October 31, 2006


Facing Daily Anxieties and Difficulties - Unicharm Corp.

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.50 (October 2006)
Toward a Sustainable Japan--Corporations at Work Article Series No.53

"I'm hard pressed to take care of my children and aging parents." Does this sound familiar to you? Caring for family members should be a rewarding activity, but in fact, most people experience various difficulties because personal care is hard work.

In recent times, various highly functional sanitary products - such as disposable diapers, pre-moistened wipes and feminine sanitary goods - have become available to lighten the burden of caregivers as much as possible and make daily life more comfortable. If asked, "What is the best gift for people involved in child or senior care," many people would respond, "disposable diapers." Unicharm Corp., famous for its "Moony" brand diapers for babies, is one of the Japan's leading sanitary product companies. It offers various sanitary goods in 24 countries in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, hoping not just to sell products but also to sincerely help people deal with their anxieties and difficulties.

Philosophy of the Company's Founder
As reconstruction advanced following the Second World War, Japanese people eventually turned their attention to the quality of their daily lives, and started to take a keen interest in things or events that would help them live more comfortably. At that time, women's sanitary products were still available only on request at pharmacies, and were more or less regarded as something women should buy secretly.

Keiichiro Takahara, now Unicharm's chairman, established the company in 1961, embracing the hope that by sparing socially vulnerable women inconvenience and discomfort, he could help them work towards realizing their dreams. Two years later, he started marketing sanitary products, displaying them in the front of grocery stores. This innovative sales method attracted a lot of attention, along with the improved performance of the products. As Unicharm's unconventional products and sales methods spread through society, its sanitary goods began to help more women participate in society outside the home.

Soon, as the number of working women increased, reducing the burdens of child care became a pressing need. In line with this trend, the company launched its "Moony" disposable diapers for babies in 1981, hoping to help make babies happy and help mothers enjoy parenting. In the 1990s, with the acceleration of the birthrate decline and the aging of society, it started offering adult incontinence products to lighten the burdens of caregivers. Then, based on its non-woven fabric technology and its experience in the personal care field, it launched new housecleaning goods such as toilet seat cleaners, sheets to keep food fresh, cosmetic puffs, pre-moistened wipes and pet-care products. It also expanded its business to pre-school education.

When the company was established, the founder's philosophy was expressed in management principals drawn up under the English slogan of "Necessity of Ladies with Activities & Dreams of Ladies with Activities (NOLA&DOLA)." However in 2001, it changed "Ladies" in this slogan to "Life," and announced the new century's NOLA&DOLA concept to clarify the company's determination to meet diversifying needs. Today, the company has 1,004 employees (6,030 in the group), and its sales in fiscal 2005 amounted to 246.1 billion yen (U.S.$ about 2 billion).

Environmental Impacts from the Product Life Cycle Perspective Unicharm's high-quality, convenient products help people enjoy their daily lives. On the other hand, an environmental challenge is an inevitable part of the company's business in that it is based on disposable products. The company has now started facing this challenge, and is seeking ways to analyze and reduce environmental impacts throughout its products' life cycles, from raw material purchase to disposal by customers.

A review of the life cycles of the company's products in fiscal 2005 revealed that about 340,000 tons of products were manufactured from 360,000 tons of primary and secondary materials. However, the disposed volume of products after use was estimated at 928,000 tons, several times more than the production values. Katsuji Takayanagi, manager of the Environment Promotion Office at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Department, says "Since our products absorb liquids, they become three to four times heavier after use. Our most important challenges are efficient resource utilization and waste reduction." This recognition led the company to work both on the upper-stream product design and development stage as well as on the downstream recycling of end-of-use products.

Approaching the Challenge with Product Design
The Product Environment Working Group plays a major role as a pan-company cross-sectional team for mitigating environmental impact in the upper stream of product life cycles - the design and development phase. The working group consists of staff members not only from the environmental protection section but also from the R&D and marketing departments, and aim to reduce environmental impacts while adding new value at the product concept definition stage.

Specifically, the company established evaluation standards for environmentally friendly products in the following areas: offering products in refillable containers, reducing raw material use without impairing quality, and shifting to raw materials that emit less CO2 on disposal. In addition, the company set up a timetable for switching a certain percent of production over to new, environmentally friendly designs. Unicharm's long-term objective of switching 55 percent of production to environmentally friendly designs was achieved ahead of schedule during fiscal 2005. The company then reset a higher long-term target. No matter how small each improvement, accumulated improvements make a big difference. Takayanagi says that the volume of material input into diaper production has been reduced by about 40 percent compared to 1990.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of more detailed environmental impact reduction measures, the company introduced the principle of life cycle assessment (LCA) into the evaluation of its existing products, and began to store product data. In fiscal 2005, a LCA analysis was conducted for its major sanitary products, and the results were released. As a future task, Unicharm sees the need to develop a system to utilize these data in the product development phase in order to improve environmental performance as an integral part of product quality.

Recycling End-of-Use Products
What is the company doing about the recycling of its end-of-use products in the downstream phase? "We have been promoting efficient resource utilization in the design phase, but there is a limit to how much waste can be reduced. That's why the pursuit of options for recycling used products became increasingly inevitable," Takayanagi says, emphasizing the importance of recycling.

Recycling disposable diapers is a challenging task because the products need to achieve the highest level of hygienic safety, since diapers are delicate products that directly touch the skin. Under such circumstances, the company has been pursuing recycling possibilities such as recovering paper and plastic materials from end-of-use diapers, and making compost from the other waste materials. However, there is still a long way to go in meeting this challenge, due to concerns about hygiene and the cost of collection.

Moreover, Japan's climate can be seen as another barrier to diaper recycling. For example, there have been examples in other countries in which disposable diaper waste was collected for recycling. However, in Japan's hot and humid climate, hygiene concerns dictate frequent collection. Takayanagi says, "By coping with these problems, we will continue to search for ways to realize some kind of recycling."

For a Better Future
In tackling the major task of "efficient resource utilization and waste reduction," Unicharm is making steady improvements throughout its products' life cycles, in accordance with its stated environmental goals and action plans, which cover 13 themes such as green procurement and CO2 emission reduction.

These efforts led to the establishment in 2003 of a CSR Department - an industry first. Unicharm considers the first CSR mission of manufacturers is creating high-quality, high-value products. In fiscal 2004, it set up a Corporate Ethics Office to promote fair business management, laying down a foundation by formulating a Code of Conduct consistent with corporate ethics. In fiscal 2005, the company held a meeting to hear the opinions of external stakeholders regarding its CSR activities and reports. In 2006, with the goal of becoming a true global leader, it expressed its support for the "Global Compact," an international initiative of the United Nations, and announced worldwide that it will actively contribute to solving global problems. Thus, the company has been making a comprehensive commitment to CSR issues by trying to integrate them with its business activities.

"By sparing socially vulnerable women inconvenience and discomfort, we can help them as they work towards realizing their dreams." The company founder's forceful philosophy has affected a lot of people around the world through its products. In order to realize a sustainable society in the future, the company will have to pursue two types of goals. One involves supporting people's daily lives as they care for children and the elderly through products that offer convenience and comfort. The other involves establishing a zero-waste production system through effective resources use. We at JFS hope that Unicharm, in its sincere effort to help people face daily-life anxieties and difficulties, will create new products and services that propels them one step ahead of a business model based on selling disposable products.

(Staff Writer Kazunori Kobayashi)