I don't have a dramatic story to tell about how I started my career at the Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union (JCCU). I joined JCCU by chance after I graduated from college. Thirty-five years have already passed since then. Job rotation is a common practice in Japanese companies as a way of enhancing workers’ abilities through various jobs. I have worked at JCCU in a variety of capacities, including as a buyer for grocery stores, Co-op Kyosai Insurance division, peace advocacy (a unique activity of Japanese consumer cooperatives), environmental protection, especially in the development of greenhouse gas emission reduction plans, and in international cooperation. My most memorable work experiences have been on peace advocacy and climate action.
Could you tell us about yourself? When and how did you start working with JCCU?
What is JCCU and how does it work?The first Japanese consumer cooperative was established at the end of the 19th century based on the model of the Rochdale Pioneers Cooperative. In the late 1940s, consumer cooperatives spread across the country to deal with poor livelihood conditions of citizens after the Second World War. JCCU was established in March 1951 as the national union of these consumer cooperatives. Toyohiko Kagawa, the leader of both trade union and cooperative movements in Japan, took office as the JCCU’s first president. In the founding declaration, he said “Peace and better living for people are the ideals of consumer cooperatives and its realization is our primary mission”.
JCCU has two features: one as the national centre of consumer cooperative movement; and the other as a business federation of member cooperatives. Today, JCCU has approximately 320 primary consumer cooperatives and consumer cooperative unions as members, which represent 29 million individual members nationwide, with a total turnover of about JPY 3.5 trillion (approximately USD 32.5 billion).
As the national centre, JCCU collaborates with a variety of organizations, advocates consumers' rights and makes policy proposals for instance on issues related to food security, consumer protection and education, and energy. As a business federation, JCCU also develops and supplies private brand products (CO·OP Brand) to its member cooperatives, and supports the development and streamlining of member cooperatives' businesses and activities.
JCCU has adopted Co-op Action Plan for SDGs in 2018. Could you tell us about key actions taken by Japanese consumer cooperatives to advance SDGs?The philosophy of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - which aims to leave no one behind - echoes with that of the Japanese consumer cooperative movement. Our businesses and activities overlap in many ways with the means of implementation of the 2030 Agenda. So through the Action Plan, we declared our commitment to contribute to the SDGs and set out key areas of action. They include:
SDG1 (End poverty) and SDG2 (Zero hunger): We support activities to fight poverty and hunger both at the national and international levels, including through fundraising by members for international cooperation programmes, organizing children's cafeteria (places to offer free or low-priced foods to economically disadvantaged children), and operating and supporting food banks and food drives.
SDG 3 (Good health and well-being) and SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities): We provide welfare services, particularly home care services for the elderly. Recognizing the importance of preventive care, we also promote welfare service and mutual aid activities among members and engage in community-based integrated care systems in partnership with local authorities and other organizations. There are 105 health and welfare cooperatives with nearly three million members across Japan. Health and welfare cooperatives in Japan are part of consumer cooperatives where both medical staff and users of services join as members on equal footing. They play important roles in promoting health and healthy lifestyles for people in local communities placing emphasis on preventive care and fostering members’ activities for health promotion.
SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (Climate action): We have set an ambitious "2030 Environmental Target" to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent compared with 2013. We encourage our consumer-members to choose renewable energy options. We also promote renewable energy generation across the country.
SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth): We promote gender equality and social inclusion through our activities in local communities and also create cooperative enterprises where everyone can work with motivation. Today more than 90 per cent of our members are women. Most consumer cooperatives especially communit- based societies are supported by women members. We encourage those members to participate in the policy making process as well as operations and members’ activities. The percentage of full time women directors and managers working for consumer cooperatives is slightly higher than the industry average. However, there is still much work to be done to achieve true gender equality in the workplace.
SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production), SDG 14 (Life below water) and SDG 15 (Life on land): In the 1960s, Japanese consumers became increasingly concerned about the use of chemicals as food additives in the processed and packaged groceries, which often caused serious health problems. In addition, consumers were concerned about high inflation, misleading labelling in groceries, and air and water pollution. Such circumstances gave momentum to consumers seeking food that was healthier and safer for consumption as well as more environmentally friendly.
We develop and supply products that care for working conditions of producers and workers as well as the sustainability of limited natural resources and promote “ethical consumption”. We also promote the reduction and recycling of waste from households through adopting more eco-friendly packaging and awareness raising.
SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions): The founding motto of JCCU is “For peace and better life”. We promote the peace movement hand in hand with people all over the world to achieve true peace and nuclear-free world. We support activities of our members to pass the experience of the atomic bombings and the war memories onto next generations.
JCCU received the Deputy Chief of the SDGs Promotion Headquarters (Chief Cabinet Secretary) Prize at the second Japan SDGs Award in 2019. It was awarded for the development and supply of CO·OP brand products that contributed to the promotion of "ethical consumption”, and for our support to various businesses and activities of our member cooperatives across the country to advance the SDGs.
What were the objectives of the JCCU collaboration with the ILO through the ILO-JCCU African Cooperative Leaders Study Tours? How did the collaboration start?The ILO-JCCU African Cooperative Leaders Study Tour started in 2010 after our discussions with the ILO Office for Japan. We thought it would be a meaningful programme to promote cooperation among cooperatives in Japan and African countries.
The basic principle of JCCU’s international cooperation is to support human resource development of fellow cooperatives. Co-operators usually work within their local communities, but learning good practices and unique activities of other cooperatives around the world can be beneficial in reviewing and improving their own cooperative systems. We have learned a lot from practices of cooperatives around the world and continue to do so.
Although we are not able to provide financial or material resources, we have long been cooperating in human resource development with cooperatives particularly in Asian countries. We have organized human resource development programmes of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) Asia Pacific Region and other cooperative training programmes for decades.
What have been some of the good practices and lessons learned from these collaborative initiatives?In each edition of the study tour, we held a public seminar on African cooperatives. It brought together not only consumer cooperative members but also policy makers, practitioners, researchers and students interested in cooperatives and the social and solidarity economy (SSE) abroad. I believe this was a worthwhile initiative that transcended the framework of a cooperative in Japan.
Could you share with us some of the key responses to the COVID-19 crisis by Japanese consumer cooperatives?Consumer cooperatives have experienced a surge in demand for our home delivery and store businesses and in new membership applications due to the lockdown measures. They are striving for their mission to support members’ livelihoods by securing and delivering daily necessities such as foods and hygiene products. At stores, they are taking preventive measures such as ensuring social distancing and setting special shopping hours for the elderly and vulnerable consumers.
School closures resulted in a decrease in milk consumption for school lunches. In response, many cooperatives have implemented campaigns to encourage milk consumption to support producers and avoid food waste. Moreover, consumer coops which operate or support food banks and children’s cafeterias deliver food items to children and people in need and through the livelihood support centres.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities for JCCU and its members in the next decade?In the past few decades Japan has faced a challenge of aging population and declining birth rates, and the country's national strength has been declining. While cooperatives cannot change this trend, we can respond by creating communities where the elderly can live well and children can grow up healthily. It is important to actively engage in the provision of elderly care and child care.
Japan is a country prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. In recent years, torrential rains and floods have been occurring more frequently possibly due to climate change. Consumer cooperatives have signed agreements with local governments to provide emergency relief supplies in the event of a natural disaster, and they have been cooperating with victims of earthquakes and torrential rains to rebuild their lives.
Many consumer cooperatives have also signed agreements with local governments to look after the elderly in their communities using their home delivery networks. Some of them have expanded mobile grocery stores for people living in underpopulated areas. These infrastructures are useful not only in normal times but also in times of crisis like natural disasters. While interpersonal relationships are weakening in our society, we work with local governments and a range of other local organizations to create better communities where the elderly, children, and all other people can live in peace.