Planning for flexibility

The good thing about not having had enough preparation time for this week in the Netherlands? I still have some holes to fill up in my schedule this week.

I guess I knew this would work out. As this week progresses, I am finding more and more people to talk to. So, after the realization yesterday that NGO’s in Japan are generally considered to be fairly weak towards companies I now seem to have found an NGO who is active in monitoring corporate behaviour. And hopefully I’ll be able to meet with this NGO at the end of the week, to get the other side of the story. Good stuff.

CSR in Japan: transparency & trust

Do you gain trust by being transparent? Or do you become more transparent when people trust you?

These are some questions I’m left with after getting a bit more perspective on corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting in Japan today. According to a 2011 survey of KPMG, 99% of Japanese companies publish a CSR report. An impressively high number, especially when you realize that there is no government regulation telling them to do so.

On corporate reporting

And, not only do many companies report – these reports are also easily accessible. No less than three (competing) Japanese websites focus on sharing CSR reports online and offer related services, such as extended search options, a report cover design award and seminars on this topic. But most of all: they offer exposure of these reports.

Today, I spoke to the people behind one of these websites, CSR Japan, about their work and about the characteristics of CSR reporting in Japan. I initially contacted this organisation as I assumed it would be the CSR association in Japan, much like MVO Nederland is in the Netherlands. The information on their website quickly showed their focus on collecting CSR reports (the website currently contains almost 500 reports of over 200 companies) and making these accessible.

I haven’t seen anything similar in the Netherlands, and I love how you can really search the relevant themes you want to know about – and it will give you the individual pages from the various reports. Imagine how much easier that makes it if you want to compare what various companies write about supply chain management, to give just one example. And on the plus side for companies who have their report listed here, they can get an overview of what pages have been viewed how often, and there’s a weekly ranking of the most searched for topics. This week, the top 5 consists of: company mission, work-life balance, investor relations, biodiversity and ‘relation with society and the environment’.

And as mentioned, CSR Japan is just one of three:

Eco Hotline has the largest collection with reports from more than 500 companies

CSR Toshokan has published reports from 400 companies

Each comes with their own additional services, of which Eco Hotline’s Report Cover Design Award is one example. [I will update this post when I have an answer to the question where this difference in quantity comes from. My guess is companies pay for the advantage of being listed, but I need to check]

Reasons for being transparent

So, why are these companies happily writing these reports, while in Europe there is a debate going on that making reporting mandatory will lead to higher costs for business? Why are Japanese companies doing this voluntarily?

CSR Japan explains this through the fact that there have been some major environmental disasters in Japan in the past (of which a well known example is Minamata). This has increased awareness from the public and from companies that it is important to be transparent about their business activities and their (environmental) impact.

Because indeed, the reports of Japanese companies seem to focus more (in comparison to for example European reports) on environmental than on social aspects of CSR. This also came back in other talks I have had today. The explanation for this may be sought in the fact that Japan has developed their own guidelines for reporting, but these focus solely on environmental issues: Environmental Reporting Guidelines by the Ministry of Environment. Luckily the other topics are partly covered by reporting through a combination of these guidelines, GRI and ISO26000.

What audience?

So, it appears that Japanese companies are mostly transparent about their activities – which is of course very good. We then spoke about who reads the reports and whether or not this makes companies vulnerable. In Europe and the US, NGO’s sometimes maintain a type of watchdog function to make sure that companies are behaving correctly – hence the vulnerability by reporting what you do, or do not do. Interestingly, Japanese NGO’s do not seem to have this function at all – and in fact are usually very trusting of Japanese companies. There are hardly examples of big campaigns being set up when something has gone wrong, because it turns out that much more than in many other countries the population of Japan overwhelmingly trusts its corporations. And doesn’t particularly think of the NGO-sector of being trusted to do the right thing.

