The Long Road from Retail Chain to Global Environment
Planting trees in China | Credit: Toshiki Kaifu Office
By Taro Ichikawa
TOKYO (IDN) - They are engaged in greening activities at home and abroad: tree planting in the Great Wall area in China, around the Quindao Lao Mountain Dam, in south Thailand, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, in areas around the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat, and in Kenya.
The reference is to the AEON Environmental Foundation of Japan which has helped plant 9.2 million trees around the world. April 2010 marked the planting of one million trees around the Great Wall of China.
An active participant in the anniversary was the former Prime Minister of Japan, Toshiki Kaifu, who enjoys profound trust and great popularity in China, and helped set off the partnership between the Foundation and China.
The AEON Environmental Foundation will award the first 'Midori Prize for Biodiversity' at the United Nations conference on the rich and precious biodiversity of planet Earth in October 2010 in Nagoya on Japan's Pacific coast. 'Midori' translates from Japanese as 'green' and evokes the image of trees and plants.
The Nagoya gathering is officially known as the 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity, one of the three Rio conventions along with the climate change convention UNFCCC and the convention to combat desertification (UNCCD), which emerged from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in June 1992 in Brazil.
The AEON Environmental Foundation was set up in 1990, two years ahead of the UNCED, popularly known as the Earth Summit.
In a wider sense, 'Midori' also signifies the environment. "This word is intrinsically linked with our continuous planting activities, and as such, we named our prize in the hope that such activities could 'take root' and grow steadily into the future much like trees," says Takuya Okada, founder chairman of the AENON Environmental Foundation in a web posted message.
"The prevention of global warming and conservation of biodiversity are recognized as two challenging issues at the global level. 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity . . . The AEON Environmental Foundation intends to make further contributions to save our beautiful and irreplaceable planet for future generations," he adds.
The original Greek word AEON means 'life', 'being', 'forever' or even 'for eternity'.
The backdrop to the establishment of the Foundation, as its mission statement points out, was the realization that "the natural environment faces a crisis, with problems including destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, rapid deforestation, desertification, frequent acid rain, and marine pollution".
This thinking was the basis of the decision of Takuya Okada -- the founder of JUSCO, the acronym for Japan United Stores Company – "to do something other than retail business, something to contribute to society", Yoshie Kan-o, Secretary General of the AEON Environmental Foundation, tells IDN.
JUSCO was established in 1969 through the business tie-ups of three companies -- Okadaya, Futagi, and Shiro -- which had survived the turbulences of recession and consolidation in the 1960s. Okadaya Co., Ltd. had the longest history of the three, founded as it was in 1758. Until World War II, it was a store trading in clothing, including kimonos. Takuya Okada restarted it after the war, and it grew into a chain of 14 department stores.
JUSCO officially changed its name to AEON Co., Ltd. in 2001. It is meanwhile the largest retailer in Japan. Through ownership, joint ventures, and investments, AEON controls some 4,000 stores worldwide. Under the AEON corporate umbrella are 460 JUSCO superstores, 2,600 Mini Stop convenience stores, 665 supermarket stores, and 1,900 AEON drug stores of the 'Welcia' company. AEON owned 60 percent of the women's apparel chain, The Talbot, till this spring, and is partly in possession of all of the UK-based apparel chain 'Laura Ashley'.
Kan-o says, Okada was convinced that though the role of a company including its value is in the first place to pursue profit and plough benefit to shareholders, part of its profit must do good to local communities. "The retail trade is supported by local communities; therefore we must contribute to local communities utilizing a part of the profit."
The 20th anniversary of Jusco Co., Ltd., which constitutes core of AEON's supermarket chain, fell in the year 1989. This was the year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and many great changes in the world. "In order to fulfill our responsibility as a corporation, Mr. Okada sought a new direction based on the recognition that the North-South issue would become an important concern in the 21st century, and from this, we arrived at the key word -- 'the environment'," states Kan-o.
The logical upshot of this perception was Okada's decision to set up AEON 1 percent Club -- an idea inspired by his visit to Minneapolis in the United States, which was the first place to create a "five percent club" -- the AEON Club comprises AEON group companies that donate funds equivalent to 1 percent of their pre-tax profit, to the maintenance of the group's social activities.
With the enthusiastic participation and support of the AEON group the Club places environmental protection, international cultural and interpersonal exchange and the revitalization of local communities and cultures as well as the provision of various support and other social contribution activities at the core of its endeavours.
