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"Green" Consumerism Catches On in Japan

May 2, 1997

More and more consumers are learning about environmentally friendly products. (Photo: Green Purchasing Network)

A number of organizations in Japan these days are trying to be more environmentally aware when purchasing products. The "buy green" movement has spread to nearly 700 companies, local governments, and private-sector organizations. Guidelines for assessing the environmental soundness of products are also being formulated. These guidelines not only will assist consumers in their purchasing decisions, but also, as environmental consumerism continues to spread, are likely to encourage manufacturers to develop more "green" products.

Guidelines for Buying Green
The "buy green" movement is an effort to protect the natural environment by expanding the market for environmentally sound products. This involves getting buyers to consider not only the usual factors such as price, features, and quality, but also environmental impact, and to seek out environmentally sound products. In February of last year, companies and local governments from all over Japan formed a nationwide Green Purchasing Network (GPN) for this purpose. When it started, the network consisted of 70 organizations. As of this past March, the number had grown to 692, and included 464 companies, 121 local governments, and 107 citizens' groups.

To promote its objectives, the GPN has gathered the information needed to make informed green purchases, has made that information available to the public, and has carried out public-relations campaigns. The organization has also devised some basic guidelines for green purchasing. First, we should choose products whose life cycle (from obtaining raw materials through disposal) exerts as little impact as possible on the environment. Second, we should purchase products from companies that show a strong concern for the environment. And third, we should become well-informed about the products and their manufacturers' and sellers' environment-related policies, and base our purchase decisions on that information.

The member organizations of the GPN give a variety of reasons for their joining the network. According to one group, "we saw that the global environment was going downhill before our eyes. We decided it was important to look for things we could do right away, and since green purchasing was one of them, we joined the GPN." Another member group states that "before joining the network, even if we wanted to choose environmentally friendly goods, there just wasn't enough product information out there to help us make our choices."

In response to these voices, the GPN is now in the process of formulating green purchase guidelines for specific types of products. One example is copy machines and printers. To be considered environmentally sound under the guidelines, these machines need to have energy-saving features, allow copying or printing on both sides of the paper, and make use of recyclable materials. Similarly, office paper needs to include a large proportion of recycled material and have a low bleach content. The Network plans to create similar guidelines for other products, including stationery and office supplies, home appliances, cars, and furniture.

Getting Consumers into the Act
The organizations within the GPN are already following these purchase guidelines. The government of Shiga Prefecture, known for taking a progressive approach to efforts of this kind, is trying to promote the full-scale adoption of green purchasing practices in workplaces. The prefectural government has created a list of recommended products that include office supplies, office equipment, and bathroom supplies, and holds meetings to explain the use of green products. According to a representative of the prefectural government's Commodities Management Division, Shiga Prefecture uses nearly 30 million sheets of paper annually. Thus the government itself can be expected to play a major role in expanding the market for environmentally sound products.

But in order to be really effective, green purchasing needs to catch on among consumers too. To extend the movement beyond businesses and local governments to the general public, the Green Purchasing Network plans to host a symposium and several exhibitions during June, designated as Environmental Month.

Other countries, most notably Germany, have employed green purchasing practices for a long time now. And since the latter half of the 1980s, green consumerism has become widespread in other parts of Europe and in the United States as well. In the United States, executive orders have been issued for the procurement of environmentally sound products, and these orders are now being carried out. The U.S. government has produced a guide to about 3,000 green products. Through the efforts of the GPN, Japan, too, is increasingly aligning its efforts with those in other nations around the world.

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