Currently, we are in the process of drawing up our long-term vision, and sustainability will be an important element of that vision. So, what does sustainability mean in the Itochu Enex Group? To help answer that question, we invited sustainability expert Kazuo Tase, President and CEO of SDG Partners, Inc., to sit down with Itochu Enex President and Chief Executive Officer Kenji Okada for a conversation about building a sustainable society.
Okada：I have been looking forward to the chance to talk with you. You have much experience working with various companies to improve their sustainability. The goals of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are universal, so it is important to think carefully about their origins and what sustainability means for us as human beings. Thinking that through will help us make sustainability an essential element of every aspect of the Itochu Enex Group’s business activities, and accelerate our efforts to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. And to do that, we need not only appropriate information, whether it be from online, paper and other media sources, but also real-life discussion and dialogue. In the current environment,real face-to-face dialogue has decreased because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but online dialogue that connects people around the world has increased, and that provides a good opportunity to ask what kind of company we, the Itochu Enex Group, should be in the coming era. In this discussion,I would like to identify areas where your way of thinking and mine overlap and where they differ, and tackle the question,“What is sustainability?”
Tase：SDG Partners, which was founded in 2017, seeks to bring about a world in which companies create social value in every aspect of their operations. The reason I made “SDG” a part of the company name is because the SDGs are more than just global goals for 2030; they give us an opportunity to ask,“What is happiness?” and “What is well-being?” in our long and ongoing coexistence with the Earth.
Okada：When considering the meaning of sustainability, I would question the extent to which science has truly made humans happy. In a little over two centuries, the world’s population has increased by 7 billion people, partly because the power of science has led to dramatic improvements in food production. However, if you look past our achievements during that time, what we see is a huge number of people living in poverty worldwide. One reason is that people are not paid remuneration commensurate with their labor. In the absence of a system for equitably sharing the fruits of labor on a global scale, as the population continues to grow, a distorted structure has developed in which the majority of capital is disproportionately held by a very small fraction of people.
Tase：That is true. In the case of a product that sells for several hundreds of dollars, our surveys revealed that after passing through the hands of the factory owner and the company that owns the brand, only a tiny amount reaches the workers who manufactured it. Even after taking brand value into account, the fact is that for many people, the compensation they receive for making a value-creating product is not equivalent to their share of the value created. Various scientists and researchers have attested that we are the most intelligent species that has ever existed on Earth. Nevertheless, we are facing the reality that we, the fi rst such species to emerge, are driving half the other species on the planet toward extinction. We need to have a sense of crisis that our survival and growth over the next hundreds of thousands of years is by no means guaranteed.
Okada：Thinking about the SDGs, if we could come up with indicators to measure economic development and human happiness, and visualize both, the world might be able to reduce disparities by achieving a different equilibrium.
Tase：In that sense, the goals of well-being and freedom, which are included among the SDGs, are shared by the international community. In the West, the idea of “well-being” is centered on people’s ability to realize their personal ambitions within society. There have been recent changes in Japan in response to that way of thinking, with growing recognition that connections with society are important. I hope that companies spend more time thinking about and aiming to create happiness and well-being in a way that goes a step beyond the concepts of “safety, security and comfort.”
Okada：Since you are up on trends in the West, I wanted to ask your opinion about something. It seems to me that Europe is taking the initiative in writing the rules for sustainability, such as the SDGs. My thought is that Japan needs a defi nitive indicator of its own. Ultimately, I think Japan should do more to blaze its own trail. Amid the deluge of information today, I feel that corporate management is falling into stereotypical patterns that conform to the dictates of global standards, but as a manager, I believe I should decide the basis of value on my own.
Tase：Most important is that any such movement stems from our shared humanity and mission to save those precious to us. I think that appeals to people everywhere. If Japan can become a leader in that area, I think it will win globally as well. You said that you think and decide for yourself, and I feel the same way. One point I have been emphasizing constantly since the pandemic started is that thinking and making decisions for oneself is absolutely crucial.
Okada：Today, we see the importance of diversity being emphasized, but to me, that is nothing out of the ordinary. I always try to take an interest in people who are different from me and who think differently. My discoveries from doing so have shaped the views I now hold.
Tase：You seem to have very little bias. As you said, rather than being with the same kind of people all the time, it is perhaps more interesting to associate with a greater variety of people, and to listen to new ideas.
Okada：Listening to your ideas, I feel that I should better understand the SDGs as a product of larger historical trends. To date, the basis of the Itochu Enex Group’s activities has been the happiness of its employees, business partners and other stakeholders, and being of service, and I am proud that we are a company that has grown by doing that. I see these activities as connected to the SDGs, but just how they tie into sustainability and the SDGs might not be obvious from our current management strategies and vision.
In the future, by looking at events from multiple angles, I want to make sustainability integral to every aspect of our business activities, and enhance our activities to make it easier to understand what we do.
Tase：Because of the pandemic, we have all had time to stop and think. I believe it is extremely important to refl ect on matters and to take action yourself. For the SDGs, ask yourself what you see when looking at them in terms of your own values. Reframing them from that perspective can offer a good starting point.
Okada：Indeed, I would like to have a solid discussion about what is important to us. In the end, what comes next for our corporate activities, including crafting the vision, will be determined by how much the Company, an organism that includes all of its employees, is able to take on challenges, acquire new experience and communicate. Thank you for your time.
After graduating from the School of Nuclear Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Tokyo, Mr. Tase was a visiting researcher at New York University School of Law. He worked at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2005, and at the United Nations from 2005 to 2014. He served as Chief of the UN’s Human Security Unit and as an Acting Director of the UN Information Center. In 2014, he became an executive officer at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC. He established SDG Partners, Inc. in 2017.