Breeding Bluefin Tuna in captivity: A recipe for success?

When I went over to Japan- I went there with an open mind to try as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post the first 3 weeks were a sort of ignorant bliss- I ate, enjoyed but frequently was at a loss to identify what I was eating. With one exception- I knew very well of the Japanese love of Bluefin tuna Read more

HiNGEd on Unique Stories

 “i’d rather wear a unique story…”- Boticca I’ve always been fascinated with the origin of the product I am using, eating, wearing, smelling or consuming in some way or another. I am curious about the intricate relations, history and most importantly the story that lies behind a product. I assume this is what lends itself to my passion for sustainability, and ethical issues since full transparency and Read more

Free Money + Sloths= a better life?

On the 15th September, in over 15 countries worldwide, people handed out their money two coins, or two notes at a time to complete strangers with one condition attached: the recipient must pass half this amount to someone else. Who are these people? Benevolent billionaires who would like to donate to my new handbag fund (a bona fide cause I assure you…)? Well, no Read more

Kuromame-Cha cha cha

In other words black soybean tea; possibly my most treasured discovery during my sojourn in Japan. It all began one cold spring trip to Hakone-the mountain escape for Tokyoites for a bit of rest and relaxation. My boyfriend and I were visiting to try out my first onsen (hot natural springs/baths) and experience the calmer, more picturesque side of Japan which had somewhat evaded Read more

Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

I'm really sad to hear and see the terrible impact of the earthquake of magnitude 8.9 and subsequent tsunami in Japan, whose far reaching destruction is slowly revealing itself day by day. For any worried English speaking expats in Japan-a great and reassuring resource can be found here: http://www.survivingnjapan.com/2011/03/earthquake-in-japan-links-resources.html For those on twitter you will find a number of regular tweeters who are keeping everyone Read more

How unique is UNIQLO?

UNIQLO is among one of Japan's best exports, along with their ubiquitous technology, anime, manga and J-Pop. For me UNIQLO signalled a welcome sense of familiarity when I first stepped into Japan- a country which managed to confound all my senses upon arrival. And when I say 'first stepped into Japan' I mean this in the strictest sense of the word; since my interest in Read more

Ja-Pan du jour

'This bread demands a very slow fermentation and a lot of attention. However the result is worth it; the taste is incomparable, its texture sealed in and honeycombed...an authentic, handcrafted product' Beck Pain Gris (2010) Toit Vert- A Japanese Bakery The translation is not quite as poetic as when read in French, but this description on the bread paper sachet demonstrates the care, attention and Read more

Ain't no Blue Mountain high enough

“Coffee should be as black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love"- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. And that's exactly how I take mine. Coffee and I have had their ups and down, I briefly abandoned my caffeinated companion following my dissertation induced sleep deprivation, in the final year of my degree. It would be more accurate to describe this Read more

Toilets ...a metaphor for Japan?

Toilets are Japan in a nutshell. Ok stick with me here, on first observations, what I have just said may sound a little disparaging about the Japanese culture, people and land. I see Japanese toilets as a wider metaphor of Japan, the paradox between tradition, ancient history and culture juxtaposed with modernity, high-technology, and the latest fashions in Asia. Juxtaposition of a traditional Inari shrine Read more

Bling bling fruit and bargain bananas

When we think of bananas and the Japanese, the heralded 'Morning banana diet' may come to mind. Indeed a banana buying craze broke out in Japan when this diet debuted in March 2008. In a week, sales increased by 70% causing a price spike and pressure on imports.  The basic premise is that by only consuming bananas for breakfast with a glass of room Read more

Negotiating the foggy waters of product labels

My greatest difficulty since arriving in Japan has been the interpretation of product labels, be it food, cosmetics or simply flushing the toilets (some of which are more hi-tech than my mobile phone-I'm sure.)  This has been a sticking point for me since I tend to analyse everything I put onto my skin and into my body-an obsessive label checker some may call it. Read more

recycling

How unique is UNIQLO?

UNIQLO is among one of Japan’s best exports, along with their ubiquitous technology, anime, manga and J-Pop. For me UNIQLO signalled a welcome sense of familiarity when I first stepped into Japan- a country which managed to confound all my senses upon arrival.