One year after the establishment of the Club, Okada decided to set up the AEON Environmental Foundation depositing his shares as endowment. As of 2010, the Foundation has 21,128,000 shares with a dividend of 20 yen per share, which together make some 420 million yen budget this year, to which the AEON 1 percent Club has contributed 100 million yen as donation. "So as long as the AEON group continues to grow with dividends for its shares, our foundation can maintain and expand its operations," says AEON Environmental Foundation's Secretary-General Kan-o.
"Mr. Okada used to chair both AEON 1 percent Club and AEON Environmental Foundation but since 2008, Mr. Okada chairs only the Foundation," she adds. This contributes to greater transparency of the two organizations and their independence.
When 2009 marked 20 years since the establishment of AEON Club, it embarked on a new project called AEON Environment School. Though this activity AEON provides a forum for local residents to learn about and discuss environmental issues.
At the same time, as its chairman Akihiko Harada says in a web posted message, the Club continues to support the establishment of schools in Asian countries through the Club's School Construction Support Fund, works to deepen the mutual understanding and friendship between the youth of Japan and other countries through the Teenage Ambassador programme, and to promote the sound upbringing of children via environmental learning through our AEON Cheers Club and AEON Eco Tour In Germany programmes.
The AEON Eco Tour programme encourages children to think about environmental issues, and thus build a new generation of environmentally aware citizens. Children visit schools, national parks, people's homes, and other locations in Germany, which the AEON Club regards "a world leader in environment". Since the inception of the programme in 2003, 316 elementary and middle school Japanese students have participated.
Far from focusing itself on only making profit from retail trade, the AEON group too has established action policies to guide its proactive and continuous efforts to preserve environment, enhance the quality of its services and protect personal information. The AEON group began publishing a CSR (corporate social responsibility report) in the fiscal year ended February 20, 2005, and since then has regularly reported on its CSR activities while reaffirming its commitment to the various responsibilities it bears.
The eleventh of every month is 'AEON Day'. Customers shopping on this day receive yellow receipts, which they can put into boxes bearing the names of various non-governmental and non-profit organizations. By doing this, customers are able to contribute even in a small way to a cause of their choice. After six months, the receipts are added up, and one percent of the amount is donated to the group to buy something they require.
"The total amount of our donations to local citizen groups through this programme has added up to about 1 billion yen," says Kan-o. In fact, the origin of this idea comes from South Korean supermarket called E-mart. A sales manager of ours found this program there and liked its idea very much and introduced its system at AEON group, she adds.
"The wonderful aspect of this CSR is that the ideas of our customers are taken into account in this programme. As far as I know, it is only the AEON group which has been implementing this programme in Japan," Kan-o states.
Another act of CSR that the AEON group has been performing for long is the "tree planning festival" in which we local citizens are invited to plant ten saplings each along with AEON employees around the construction site whenever a new shopping centre is built.
This programme was started in 1991 when a shopping centre was built in Melaka, Malaysia. In Japan, this was done for the first time in 1992 when a shopping centre was built in Mie prefecture in central Japan from where the Okada family originates. Trees were planted along the same pattern when Japan's largest shopping mail was built at Laketown, in the Saitama prefecture (261,633 square meters). Since 1991, the AEON group has planted 9.23 million trees under the programme.
Stressing the importance of tree planting, AEON Environmental Foundation's Secretary General Kan-o recalls: "As the AEON group continued to open new stores all over the country, Mr. Okada frequently drove from the west side of central Japan to the northeastern areas of Japan's main island of Honshu.
"In comparison to 12 or 13 years ago, the scenery along the Sea of Japan had changed considerably. In winter, trees along the coastal roads once stood strong against the winds from the Sea of Japan, but they have gradually turned brown and now many are dead. Seeing this, it occurred to him at the time that sulfur dioxide gas must have been in the air, so he decided to raise the issue. But no one was interested.
"People suspected that the pollution came from China across the sea. If that was true, a solution could only be found through cooperation between Japan and China. In this light, the AEON Environment Foundation was able to hold the 'Japan-China International Symposium on Environmental Issues', in 1993, 1995, and 1997, led by Ichiro Kato, the chancellor of the University of Tokyo at the time."
Through cooperation with the Chinese Environmental Institute, many scholars participated in the symposium, establishing a platform where various environmental discussions could take place. The head of the Japan's Environment Agency even participated.
In this context, the AEON Foundation proposed a plan to plant trees near the Great Wall of China. By planting trees there it began an initiative to raise awareness and concern for the environment that has now spread around the world.
*This is the fourth in a series of special IDN features and articles on ‘Corporate Social Responsibility' and the first dealing with 'Retail and Environment'. The previous three focused on 'Transportation and Environment'. (IDN-InDepthNews/05.09.2010)
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