When Safia Minney first learned over a decade ago the Japanese phrase “mottai-nai” (what a waste) in regard to resources, she knew she was on the right track.
But when she used the phrase to persuade Japanese bank officials to back her business startup plans in the years leading up to 1995, they balked. That was the year the British-born entrepreneur started up Fair Trade Co. in Tokyo, a retailer specializing in imported goods, including scarves and bags, made by poor people in developing countries.
She was confident that the philosophy of valuing resources runs deep in Japan’s culture. She thought consumers would support a company that balances sustainable development and environmental issues with business practice.
Back then, during the hangover of Japan’s bubble economy, you could still see the occasional stereo system sitting on the curb on garbage-day Thursdays. That was all about to change, Minney tried to tell bank representatives.
“Bankers lack vision,” she smiled. “I want them to get a better sense of what’s happening.”
Most of the startup capital came from a savings association in the United Kingdom and friends.
Now, proof of strong demand in “fair-trade” products can be found in the sales record at the company.
Sales topped 560 million yen last year at the firm’s store in Tokyo’s fashionable Jiyugaoka shopping district and a new office that opened in London, as well as through mail order.
The company’s People Tree brand is currently sported at 500 partner shops throughout Japan.
It’s a long way for the firm that began from Minney’s living room with two college students.
One of the most challenging parts about running an enterprise in Japan is communicating with staff, Minney confided. Most of the staff are Japanese.
Minney always uses Japanese, although she is painfully aware that this means she might miss unspoken signals. She noted that 2 1/2 years of rigorous Japanese-language training can’t even begin to make up for the gaps in nuances.
“It’s difficult to know how to tell someone, ‘Good job, but you could have done this or that better.’ “
Not sure if what she’s trying to say has hit home, she ends up giving long-winded explanations on why getting something right is important.
“The explanations get longer and longer, because I mean to stop after an apology, but that never comes. I just end up getting angry.”
Another challenge was to get feedback from Japanese staff, who tend to be shy about volunteering opinions. It was only recently that she started asking “dodesuka?” (what do you think?). This opened up a wealth of information and insights into Japan’s complex logistics system.
The knowledge of how to cut transportation costs and still get products to their final destinations is key, if her firm is to support higher wages to suppliers and still maintain prices on par with competitors.
In the end, though, the language barrier is a surprisingly small obstacle.
Minney has succeeded in providing fair wages, advance payments and support for social welfare projects in developing nations. That alone is fact enough to inspire some employees.
One of them summed it up: “I sometimes don’t fully understand what Safia is saying. But I trust her.”
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