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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Are 24-hour shops a waste of energy?

Environmentalists want convenience stores to curtail round-the-clock operations


Staff writer

Are 24-hour convenience stores and other late-night businesses eco-friendly?

News photo
Always open: A brightly lit FamilyMart convenience store operates round-the-clock in Saitama earlier this month. KYODO PHOTO

Debate is currently ongoing about whether they should be allowed to stay open round-the-clock, with some municipalities, including Saitama Prefecture, Tokyo and Kyoto, considering asking for voluntary curbs to all-night operations.

"We are considering asking (store operators in the prefecture) to voluntarily refrain from staying open 24 hours, although this is not limited to convenience stores," said Hiroshi Ando, a Saitama official.

By negotiating, the prefecture hopes to reach a compatible arrangement with the stores. But Saitama does not intend to restrict their businesses, Ando stressed.

Behind moves to limit 24-hour business is concern about the environmental impact of round-the-clock operations. "Definitely, 24-hour operations eat up electricity," he said.

Although acknowledging that some people are active late at night, for example because of their jobs, Ando went on to claim "the vast majority have standard lifestyles and get up in the morning and come home from school or work and sleep at night."

"With no time left to waste to combat global warming, we are very concerned about whether it is really good (that stores) stay lit up even past midnight," Ando said.

Saitama Prefecture also wants residents to consider whether their lifestyles are environmentally friendly.

"Some take it for granted that (convenience stores) are open at night. If you stock up (during the daytime), you would not need to go to convenience stores late at night," Ando reckoned.

During the oil crises of the 1970s, neon signs were switched off and gas stations were closed Sundays.

"If we do not change our mindset to a similar extent, global warming will not stop," Ando said. "People certainly have the responsibility to consider what kind of planet we leave for our children or grandchildren."

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is also considering calling on industry groups and others to reconsider the way they operate.

Convenience stores that are open all night can be easy targets for criminals, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said in a news conference last month. "It is certainly meaningless that big stores that do not have many people are lit up and open until morning," he said.

Ishihara made clear that the metropolitan government will work with business groups and others to work out concrete measures to save energy, including turning off neon signs late at night and curtailing the hours department stores and other businesses stay open.

If operators take any of these energy-saving actions, it "would make citizens think of the necessity of saving electricity in their homes," metropolitan official Yutaka Tanigami said, adding the capital has no plans at present to enact an ordinance to curb stores' 24-hour operations.

Kyoto, home of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on curbing global warming, may convene a meeting this month to discuss convenience store operations and people's lifestyles.

"We want to reconsider the late-night operations of convenience stores," Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa told reporters last month, noting that to achieve the goal of protecting the environment and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the city as a first step will ask stores to cut their hours of operations.

Yamanashi Prefecture meanwhile holds a different view of convenience stores.

"We are not currently thinking of uniformly (curtailing) the nighttime" operations of stores, said Hiroshi Goto, a Yamanashi official, noting the prefecture has no plans to urge stores to shorten their business hours.

All-night convenience stores make people's lives safer and easier, Goto said. For example, people can pay automobile taxes at convenience stores after banks and post offices close for the day.

Rural areas would be particularly affected if convenience stores didn't run all night, Goto stressed.

"Our situation is different from that of major cities, where convenience stores can be found everywhere," he said.

The prefecture last month concluded a comprehensive partnership agreement with Lawson Inc. under which the major convenience store chain will supply food, water and other necessities to the public at times of natural disasters. "If (the stores) are not open at the time (disaster strikes), how will they manage that?" Goto asked.

The Japan Franchise Association meanwhile claims that even if all of its member stores nationwide ended late-night operations, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be negligible.

According to an estimate by the group, only 0.009 percent of the entire carbon dioxide emissions from businesses in Japan would be cut, even if all 42,246 member stores were only open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The association instead asserts that round-the-clock operations contribute to society.

For instance, the industry employs roughly 1.3 million people. It said that if operations were cut back to only 16 hours a day, many people will lose their jobs.

The last business year saw more than 13,000 times in which women sought safety or help in convenience stores, fearing they could become victims of crime. Nearly half of these cases happened late at night, the association said.

While welcoming the latest moves by municipalities to curb 24-hour businesses, the central government remains neutral, officials said.

Municipal moves to curb round-the-clock convenience store operations are "basically something we should welcome," Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita told reporters last month, voicing hope that efforts like that of the city of Kyoto spread nationwide.

However, the ministry itself plans no particular action.

"Now is not the time for the state to take aggressive action," said Hiroshi Fujita, a ministry official.

Some experts oppose curbing convenience stores' late-night operations, claiming this runs counter to the reality of modern life and would not help improve the environment.

"Mayors who seek to prohibit convenience stores from running round-the-clock go to their offices at 9 a.m. and do no shopping themselves," said Kunihiko Takeda, a professor of material science and engineering at Chubu University.

"After 5 p.m., they go out to dinner and go to bed around 10," Takeda pointed out. "But in society, there are not only these kinds of people. Some leave their homes early in the morning, and have various other lifestyles.

"Convenience stores operate at night for these people. We definitely have to understand that reality," he noted.

With 24-hour convenience stores, people do not have to have large, energy-consuming refrigerators at home to store food, Takeda said, claiming, "It is very energy-saving to keep convenience stores open as long as possible."

Municipalities have yet to establish how much nighttime closure would mitigate global warming, he said.

If the government is seriously considering reducing greenhouse gas emissions, banning 24-hour operations is not the solution, Takeda said. "Because (local governments) do such silly things, they fail to see the whole picture. And no matter how many environmental policies they carry out, carbon dioxide emissions will keep increasing," he said.



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