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Sunday, July 13, 2008

MEDIA MIX

When it's not quite convenient to protect the planet


"They work all day but still can't pay the price of gasoline and meat / Alas! Their lives are incomplete — Warren Zevon.

As demonstrated by the timid agreement that emerged from last week's G8 summit, it seems impossible to solve the problem of climate change on a global level. Any progress that's been made so far has been local. Take Kyoto, which has pledged to transform itself into "a model city centered on the environment." One of Kyoto's bolder initiatives has been to ask convenience stores to stop operations in the middle of the night in order to cut CO2 emissions. Several other local governments have followed suit.

Last month, the Japan Franchise Association, speaking on behalf of 12 companies comprising 42,000 convenience stores — 40,000 of which operate 24 hours a day — rejected their requests for voluntary cuts in hours, saying it wouldn't make much difference. Refrigerators would still have to operate while the stores were closed and deliveries that are now made during the wee hours would have to be changed to daytime, when traffic is heavier.

The association estimates that its members accounted for a total of 2.67 million tons of CO2 in 2006, or about 0.2 percent of Japan's total emissions. Cutting operating hours between 11 p.m and 7 a.m., therefore, would only result in an overall industry reduction of 4 percent, which means the reduction in terms of all CO2 emissions would only be 0.008 percent.

But JFA didn't stop there. If midnight hours were cut, said the association, it would have an adverse effect on employment, not only in terms of convenience-store staff, but also in terms of people who work for CS suppliers. What's more, JFA said that late-night stores provide a valuable service by acting as safe havens for women who are out alone at night.

JFA wanted to stress that whatever small effect convenience stores have on the environment by emitting CO2 because of round-the-clock operations is more than offset by their contributions to our present 24/7 society. However, in doing so, the association opened up a can of worms. In an Asahi Shimbun feature explicating the pros and cons of 24-hour operation, the mayor of Kyoto pointed out that his city's request for stores to close after midnight was not just about CO2 emissions. He says the stores represent a "lifestyle choice" based on "convenience" that has had a negative impact on both the natural environment and social well-being.

JFA's claim that 24-hour operations are a vital facet of modern society isn't difficult to challenge. According to a Cabinet survey, only 15 percent of a store's daily sales are made between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and only 27 percent of the population patronizes a convenience store during those hours at least once a month. And while the National Police Agency confirms the "safe haven" claim, it has also pointed out that a disproportionate number of late-night robberies occur at convenience stores, implying that they attract crime.

But the strongest challenge comes from the store operators themselves. Contrary to JFA's employment claim, the stores always have a difficult time finding and keeping staff, especially for the graveyard shift. In a letter to the editor responding to the Asahi article, a man from Yokohama said that he believes he speaks for most franchise owners when he says that if it were up to him he'd close his store after midnight. However, he can't, since his franchise contract requires him to be open 24/7. Because franchise owners have to pay their own overhead and wages, he always loses money at night, when sales are minimal. "The headquarters doesn't feel the pain" of the franchise owner, the man writes, since the parent company only makes money from this arrangement. It takes a percentage of everything sold in the store. The midnight revenues of one store may be too small to matter, but multiply those revenues by thousands of stores and it matters a great deal.

The exploitation of franchise owners has been an issue for years, but because the business model is so successful and "convenience" is automatically considered a positive thing, no one really questions it, certainly not the major media, who make a lot of money selling advertisements to convenience-store companies. The muckraking weekly Kinyobi, however, has been running an occasional series about the sins of 7-Eleven since last January.

A recent article described a lawsuit that two franchise owners brought against Japan's biggest chain. The company's franchise agreement stipulates that 7-Eleven pays all vendors as a proxy for the franchise owners and then bills them. However, 7-Eleven does not give the franchise owners itemized reports of what it paid the vendors. The purpose of the suit is to force 7-Eleven to disclose this information. The lower courts backed 7-Eleven, but the Supreme Court recently found in favor of the plaintiffs and sent the case back to the high court.

One of the plaintiffs told Kinyobi that he suspects 7-Eleven receives kickbacks from vendors and that's why they don't provide reports. The company only says its payment procedures are "appropriate," but in a different Kinyobi article, a former franchise owner who is also suing 7-Eleven says he has documents showing that the amount the company paid to vendors is less than the amount the company charged him.

On the surface, these questionable business practices seem to have little to do with climate change, but the holistic point that Kyoto's mayor was trying to make is that both are products of the same selfish attitude: What's a little CO2 or the anguish of a franchise owner compared to the convenience that's our birthright? From there it becomes easy to justify, at least to yourself, not only napping in a car with the engine running, but also waging wars to guarantee that oil flows in the right direction.



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