ILO COOP 100 Special Interview Series “Cultivate the COOPs” Vol.1 Ms. Kiyoko Koto (The Earth Club Co.Ltd.: a subsidiary company of the Japanese Consumers' Co-operative Union (JCCU))

News | 01 July 2020
On March 23, 2020, the ILO Cooperative Unit celebrates its 100th anniversary. The Unit has a history of providing essential infrastructure and services to areas beyond the reach of national and corporate services, contributing to decent work and the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a time when the world is facing the threat of the spread of the new coronavirus and the need for solidarity among people is more important than ever, cooperatives are in the spotlight.

We take this opportunity to look back on the activities of cooperatives in Japan in order to make the image of cooperatives (old and distant) among the younger generation more familiar and attractive. What role will cooperatives play in work, life, consumption, and production in the future, and in the current crisis, including the current pandemic? How can they create a better future? Through interviews with cooperative workers who are active in their respective cooperatives, we would like to cultivate and explore the strengths and possibilities of cooperatives with the ILO's youthful interns at the ILO Office for Japan.
Ms. Kiyoko Koto
After graduating from university, Ms Koto joined the Consumers Co-operative Kobe in 2003, and after working at the Co-op Purchasing Center, she became a full-time executive officer of the Co-op Kobe Trade Union in 2007. After working at stores and in the Home Delivery Division, she was seconded to the Japanese Consumers' Cooperative Union (JCCU) in 2014. She was involved in Co-op product development, raw material inspection and procurement, and making proposals and advice to JCCU member co-operatives. In 2016, she transferred to the JCCU Quality Assurance Division. Since 2018, she has been working at the Earth Club Co. Ltd., where she is mainly involved in supplying electricity to Co-op offices and members' houses and procuring electricity for that purpose.


Consumers’ Co-ops are suppling renewable energy!? What is the Earth Club Co.?

Earth Club Co., Ltd. is a subsidiary of the Japan Consumers' Cooperative Union, which was established to carry out the electric power business of the consumers’ co-ops. It was established in 2014 with the goal of "creating, using and promoting" renewable energy. It aims to contribute to the realization of a sustainable society through the electric power business with a focus on the procurement and supply of renewable energy sources (including FIT electricity).

My current work is "Promoting Renewable Energy in Consumers’ Co-ops."

● Please tell us about your current job.
My job is to supply electricity to consumers’co-op's offices and members. I am not only in charge of supplying electricity derived from renewable energy sources, but also in charge of procurement and promotion of its use. In the wake of the nuclear accident caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, we are committed to eliminating carbon dioxide emissions and reliance on nuclear power.
To promote renewable energy usage, I am mainly working with consumers’ co-ops business sites that have not yet been able to introduce renewable energy.

● What do you find most rewarding about your current job?
The beginning of my current job was simply a personnel transfer, but I find it rewarding to be in a department that is able to look ahead and implement the consumers’co-op's overall policy on renewable energy.
In addition, our most important task is to maintain an equal balance between the amount of electricity needed on any given day and at any given time. I feel that I am contributing to ensure a stable energy supply for Japan when I can accurately predict this balance and purchase the right amount of electricity.
Lastly, electricity is completely different depending on what that is made of. Electricity generated domestically, using domestic energy, is a source of money for the domestic market. On the other hand, in the case of electricity generated from natural gas and oil imported from overseas, the money will flow to foreign countries that export fuel. Everyone uses electricity on a daily basis, but I find it interesting to know where electricity bills are circulating and how my money is being spent.

Consumers’ co-op members: a source of the strength during hard rookie years

● I can feel your enthusiasm for your current job! Did you originally plan to work for a cooperative?
When I was in university, the only cooperative that I knew about was a consumers’ co-op, so the reason why I chose to work at a consumers’ co-op was probably that consumer co-ops were close to me.  When I looked for a job, I was not interested in a stock company and I wondered if it was fun to make a profit for shareholders. In this sense, I became interested in cooperatives because it was an organization where everyone was equal.
However, I was told, as if it were a joint stock company, that "in order to carry out business-related activities in a cooperative, you need resources, so you need to make a profit through home deliveries, stores, etc.," which sometimes made me feel a little confused. However, over time I came to understand the meaning better.

The Consumers’ co-op’s way of dealing with the earthquakes

● How has the consumers’ co-ops worked together and cooperated in emergencies such as the recent spread of the new coronavirus, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake?
I was a student at the time of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, and I learned a lot about what happened at that time from my senior colleagues at work. The Co-op Kobe had an agreement* with Kobe City to secure daily commodities in an emergency, so even though the Co-op Kobe headquarters had collapsed, they were able to send out relief supplies immediately in cooperation with the distribution center and business partners. Staff members also rushed to the site and sold items in the stores outside, even though their own houses had been destroyed. When I read this story, I realized that the root of the consumers’ co-op employees is their attitude of "working for someone else, even in a difficult situation.”
After the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Kumamoto Earthquake, we have built horizontal links with other consumers’ co-ops through their experience in disasters, and we have established a system that enables us to immediately assign places to go in case of emergency.

