Consumers in Japan are increasingly adopting a new criterion for shopping, alongside quality, price and safety.
The fourth criterion is ethics, leading citizens to consider whether they can contribute to their community and planet in their consumption.
“Ethical consumption” is included in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015, calling for all people to contribute to efforts to reduce environmental destruction and poverty and improve the quality of life in the course of consumption and production.
An event held by the Japanese government for schoolchildren during this year’s summer vacation included an “ethical supermarket” at a conference room in the Consumer Affairs Agency.
Among articles for daily use and food products displayed in the room, pens carried an eco-label indicating the use of recycled plastics in production, while a label issued by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit organization promoting the responsible management of the world’s forests, was attached to notebooks and tissue paper made of wood from responsible sources.
Packages of chocolates carried the International Fairtrade Certification Mark, testifying that they had been traded with proper labor environments and at fair prices.
A label indicating “wake-ari” (there is a reason) was attached to wrappings for zucchini that are nonuniform in shape and size but don’t differ in taste. The labeling was aimed at stimulating demand to reduce “food losses.”
An agency official acting as a sales assistant told visitors, “Problems in the world, such as global warming and child labor, can be tackled if each of you recognizes them before buying goods.
“I didn’t know there are so many things (covered by ethical consumption),” said Yuto Oi, 12, who participated in the event from Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. “I will check them when I go shopping.”
Although labels can help consumers buy merchandise “ethically,” there are no unified standards for ethical consumption and individual organizations have their own criteria. Better disclosure of information would help show how purchases of specific products serve ethical purposes.
The International Organization for Standardization is working to draw up standards.
Ethical consumerism, though an international movement, is still unknown to most consumers in Japan. According to a survey by the agency, 6 percent of respondents had heard about it, while less than 30 percent said they practiced it regardless of their knowledge level.
To promote ethical consumption, Kazumi Okamura, secretary-general of the agency, recommends that consumers buy goods in categories in which they have interest, such as support for places damaged by natural disasters.
The agency survey found that some 70 percent of people believe companies can improve their image by offering ethical products. “Economic vitality can be strengthened if companies promote the development of products that are friendly to the earth and people,” Okamura said.
In particular, Okamura highlights an “alliance between agriculture and welfare” through farming by people with disabilities.
The alliance can help address labor shortages in the agricultural industry and improve the incomes of disabled people, Okamura said. “Eventually, it should create a more inclusive society.”