And when I say ‘first stepped into Japan’ I mean this in the strictest sense of the word; since my interest in clothes shops rapidly waned upon realisation nothing fit me there.  Perusing the clothes rails only heightened my feelings that I was in fact a giraffe-hippopotamus hybrid trying to sneak past security in a covert attempt to wriggle myself into beautiful, and very much coveted miniature clothing. Even international chains in Japan failed me quite catastrophically, leaving me resigned to the fact that clothes was not to be the focus or even on the radar during my time in Japan. Yet I still tentatively persisted in my hunt for shoes until my penultimate day in Japan, fully aware that Japanese size XXL was far too petite for my, what I always thought, modest UK size 6 feet…

It was of no surprise that my attention wandered one day whilst browsing the rails of tiny clothing in UNIQLO and my eyes fell upon a white and green leaflet displaying UNIQLO’s ‘All-Product Recycling Initiative’. A quick glance on their site informed me that all Japanese Uniqlo stores accept used and worn UNIQLO clothes which are then donated to refugee camps, or recycled to produce electricity or manufacture industrial fibres. This immediately piqued my attention- here is a company thinking about the whole life cycle of their product, and not simply considering Point-Of-Sale as the end point. It got me thinking about the ethical background, principles and actions of this international low-cost retailing brand.  Does UNIQLO’s self-proclamation as a ‘Unique clothing’ brand define itself not just through its style but also through the incorporation of strong ethical principles?

History:

UNIQLO is part of the group Fast Retailing which claims to be ‘a group of companies willing to stand up to challenge with strong conviction and clear vision in order to create an even better world’, this already sets the context for a socially responsible company. They are among one of the biggest retail stores in Japan, with over 800 stores in Japan alone, plus over 100 worldwide, mostly in China, South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK. It traces its early roots back to 1949 where is traded under several names and formats until in 1984 it became known under its present day name of UNIQLO.

All-product recycling initiative:

This initiative began back in 2001 when UNIQLO offered the collection and recycling of UNIQLO fleeces from its customers, expanding the program to all its products in 2006 on a twice yearly basis. It was only in March 2010 that this became a permanent all year round programme and the focus has now shifted from recycling of clothes for fuel, to re-use of clothes for refugees worldwide, although any clothes which are of an unsuitable condition to re-use are sent for recycling into industrial fibres.

The donation of clothing is distributed via 3 international organisations:

  • the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • the Japan Relief Clothing Center (JRCC)
  • the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning (JOICFP)

When reading about this programme it is reassuring to see that it is a very well structured initiative in which all eventualities have been planned for. UNIQLO only deliver clothing to where there are shortages, and take into consideration the levels of demand, seasons, sizes, and religious and cultural context when donating clothing. This ensures that there are no surpluses and unnecessary deliveries. Since UNIQLO work closely with UNHCR in the distribution of clothing by going to the refugee sites themselves this avoids any theft or reselling of clothing during transit.

Food, drink and shelter are often considered as the essential elements for survival, so naturally the focus lies upon these resources for refugees. However the UNIQLO scheme contributes in another important way to refugees’ lives- it takes the focus off the struggle for survival and as UNIQLO state themselves-it enriches refugees’ lives through enabling self-expression; something not necessarily obtainable through the basic elements of survival. In fact several photo galleries hosted by UNIQLO stores in Japan depicting the harsh realities of refugee camps, and the many actions which still need to be taken, have equally illustrated how refugees have blended their own styles with UNIQLO clothing they have received.

Like many initiatives this one is not perfect, ideally it could be expanded worldwide across UNIQLO stores, but perhaps this is something in the pipeline among UNIQLO CSR strategies. And it is not a company which rests on its socially responsible laurels: UNIQLO constantly seeks to improve by acting upon local feedback as well as customer feedback on this initiative. Upon learning of this programme my immediate feelings was that this was just another ‘handout’ scheme, one which would contribute to a culture of dependency. However UNIQLO are one step ahead again and have reported of their intention to teach transferable skills of sewing enabling refugees to make their clothes independently.

And not forgetting…

UNIQLO has also been involved in a number of activities to tick under its CSR activities; it places much emphasis on what is considered as quite a unique employment programme in Japan- the integration of disabled people into the workforce. In Japan life can be tough as a disabled person: even physical disabilities which do not affect the intellectual and mental capacities of a person are often met by reluctance by companies to employ very skilled individuals.

Within its broader activities its mother group ‘Fast Retailing’ recently created a  joint venture with the Bangladeshi bank Grameen in order to establish a social business and new subsidiary in Bangladesh; the objective being ‘to solve social problems, including those related to poverty, sanitation and education issues, in Bangladesh through the planning, production and sale of clothing’. Grammeen Bank, which was founded by Nobel laureate Muhammed Yunus is already the largest microcredit institution in Bangladesh with over 8 million borrowers, of which 97% are female. With this new joint venture Fast Retailing intend to generate jobs for 250 people with a target of 1500 within 3 years.