In the wake of the new coronavirus, each consumers’ co-op is having a difficult time, so the JCCU is now working as the consumers’ co-op federation to understand the situation of each co-op and to protect workers. We are sending masks that had been stockpiled for emergencies to medical co-ops and employees at nursing care facilities.

*  In 1980, 15 years before the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, Kobe City and Co-op Kobe signed an agreement on securing daily commodities in an emergency. Reflecting on the shortages, panic and price frenzy that occurred during the oil crisis, Kobe City and Co-op Kobe established a study group on price issues. The first is to create a system for arranging goods in an emergency to prevent stores from running out of stock, the second is to strengthen the price monitoring function to maintain fair and appropriate prices, and the third is to distribute prices fairly. Given that it is the elderly and disabled in particular who will be the first to suffer in the event of a panic, discussions were held to prepare a specific system, and as a result, an Agreement on Securing Supplies of Living Goods in an Emergency was signed.

A "natural" collaboration that transcends organizational boundaries

● From what I've heard so far, I feel that "horizontal connections" is a keyword when talking about consumers’ co-ops.
In fact, neighboring consumers’ co-ops sometimes see each other as rivals in a good way, but in an emergency such as the pandemic, horizontal connections are so strong that they help each other, which I find interesting (laugh). The idea that it is natural to help each other is driven by past experiences of being helped. I think the spirit of mutual aid is rooted in this shared experience.
● Have this horizontal connection contributed to renewable energy projects?
Renewable energy has different potential depending on the region. For example, the northern part of Japan (Tohoku) is good at wind power, while the southern part (Kyushu) is good at geothermal power. Therefore, when a consumer’s co-op asks us, "We want to procure new renewable energy, but where should we approach? We can introduce another consumers’ co-op and ask them to help us out, or we can exchange information.
In addition, the entire consumers’ co-ops have adopted a policy of "Let's produce and use energy without relying on nuclear power," so even when we connect two different consumers’ co-ops for a business, we share the idea of renewable energy as a future measure against global warming. Of course, we will look at numbers and profits, but I think it is important to have such a shared policy.

Tackling Energy Issues for the Children in the Future

● Are there any areas of social issues such as the SDGs that you are most concerned about and would like to work on?
Since I work in energy-related business, I am most interested in Goal 13, "Take specific measures against climate change.” The JCCU says, "Let's promote countermeasures against global warming with the use and spread of renewable energy," and I believe that my department is in charge of specifically promoting this goal.
In addition, as a specific practice of Goal 7, "Keep Energy Clean for Everyone," we would like to procure and expand the use of renewable energy sources.

● What do you think is the significance of the Earth Club Co. addressing environmental issues?
As an organization that cares about the future, I think it is important to work on renewable energy. We must not leave a negative legacy to the children who will carry Japan in the future, and we must stop global warming, which is said to be the cause of the current disasters. Therefore, even if only a little, we need to get involved in renewable energy.
We have many opportunities to think about energy together with our co-op members at member study sessions held by each consumers’ co-op, and the purpose is often not for our own sake, but rather for the sake of our future children.
We are also working to raise awareness of our staff. We sometimes hold training sessions for staff members, including delivery staff, at delivery centers. It is one of my dreams to have all the consumers’ co-op staff including those in charge of deliveries learn about renewable energy in the future.

2030...I want the consumers’ co-op to be in the midst of people’s "daily lives”

● What is your vision for the next 10 years?
The Earth Club's goal is to convert all of Japan's electricity to 100% renewable energy. To achieve this goal, we want to make the Earth Club's business one of the main projects of the JCCU. We want to grow our business operation and become more involved in the procurement and spread of renewable energy throughout Japan. To achieve this, we are saying, "Let's first become a group of professionals in renewable energy sources and electricity.

● Do you have your own vision?
As an individual, I would like to make consumers’ co-ops as something taken for granted in our daily lives. I think there are many people who know about consumers’ co-ops but have not been involved in them, so it would be great if co-ops are not something special but are part of our everyday lives. As a first step, I would like to make an effort in the field of electricity, which is something I am involved in now.

● How do you think cooperatives should be developed today in order to reach out the younger generation?
This is something I've always thought of as a challenge. I think that communication is more important than development. Cooperatives have an image of being stiff and old-fashioned, so I want people to feel that they are actually close to them. For example, as mentioned in the SDGs "Responsibility to create and Use," I think it is important for people to understand that they are part of a cooperative, even only by choosing a consumers’ co-op product made with carefully selected ingredients. I think the important thing is not how the cooperatives themselves will change, but how they communicate what they do.

● From today’s interview, I feel that the vision and philosophy held by cooperatives is something today's young generation can relate to. It would be great if cooperatives are increasingly recognized as an organization with universal values.
We are an old organization with a long history, but I would be happy if people thought of us that way.
After working for many years with consumers’ co-ops, the first thing I like about co-ops is its culture of putting yourself in other people's shoes and acting on that attitude. I think this is reflected in the fact that many consumers’ co-ops went to the scene of a disaster as soon as possible.

● If you are to describe cooperatives in one word, what would it be?
It would be “Connection.” While there is not much of a hierarchy, we have been able to cope with earthquakes because of our horizontal connections.