urban development Chongqing

Opportunities in sustainable urban development: bloginterview with Xiaocun Ruan

One of the reasons why I chose my company name is because it connects to the city – and with the city & my focus on sustainability in Asia, it connects to the theme of sustainable urban development. A hot topic in Asia, where many places are quickly urbanizing. And where it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to build sustainable and smart cities that use resources efficiently and provide a good standard of living for the millions of people who make that city their home. Unsurprisingly, a topic that appears on my blog regularly as well.

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Hasmik Matevosyan Paradigm Shift in Fashion

Hasmik Matevosyan on a ‘Paradigm Shift in Fashion’

Who made my clothes?

You may have seen this question popping up on the internet more often in the past few weeks. It is the main question of the Fashion Revolution campaign in the run-up to the second ‘anniversary’ of the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The discussion on fair fashion and making the textile industry more sustainable often zooms in on the supply chain: how and where are garments produced? Issues that are part of the supply chain are well documented: labour issues such as freedom of association or working hours, health and safety, building safety or environmental issues such as use of toxins and high water consumption.

But is there a way to restructure the design process within the fashion company itself to contribute to a more sustainable business model?

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CinemAsia Film Festival

CinemAsia: a talk with new festival director Lorna Tee

Asia is about much more than just business opportunities and challenges. And many of those other things are what initially led to my decision to study Japanese.

contemporary history, cultural differences, social phenomena, literature, a mysterious language, modern art (and not-so-modern like ukiyo-e) – and film.

Focusing on business and commerce in (East-)Asia came much later. But my interest in all those other things stayed, which makes personal and professional interest a bit blurred occasionally…

Film is – to me – one of the best ways of getting a glimpse of Asia. And one of the best opportunities to do so in the Netherlands is at the CinemAsia film festival.

Movies can show how different places are – but they also often show how similar people can be. Are people really that different from each other even if they live on opposite sides of the world?

It’s nearly that time of year again: CinemAsia 2015 kicks off on April 1 (until April 6) – with a new location ánd a new festival director.

Lorna Tee CinemAsiaI was curious, so I’ve asked Lorna Tee, the new director, a few questions on her plans for the festival and her perspective on the role film can have.

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sustainable organic food

Japan’s organic food market: a bloginterview with Duco Delgorge

Food is, in my view, one of the most tangible ways of including more sustainable choices in your personal daily life. And it is maybe not surprising that amidst increasing concerns about food safety, health and environmental impact the market for organic food is growing – not just in the Netherlands and Europe but worldwide.

Last week, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs published data for 2014 on the export of organic food products from the Netherlands, which has risen 11% from the previous year. Most products find their way to other European countries, but outside of Europe one of the top destinations is Japan (the United States, China and South-Korea are also mentioned as important export markets).

This led me to get in touch with Duco Delgorge, president and CEO of the company MIE PROJECT CO., Ltd., an importer of organic packaged food and who I met on my previous trip to Japan. When we met, I was impressed with his drive and vision on sustainable development and the opportunity he spotted in developing this market.

I asked Duco a few questions on his work, his view on developments in the organic food market in Japan and, lastly, some advice for interested Dutch and European companies.

What do you do?

“In February 2005, I established MIE PROJECT Co., Ltd. in Tokyo. The company is focused on importing quality organic, natural, and fairtrade packaged foods. This year is our 10th anniversary. We import nearly 200 products from 23 suppliers from 10 countries and distribute these to over 1,000 food retailers throughout Japan.

We are still a relatively small company, with just 12 employees, but we grow significantly each year and see excellent long-term potential. Although we initially focused on the premium sector of the retail market, e.g. premium supermarkets, gourmet stores, organic food stores, specialty stores, department stores, cafes, etc., we are gradually seeing a growing interest from larger scale supermarkets. Still, the relatively high price ensuing from importing with high import duties, limits the upside potential.”

What are the main developments in the organic food market in Japan in your view?