But…

Low-cost in the clothing industry tends to be associated with sweatshop labour and a focus on minimising costs. It proves very difficult to find out anything about the manufacturing conditions of UNIQLO threads, except that over 90% of their products are manufactured in China. So I can only draw upon speculations, rumours and mutterings about UNIQLO’s labour conditions.

So kudos to UNIQLO for their very unique and innovative recycling initiative, but it’s  a shame they haven’t devoted equivalent resources to the marketing and transparency of their productions processes. In my eyes, to gain true ethical credentials there needs to be traceability and transparency from start to finish.

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Hyper consumerism

BUY BUY BUY! This is what hits me about Tokyo. A commercial executive’s paradise. An urban mass of noise, light, advertisements, billboards, TV screens, signs, packaging, images assaulting the sensory functions. On first impressions hyper consumerism seems to define this Asian urban hub, particularly in the busy centres of Shibuya, Shinjuku and electronic district Akihabara. Department stores huddle in conference around the Japan Rail and metro stations, shop assistants tout their wares from shop interiors, in some cases amplified by microphones, and shelves are lined with highly packaged goods for the consumer to gape at.

Well this certainly describes my experience within my first week or so in Tokyo, and I promptly stopped lecturing my boyfriend about spending so much money in Japan. After 2 and a half weeks I have managed to gain some sort of control and reined in the purse strings. But I now own an extraordinary number of tights (and pretty they are!) and re-kindled an adolescent passion for stationery (honestly why have I bought so many stickers and notebooks??). And I’ll put this largely down to the sheer quantity of advertising and effort which has been put into design and packaging. One of my weaknesses is unfortunately my susceptibility to well designed packaging (hence many pretty notebooks) and Japan does this well.

The agglomeration of department stores located in and around the train stations lends its advent to real estate development. Many of the commuter train lines are privately owned and tend to bear the same or similar names to department stores since they were designed in order to develop suburbs along the rail routes and connect them to major retail centres at the terminals. A concept first developed in the more southern city of Osaka in 1929.

My travels outside of Tokyo next week will help me determine whether this religion of consumerism is a widespread phenomenon across the country, or just defined to the nation’s capital. However every Japanese guide I have read on cities such as Osaka and Sapporo have a heavy emphasis upon shopping as a major and enticing activity. Of course we can all argue that consumerism is intrinsic to the capitalist and Western mode of living, but as a ‘Westerner’ myself I was struck by the intensity of it in Tokyo.

My next observation-the sheer quantity of packaging and plastic wrapping used in products. Everything is wrapped, even little biscuits or sweets within plastic packaging. Let me use the following examples to explain my points:

Case study 1: Chocolates from the UK

Subject: Boyfriend

Subject history: Has been in Japan for 5 months.

Case details: Upon opening a packet of chocolates bought over from England subject elicits surprise that each chocolate has not been individually wrapped.

Case Study 2: Plastic Bags

Subject: Me

Subject history: Recently arrived in Japan, tries to re-use bags where possible, owns many cotton canvas bags for this purpose.

Case details: After handing over payment for the goods, and without so much of a arigato gozaimashita! (thank you very much) from me, my goods have been plopped into a suitable sized bag and taped over.

The most conspicuous form of consumption in Tokyo is without doubt of the electrical sort, the giant television screens in popular districts such as Akihabara and Shinjuku and the glaring, flashing neon lights flooding the city centres when night time falls pay homage to this. However the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) is aiming for the city’s energy companies to reduce their reliance upon fossil fuels, having set a target of 20% renewable energy supply by 2020 as part of the Tokyo Renewable Energy Strategy. Furthermore energy consumption per capita in Tokyo is apparently among the lowest in Japan,  some of that I would put down to the high number of bicycles in the city, and its heavy use on a daily basis.

A litter free oasis….

Despite the packaging cornucopia Japan has nurtured, there are numerous recycling facilities everywhere which tend to be divided into:

  • burnable
  • non-burnable
  • recyclable bags

Though this does vary and may simply be plastic, card, and cans in some places, often located next to the ubiquitous drinks vending machines, or outside shops. However the real gem of Tokyo has been the absence of bins- a sort of reverse psychology which has succeeded very well. Very rarely will you spot a bin, and this has thus resulted in very clean streets, and a populace who instinctively take their rubbish home.

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