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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010
Corporate social responsibility
On Aug. 4, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the second and third richest men in the world, announced that 40 American billionaires had followed their lead in pledging to give half of their fortunes to charity. They plan to turn their efforts next to China and India.
While the top Japanese billionaire on the list, in 89th place, Mr. Tadashi Yanai, has made no such public pledge, he did take the lead last month among large Japanese firms in announcing a social business project in Bangladesh in cooperation with the Grameen Bank founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Mr. Yanai's Fast Retailing is already producing some clothing in that country for sale at its Uniqlo shops in Japan and elsewhere, but the new, nonprofit venture will make goods to be sold at around $1 each to the Bangladeshis themselves by a network of local women with microloans from the Grameen Bank.
Along with the desire to give the poor a chance to work their way out of poverty, Mr. Yanai sees the long-term merit of both helping build consumer markets in developing nations and being seen to be a good corporate citizen.
Several Japanese companies are now involved in for-profit social enterprises, such as Sumitomo Chemical Co.'s employment of some 4,000 Tanzanians to manufacture mosquito nets to fight malaria, and Nippon Poly-Glu's sales of water purification agents in rural areas of Bangladesh. Ajinomoto is also working in Ghana to develop a more nutritious baby food for sale in Africa.
Japanese apparel makers, inspired by similar movements abroad, are also increasingly participating in "ethical fashion," combining fashion with charity and ecology. Casual clothing chains Uniqlo and Right-on have been selling charity T-shirts to support causes such as earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti and the Special Olympics, while recycling programs run by Uniqlo and Onward permit consumers to turn in used Uniqlo and Onward clothing for distribution to developing countries or the production of thread to manufacture work gloves and blankets for donation to NPOs and refugee programs. A similar project recently undertaken by Marui and six other companies will manufacture bioethanol from recycled cotton fibers.