As Kermit the Frog once said, “It isn’t easy being green.” Take this new “eco points” plan that goes into effect once the latest supplemental budget is formally passed. Consumers who buy refrigerators, air conditioners and TVs designated as having energy saving qualities will receive points that can be used toward the purchase of other energy-saving appliances that have yet to be determined. However, certain parties in the government and the home-electronics industry have complained. If the real purpose of the eco-point system is to stimulate the economy, they say, why limit the use of the points to only energy-saving appliances? For that matter, why limit their use to appliances? Why not extend their application to other products or services?

Of course, once you go there you can’t really call them eco points any more, but nomenclature has always been flexible in Japan. Just ask anyone who’s bought a mansion. Nevertheless, if the eco-point system develops along these lines it’s bound to make the public even more jaded about the term “eco,” and the media just exacerbates the situation. Producers and advertisers alike throw terms like “green” and kankyo mondai (environmental issues) around so casually that people are as likely to think “eco” stands for “economy.”

“Eco air conditioner” has always sounded like an oxymoron to me. The only environmentally friendly air conditioner is one that’s turned off.

Even eco counter-measures that seem beyond reproach are given a second thought once economics enters the picture. Many local governments have come up with policies to discourage the distribution of disposable plastic “cash register” shopping bags, which are considered wasteful and harmful to the environment. Toyama Prefecture seems particularly ambitious. According to the May 9 issue of the Toyama edition of the Chunichi Shimbun, about 120 supermarkets and 90 dry-cleaning establishments in the prefecture started charging between ¥5 and ¥10 for plastic bags in April 2008. The prefecture believes that since the program went into effect, about 92 percent of these stores’ customers bring their own bags. Assuming that these people would have normally received 1.5 plastic bags each time they visited a store, the prefecture estimates that over the course of the year 131 million bags “were not given out,” which means 12,000 barrels of oil “were not used” to produce them and 8,000 tons of CO2 “were not created.” In eco terms, that means 6.88 million cedar trees did not have to be planted to offset this CO2 because it never existed.

This should be good news, but there has been a mini-backlash against the anti-plastic bag movement. A few weeks ago on the TBS morning wide show “Asazuba,” host Monta Mino talked about the increasingly widespread “abuse of eco bags” in supermarkets. Apparently, some people are utilizing their “eco bags” — reusable cloth bags for carrying groceries instead of plastic bags — to shoplift.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported online that shoplifting in Yamaguchi has become a problem after stores in the city started charging for plastic bags. A company that handles security for 10 Yamaguchi supermarkets told the paper that between April 1, when the new bag program went into effect, and April 15 guards caught 16 shoplifters, five of whom used “eco bags” to steal merchandise. The company thinks this may indicate a trend because in March there were 13 shoplifting incidents and only one involved an eco bag.

A section chief of the security company assumes that these numbers are only “the tip of the iceberg,” since it is very difficult to tell if someone is shoplifting when they put an item into their eco bag — technically it isn’t shoplifting until the person leaves the store without paying. “Actually, we were always worried about this,” one store manager said, implying that security was easier when they gave away plastic bags.

Some stores in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, are not happy with eco bags for a different reason. Since implementing a payment system for plastic bags last fall, participating supermarkets have seen sales drop by 6 to 9 percent. Two stores have already gone back to giving away plastic bags.

On the other hand, eco bags themselves have provided sales opportunities for some retailers. Many supermarkets sell their own eco bags and some department stores have set up sections in home furnishings departments that sell entire lines of designer eco bags, including bags that target men and insulated bags for carrying frozen foods. A newspaper in Matsue reports that such bags are selling well because “eco is popular.” Newspaper distributors and other companies give away eco bags as promotional premiums. I have a whole closet full of them.

If the essence of “ecology” seems somehow removed from the eco-bag issue as it’s being reported, it probably has to do less with consumer awareness of environmental matters than with the normal shopping interface, as demonstrated in a recent TV public service spot by the Japan Ad Council. A young female customer and an equally young male cashier play out a typical payment transaction across a convenience store counter. Thought balloons above the woman’s head read, “I don’t need a bag,” while thought balloons above the cashier’s head read, “Does she need a bag?”

Even if the real purpose of the eco bag is to save resources, it functionally eliminates the need for personal interaction. The Ad Council spot implies that you have to be brave and speak up, but a lot of people prefer not having to deal with that part of the process. The eco bag solves the problem by providing an indication of one’s intentions. Show it to the cashier and she understands exactly what you want. No need to talk. No need to even make eye contact. See? It’s not so hard to be green.

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