethical Consumption

What does the Consumer Affairs Agency do? Let's have a look at what various organizations are doing to promote ethical consumption in Japan.

Consumer Affairs Agency

The Consumer Affairs Agency held meetings of the Ethical Consumption Research Committee for two years starting in May 2015, covering a wide range of research and discussions on the topic. Below are two initiatives that arose from the committee.

One is the "Ethical Lab," a symposium held in local areas. It aims at raising awareness of ethical consumption and energizing discussions at the local level. The Ethical Lab was held in one location a year until 2017, but gradually expanded to three locations in 2018 and four in 2019. (Events were suspended in 2020 as a precaution due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The other is the "Ethical Koshien" event, an opportunity for high school students who work on promoting and practicing ethical consumption to give presentations on their initiatives, results and future plans. (The name is borrowed from the very popular annual "Koshien" national high school baseball tournament.) The first Ethical Koshien was held in 2019 and received submissions from 68 high schools, and the next is planned for March 2021.

In a consumer survey by the Consumer Affairs Agency in February 2020, 59.1 percent of respondents replied they were interested in ethical consumption ("very interested" and "somewhat interested"), an increase of 23.1 percentage points from a survey three years earlier. On the other hand, 7.8 percent replied they were not interested at all, a decrease of 23.4 percentage points from three years earlier.

Japan Ethical Initiative (JEI)

The Japan Ethical Initiative (JEI), where Edahiro serves as an adviser, was established in May 2014 with the aim of recreating an enduring civilization in harmony between the global environment and society, based on "ethical" as a keyword. One of its major purposes is to raise the baseline of ethical lifestyles and culture as a whole. Here we introduce two specific initiatives.

The "Ethical Breakfast Meeting" is held about every two months. Guest speakers include senior executives of major companies on the Tokyo Stock Exchange who volunteer their knowledge to help participants gain an understanding of ethical consumption.

The "JEI Ethical Lab" is a meet-up for people to listen to and learn from ethical activists and organizations. It is held about every two months, with guest lectures by ethical practitioners who talk about their practices and global trends.

The activities of JEI are supported by regular and supporting members. As of October 8, 2020, the website listed 52 companies and organizations as regular members.

The Ethical Association

Now let's go back to what Rika Sueyoshi told us in an interview about the origins of the Ethical Association.

I travelled to about 80 countries as a TV reporter, and what I felt during that time inspired me to start these activities. The most striking image I remember is the massive retreat of the glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro due to global warming. It was quite shocking.

Some people use the glacier melt as water for their families. I saw small children planting trees one by one and praying, "May the glacier on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro grow again." They were hoping to stop global warming by any means they could find. When I saw the scene, I decided to make it my personal mission not just to tell the Japanese people about various problems around the world, but to take action.

As I continued to work with different NGOs, I learned about fair trade. It sounded like a great idea to help people in the world through everyday consumer behavior. Around 2008, there was a major jump in the concept of ethical behavior brought from the UK to Japan. I realized that the concept covers a wider range of desirable products that included fair trade, and began to hope to deliver messages on ethical concepts combined with social responsibility. In November 2015, I founded the Ethical Association.

Activities of the Ethical Association

One of the activities of the Ethical Association is the "Ethical Concierge Classes." We define an Ethical Concierge as someone who engages in practical ethical actions, starting even with small ones. Every year, we have more and more participants with a diverse background of occupations and ages, from junior high school students to people in their eighties. I am encouraged by the fact that many people want to learn, understand, and become change agents.

It is also reassuring to see the participants change. Some have made career changes, moving from large corporations to more ethical companies, and others have launched new businesses. Some have reached out to supermarkets to promote ethical consumption, and others have formed groups to organize their activities. It is becoming like a movement for people not only to change themselves, but also to change the world around them.

The Ethical Association offers opportunities for corporate members to talk about issues and share their initiatives with others. Through our efforts, we feel that the awareness of business owners is changing.

Meanwhile, we realize there are challenges with communicating about the concepts. People tend to avoid the concept of "ethical" (imported from English), believing that it is difficult to understand and may sound preachy. We always search for the right words to say, wondering how we can deliver the message so people will feel it is relevant for them.

Since there is still not a large selection of ethical products here, many people may find that they cannot find something even if they want to buy it. We can ask shops to sell ethical products as a starter, but we need to come up ways to connect intentions to actions and build a bigger movement. As is often said, the most difficult part is how to involve people who don't have a particular interest in this area, not to mention those who do.

It is extremely important to get into the educational field. In 2021, ethical consumption will be covered in junior high school textbooks. This topic will be covered in senior high school textbooks in 2022. As a result, we have been receiving a growing number of inquiries from teachers who are searching for clues to help explain ethical consumption to their students.

The first step is getting students to think about ethical consumption, and next to provide education on how to implement it in real life. The Association works to create educational tools, such as developing frameworks for workshops on ethical consumption, in collaboration with the Consumer Affairs Agency.

The mission statement of our Association states our aim as "to realize a sustainable society where ethical living can be a yardstick for people's wellbeing." To boost the "ethical" approach nationwide, we hope to develop these yardsticks for measuring wellbeing while nurturing ethical communities.

In this article we featured trends relating to the concept of ethical consumption in Japan, through an interview with Rika Sueyoshi. In this area, Japan is said to be 20 to 25 years behind Sweden, for example, but we will stay alert for ways Japan can catch up and create its own style of ethical movement.

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