Culture shock

European business has a lot to learn from the way the Japanese manage their environmental impacts. Environment Business talks to electronics manufacturer Brother about the company's approach

There's an old Japanese phrase - Mottainai. It's hard to translate, but is best summed up as "waste not want not in the eyes of God". In the old days, a mother would weave thread into cloth for a kimono for her daughter's wedding present. In time, the daughter would make it into bedclothes, then into cushions, then into a dust cloth and finally into a wick for a candle. This constant recycling was seen as letting the god that dwelled in the cotton return to heaven.

In other words, recycling isn't such a new idea at all - and the principle of Mottainai has found its way into modern day Japanese industry.

Facing green responsibilities

Here in Europe, industry has had its hand forced by legislation. Standards such as ISO 14001 and the forthcoming WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive are spurring manufacturers into action, and making them face up to their green responsibilities.

But in Japan, environmental dialogue between government and industry has steered manufacturers to become more self-regulating and to set their own green agenda.

Japan is a heavily industrial nation and faces challenges geographically. The country is geologically active in terms of the ever-present threat of earthquakes and there are several active volcanoes. Its islands are mountainous, and the population can only live on the coasts because the interior is not habitable. Subsequently, the Japanese are incredibly aware of their surroundings, and the fragility of their environment - although there are still big leaps to be made, particularly in wildlife and wetland conservation.

After World War Two, when the Japanese economy boomed, actions like dumping industrial waste in rivers were common practice. But in a small island country supporting a population of nearly 125m people, levels of pollution quickly became unsustainable.

Quick to act

Around 15 years ago, Japan's government criticised the Aichi Prefecture, an area which includes the heavily industrialised city of Nagoya, for being one of the dirtiest in the country. Several large manufacturers in the area were quick to act. Mike Dinsdale, Brother UK's marketing director, says: "The founding fathers of Brother actually took the government's criticism to heart - and took swift action to remedy the situation. "It wasn't just a case of the government forcing them to do something, it was a matter of pride. Those actions have set Brother on the road to the strong environmental position we hold now."

Brother is now committed to environmental responsibility. The company's president, Yoshihiro Yasui, has introduced a five-point action plan, the 5Rs, which are central to the company's operation:

  • Reduce waste materials by recycling;
  • Reuse products and waste material;
  • Reform materials and use again;
  • Recycle rather than scrap; and
  • Refuse to buy environmentally unfriendly products.
    Real action

    Cynics might interpret this as a large corporation's lip service to environmental action - but Brother's actions are both real and measurable. In 2001, Brother achieved an ambitious target of zero landfill waste - and this is largely to do with the collaborative approach manufacturers in Aichi now take to waste disposal. The 300 or so companies which are based in the area meet on a regular basis to discuss environmental challenges and issues. Yasui is chairman of the group.

    The benefits of this dialogue have been immediate. As a producer of goods such as printers, fax machines and labelling systems, Brother uses mixed plastics in its manufacturing process - and these are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

    However, through discussions it became clear that one company's waste was another company's resource. A local steel manufacturer had traditionally used coke to float on vats of molten metal as a method of reducing the oxygen present in the steel-making process.

    But as a non-renewable fossil fuel, coke is neither environmentally friendly nor cheap. However, dialogue revealed that Brother's waste plastic was suitable to replace coke in this process, rather than going to landfill where it would take hundreds of years to decompose. For both companies - and the environment - it was a win/win situation and a fantastic example of Mottainai. This attitude from Japanese companies has filtered through to their European operations. Brother UK has dramatically reduced its own landfill, and is aiming for 0% at its Ruabon plant in North Wales by 2006.

    But would a group of British manufacturers take the same collaborative approach as their Japanese counterparts? Or would they be taking direct action without strongarm tactics from Europe? The stark reality is that they probably wouldn't at present - but things are changing.

    With the WEEE Directive scheduled to come into force in August 2005, recycling of electronic equipment will soon become mandatory. And there is a raft of EU legislation working its way through the statutes. A draft discussion document with a view to enforcing environmentally friendly product design has already been published in Europe.

    Brother is already ahead of the game - and has the only TCO badged printers and all-in-ones in the market. The acknowledged global benchmark behind the development of today's PC monitors, TCO's remit has extended to system units, keyboards, mobile phones, printers and all-in-ones.

    Beyond the call of duty

    Brother saw the value in following TCO'99 and has fundamentally changed its production philosophy. Products are now being designed with the emphasis on disassembly and recycling from the outset.

    This is just one example of a global operation going beyond the call of duty in its processes, and, Dinsdale says, others should follow. "Japan is now one of the leading lights in setting the standard for corporate environmental responsibility. Certainly, Brother has come from a position where their actions were all wrong to where they are now. I suppose in order to reach this position of enlightenment, you have to start in a bad place and go on a journey of experience. "In the UK, the standard approach has been to turn a blind eye to environmental directives until the last minute and then scramble to comply in the months before they become law. But look at it this way, Japan and the UK are both islands, they both have growing populations, landfill space is limited - surely there are lessons we can learn from the Japanese model to benefit both our environmental and economic futures?"


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