“The Japanese organic food market still has a retail value of only about €1 billion, and represents only about 0.5% of the total food market. This compares with about 3% in France and 8% in Denmark. [In the Netherlands the market share for organic food is around 2,5%]. The key reasons for the low penetration of organic food in Japan is the lack of local organic agriculture (again about 0.5% of total agriculture), the relatively low level of awareness of organic food among Japanese consumers, and the lack of availability and high cost of imported organic food.

Still, the picture is progressively brightening for the organic food market. People are increasingly looking for healthier food options, and specifically organic food. Most of this demand is being met by imported organic food. Also, although organic food retailing is still very underdeveloped, progressively more retailers are investing in this concept.”

Is Japan an interesting market for Dutch/European organic food brands, and what would you advise interested companies?

“Japan is certainly an interesting market for Dutch/European organic food brands, but suppliers should very carefully consider if they are ready to take up the challenge.

Here is a starter list of things to consider:

  1. Excellent branding/image
  2. Products should be excellent tasting, very high quality, and have strong unique selling points
  3. Quality control / quality assurance must be of the highest level to avoid risk of claims
  4. Price should be competitive – check impact of freight – need for reefer transport and/or high import duty could result in overly expensive retail price
  5. Ideally minimum 1 year shelf life with monthly production to ensure no shelf-life issues
  6. Commitment to succeed in Japan over the long-term, ensuring the necessary resources are put in place

This is just an indication of what is required. Choose your importing partner carefully, ensuring that they have the resources to succeed and that they can work together well with you. Finally, suppliers need to monitor progress and determine over a suitable period of time what the long-term prognosis is: a) maintain; b) invest for growth; or c) withdraw. Ideally, a good working relationship with the importer will ensure the best result is achieved with no surprises. There is no guarantee of success but there are numerous European organic brands that are achieving increasing success in Japan.”


Thank you, Duco, for sharing your view on this growing niche market in Japan and your advice on market entry.

For those interested, the following website provides some further reading on this topic: Japan country info on Organic World.

And, if you want to get to know the Japanese (organic) food market more closely, FOODEX 2015 will be held in Japan from March 3-6.

CSR in Japan: an interview with Yusuke Yamashita (part 2)

This post continues from part 1: an interview with Yusuke Yamashita, lecturer and researcher on CSR and business ethics in Japan. In this second part he shares his views on the development of CSR in Japan up to now and gives recommendations on what can be done to improve this development.

What role does Corporate Social Responsibility have for the Japanese business community?

At first, most Japanese companies were indifferent to CSR. However, when pollution and environmental problems became big social issues in the 1970s, companies were forced to do something. Originating from this background, until about the 1990s Japanese companies mostly saw CSR as a way to respond to environmental topics.

Nevertheless, Japanese companies were also confronted with other problems than just environmental.As globalization expanded, from the year 2000 onward the need for a more proactive way of CSR and business ethics became clear in Japan as well.

These days, I think that most Japanese businesses think of CSR as part of a strategy to improve a company’s image and of risk management. I don’t think that Japanese people really understand clearly the difference between CSR, business ethics and compliance.

At the same time, the number of Japanese companies that are cooperating with their stakeholders and striving to solve social problems is increasing.

Most companies in Japan are tackling the following three points when they talk about CSR:

1)      Risk management (as a way of company protection)
2)      Positively influencing the financial performance through improving corporate reputation
3)      Philanthropy as a way of resolving social issues

These points are very important for companies now. Yet, this doesn’t constitute an integrated approach of CSR. I think the concept of business ethics in these three points is very weak.

Contemporary CSR in Japan is mostly about dealing with solutions to social problems in Japanese society. However, it is not sufficiently concerned about the social issues in management of Japanese businesses.

Business ethics is about a business becoming a thoroughly ethical being as it is the only way to prevent fraud or scandals occurring in a company. Risk management in itself doesn’t require this type of fully integrated ethical awareness. But business ethics does require of companies to fully integrate this in realizing a better way of doing business. This is the difference with risk management.

I think that a deeper understanding of the concept of CSR will also lead to an increase of efforts in business ethics in the Japanese business world. Despite CSR becoming more included in the Japanese corporate world, there are still many occurrences of fraud and scandals. But I think that more and more Japanese people will want companies to make integrating business ethics a priority over their philanthropic activities.