This interesting bit of information comes from the Edelman Trust Barometer, which I heard about in a later meeting, and which surveys the level of trust annually across around 20 countries worldwide in the government, the media, business and ngo’s. This is quite a different view towards corporations than for instance in the Netherlands, where it sometimes feels that NGO’s have no trust at all in companies (and where in fact some NGO’s and politicians are calling for more regulation and monitoring on CSR topics to ensure that companies will not do anything wrong through their business activities).

I also feel that this situation changes the dynamic of CSR in Japan, compared to Europe. It may be too early to draw that conclusion, after only a few discussions. Of course you would hope that the watchful eye of NGO’s and consumers is not the sole reason for companies to behave responsibly. However, knowing that you are being held accountable for your actions – or maybe rather, knowing that no one is really watching what you are doing – must make for different choices in putting together and implementing a company’s CSR policy.

Which brings me back to the question: does transparency beget trust, or is it the other way around?

Tokyo: ready to go

Tokyo

Sunday night, and I’m writing this after a whirlwind weekend in Osaka and after having prepped my meetings for tomorrow this evening in Tokyo.

Tomorrow is the start of a week to discover in person (instead of through reading online articles or books) what is really happening with corporate social responsibility and sustainability in Japan. Is it on the agenda here? And if so, what are the main issues? Some (many?) things* in daily life in Japan make me wonder if it is a concern at all for people living here, so I guess there’s only one way to find out.

I’m very excited to be heading into this week, one of the biggest things yet to do in my short career as an independent advisor on these topics. I have many questions to hopefully have answered this week, but at the same time I have no idea really what kind of results this week will bring. I do know one thing for sure: I’ll be one step closer at being successful in my work.

It’s also the first time to be on a work trip that I’ve put together completely on my own – and this feels good as well. Especially because the last few days have seen the addition of several new meetings during this week which means I know have a varied and interesting week ahead of me. I have meetings with business (both Japanese & Dutch), with academics working on CSR & sustainable urban development, with several organizations promoting CSR & sustainability in one or the other. And I have a few places on my list to visit while I’m here: the newest co-working space in Tokyo based on a Dutch concept and an exhibition on ‘design for the future’ to name a few.

I hope to be sharing my ideas and thoughts about this week as they form, and of course to show you a little more on what Tokyo is like. To be continued!

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* to name a few of those things: the plastic EVERYWHERE, heated toiletseats, difficulty in eating vegetarian, etc. I will write some more about these later.

Tadaima, Osaka

Osaka / dinner at a great izakaya

Arriving back in Osaka is always good – it’s a city I know, where I can wander around a bit without feeling lost, and where I don’t have to feel guilty about not doing something exciting and new every minute of the time I’m here – as I would in an unknown city.

Nevertheless, this time I look around me a bit more those first few hours in the city – or even, on the way from the airport. The drive from the airport to the city takes you through industrial Kansai: a long stretch of the Osaka port, metal and steel refineries, LNG storage, logistics hubs and much much more.

Again, this time, I think that cities in Asia (or at least the big cities in China & Japan) are like cities of the future: the images we know from sci-fi movies with endless city, skyscrapers as tall as we can imagine, quadruple fly-overs. In Osaka this is not surprising, as it is the third city in Japan with an industrial base to match.

Nevertheless, happy to be back and to be ending the day in a relaxed izakaya with great food, a beer and listening to the banter in Osaka-ben around me.

Op zoek naar duurzaamheid in Japan

“Maar, hoe doe je dat dan?” is de vraag die ik vanmiddag terug kreeg toen ik een collega bij de koffie vertelde over mijn reis naar Tokyo. Ik schreef al eerder dat ik daar ga praten met mensen over maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen en duurzaamheid in Japan, en op dit moment ben ik afspraken voor die week aan het plannen.

Maar, hoe doe je dat dan? Hoe kom je dan aan al die afspraken?, wilde ze wel eens weten. En inderdaad, misschien is dat helemaal niet zo voor de hand liggend als ik denk. Want waar begin je als je op zoek bent naar mensen die iets zinnigs te zeggen hebben over deze onderwerpen?

