One of the first Japanese phrases I learned when I came to Japan was “benri,” which means “convenient” (and, therefore, good). It’s no wonder then, that Japan boasts more than 50,000 convenience stores.
With the current concerns about the environment, sustainability and one-time-use plastics, though, I think it’s time to re-evaluate the word “convenient.”
The opposite of “convenient” is “inconvenient.” It’s a pretty sure bet that no one is fond of inconveniences, but they tend to be subjective. What’s the line between inconvenience and just plain laziness?
In some European countries, a percentage of customers will refrain from using bags at all — even eco-bags. When at the grocery store, for example, they transport their goods to the car in a store-provided shopping basket, empty the contents into the trunk and return the basket. When they arrive home, they carry the loose items into the house, thus never having to use a bag at all.
I suspect people in Japan would declare that inconvenient, but I consider it clever. Those model citizens skipped the entire debate about plastic bags — whether to offer them, charge for them or make them biodegradable — and instead found a work-around to eliminate the problem entirely.
Perhaps we in Japan should rethink our definition of convenience and reassess our individual boundaries to become more responsible citizens. As a nation, it would bode well to collectively be more astute when conducting our daily activities.
I’d like to apply the spirit of this idea to giving and receiving gifts. In a society that relies on using such offerings to express praise, gratitude, apology and friendship, sustainable giving should be a priority for all of us. But the truth is that most items are bought pre-packaged and overwrapped without a thought about the consequences to mother earth. So, what is one to do?
● Resist picking up “conveniently” wrapped and boxed provisions at the train station. While the Japanese are fiercely supportive of regional products, rather than opting for assembly-line merchandise representative of the region (mass-produced cookies, cakes and so on), choose items made by locals such as pottery, textiles and whole foods.
● Keep a stock of eco-friendly gifts at home so you won’t be caught off-guard should you need a quick token of gratitude. I keep a stack of natural soaps. They’re easy to store, have no expiration date and, well, everyone needs soap! (Especially these days.)
● Give sustainability to receive sustainability. I learned this from a friend who always gives me eco-friendly products. When it comes time for me to give something back to her, you can bet I’ll give her something in line with her environmental values.
● Give experiences like tickets to the cinema, the theater or a sporting event, or even a meal at a popular restaurant. These are useful gifts that won’t wind up at the dump.
● Wrap creatively by using old, throw-away comics pages as nostalgic covering or English-language newspaper. I often use furoshiki, decorative wrapping cloths, since they’re reusable. Strips of traditional kimono cloth or indigo make nice ribbons.
● Ditch the “Take it, it’s FREE!” mentality. In Japan, customer loyalty is often rewarded via o-makemono (extra products) at shops. It’s fine to accept a giveaway if it’s something you need or can use. If it’s truly something you don’t want, can’t use or goes against your environmental standards, learn to very politely decline. Express your appreciation of the gesture while telling the cashier you really can’t take it (because you have too many already, for example). Many novelties are given out willy-nilly in Japan. Make an educated choice as to what to accept.
These are just a few examples of how to become more environmentally friendly when giving gifts in Japan. I’m sure you also have your own ideas, so let’s start implementing them.