In your view, what is the main CSR-issue that needs more attention in Japan (either from government, business or consumers)?

I think that there are very little government policies on CSR in place in Japan right now. On my own website, I have published a proposal for 17 policy issues on CSR.

To summarize, these points include a proposal to establish a “CSR Minister” to the government, to establish a CSR Agency, to establish an independent CSR consulting and whistle-blowing contact point and various additional points on stakeholders, tax incentives and transparency.

I will elaborate on a few points of these below.

In Japan there is a “Consumer Agency” (消費者庁) with a responsible minister but I believe we need a CSR Agency and a CSR minister.

Stakeholders are not only consumers and therefore it is necessary that the government has policy in place to also respond to other stakeholders in a suitable manner.

The government should also proactively present all relevant guidelines so that each company can make their individual practice of CSR and business ethics policy into the most appropriate to their business.

The government should support CSR initiatives of companies for example by reducing the tax burden.

However, the government shouldn’t only think about the corporate benefits, but has to be a neutral intermediary between business and stakeholders.

Finally, there is the issue of the National Contact Point of the OECD Guidelines. In Japan there are several ministries that are in charge of the NCP, but this makes it very difficult to understand which section has responsibility for the NCP. This responsibility should be centralized at one section.


Many thanks to Yamashita-san for participating in this blog interview and by sharing his ideas with me in so much detail. どうもありがとうございました!

This series was started by participation in Blog Away NL Maand #2, initiated by Karin Ramaker

CSR in Japan: an interview with Yusuke Yamashita (part 1)

Sustainability, responsible business practices and entrepreneurship: big issues in Asia.

On this blog I share what I know about these topics. But I also want to start sharing views from others: experts on sustainable urban development, academics on corporate social responsibility (CSR), Asia-entrepreneurs etc. This is why I’m starting with a series of short interviews with a wide variety of people about their work and personal ideas about the above question.


Kicking off the series – I’m starting with a Japan-theme – is Yusuke Yamashita. He is a university lecturer and researcher on CSR and business ethics in Japan. We met last year when I was in Tokyo.

I was impressed at that time by his views on corporate social responsibility in Japan including his ideas on the influence of the development of civil society in Japan on CSR and business ethics.

So I am very happy to be able to share some of that with you here.

To try to do justice to the detailed and thoughtful response I received, this interview will be published in two parts. Here, he shares his personal motivation to work in this field. Part 2 will follow with a short history of CSR in Japan and what should be improved.


Why did you choose to work in the field of CSR and business ethics?

To make society a better place, what would be the most effective way? I believe that the way for that is to “transform” as many businesses as possible.

The single organization which is the most powerful in a country is the government. But, if you accumulate the power of all the companies in that country, the power of the companies will become more than that of the government. In other words, it will make much more difference to society to transform all businesses than what any governmental policy can do. Theoretically speaking.

This means that when more companies become more ethical in their activities, the better they can integrate CSR – and in turn society will become a little better. In order to achieve this, I would like to collaborate as an academic researcher.

Historically speaking, in Europe and North-America the people gained democracy through their own power. But this is not true for Japan. Democracy in modern Japan was bestowed on Japan by other countries after the defeat in the Second World War.

Accordingly, you might say that awareness of “citizenship” is low among many Japanese people. For most of us Japanese, the use of “public” often has the meaning of “government”. But, I think that originally “public” is “the space of citizens”: civil society is made up of individual citizens.

That there is a weak awareness of “citizenship” in turn means that there is a weak awareness of being a “stakeholder”. When the influence and presence of stakeholders is low, it is not possible to realize CSR and business ethics.

So for CSR and business ethics in Japan I believe it is not just the business world that has to change but it is also necessary for Japanese stakeholders to mature as citizens.


Part 2 will go more into the development of CSR and business ethics in Japan and what can be done to improve this.

This series was started by participation in Blog Away NL Maand #2, initiated by Karin Ramaker