Om die onbekende mensen te vinden ben ik begonnen bij de mensen die ik al wel ken: zij weten misschien niet direct iets over duurzaamheid maar wel over Japan. En dus kunnen ze me vast verder helpen. Een van mijn eerste emails voor een afspraak ging daarom naar de Nederlandse ambassade in Tokyo, waar ik jaren geleden stage liep en ook nu nog goede contacten heb – niet toevallig door mijn vorige werk. De afspraak staat, maar ook een introductie naar iemand anders.

Die introducties zijn belangrijk. Ik merk dat dat er voor zorgt dat ik sneller ergens binnen ben dan wanneer ik out of the blue een onbekende email. Tja, zakendoen in Japan heeft nou eenmaal te maken met persoonlijke relaties. Maar aan de andere kant, zo werkt dit in Nederland toch ook? Mijn netwerk inzetten en via hen weer een volgende stap zetten is ook hoe ik hier te werk ga.

Preparing for Tokyo

Tokyo Sky Tree / from Kappabashi-dori

In only a short time from now I’ll be heading to Japan (mostly Tokyo) for a week or so for work. Yikes. That date is quickly getting closer. Which is great – I can’t wait – but this week I’ve also realized that it’s now really time to start filling up that week with appointments and meetings.

I have a long list of people and organisations I would like to meet with. Many of which will not be a problem to meet with, but some of these people have no idea who I am. So it’s also important to get my story right when contacting them. Exciting – another step in establishing my own business.

Why am I going to Tokyo? The trip has a few objectives, but mostly it is meant to further strengthen my professional network locally and to do some research on a few topics I’ve been working on. Mostly these are to get a better perspective on developments on sustainable urban development in Japan, and to find out more on CSR in Japan: what are the main topics in Japan for companies and what are currently the main challenges?

[UPDATE 12/5: thinking about it more, the main question that I take with me to Tokyo is Are Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability on the business agenda in Japan?]

To be continued, of course. And in the mean time, if anyone has further suggestions of relevant organisations/people to meet with who can help me with the above questions, I’d love to hear them!

Along the tsunami coast

Kesennuma, Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata, Miyako – two weeks ago I was travelling through a region in Japan where I had only heard of the names of places because of one thing: the tsunami that happened on 11 March 2011.

I only travelled part of this coast though, starting from Miyako in Iwate prefecture and heading north along a coast that is the northern half of the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park: 180 kilometers of stunning and spectacular cliffs, rocks and other natural scenery. I have a feeling this part may be one of the more accessible regions though I don’t know for sure. One reason is that here trains are mostly back up – with a short exception – while I have heard that further south there is much more work still to be done. I guess it’s more remote and some towns there suffered incredible damage.

Miyako is a town which feels good. Yes, there was a lot of damage but in the city centre this is mostly visible when you start noticing how much buildings look very new, or at least the ground floor does. Dinner, for example, was in a very friendly izakaya where the owners renovated for two months before re-opening as the building had been flooded with water 2 meters high. They had been inside during the earthquake and only barely managed to keep themselves standing – and then got the hell out of there to get away as quickly as possible for the expected tsunami.

Most of the ‘visible’ damage in Miyako – the rubble, the collapsed buildings, etc – is gone, with a collapsed Shell gas station as the clear exception. Instead, the city is rebuilding. And you can tell it is: there’s lots of traffic, a lot of people about town, hotels are fully booked, and buildings are being rebuilt where ever you look. The town’s people are positive that when summer is here, so will the tourists.

There’s good reason for the tourists to come to see the dramatic cliffs of the coastal national park. These rocks and cliffs are also again a reminder of the force of nature. They have been here for centuries and still look the same as always: strong, imposing, powerful. Just like the tsunami was.

I’m continuing my journey north by train and for the moment also by bus for a short stretch of railroad which hasn’t been restored yet (the other parts were put back to use only earlier this spring). But like a taxi driver told me “We won’t be beat”, which is even all the more admirable considering that people living here are confronted with what happened every day again – but that only seems to make their conviction to build up their towns and villages even stronger.

A very very impressive start of my 10 days across Tohoku.