August 31, 2007


The Continuous Pursuit of Sustainable Forest Management & Living in Harmony with Nature -- Sumitomo Forestry Co., Ltd.

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.60 (August 2007)
Toward a Sustainable Japan--Corporations at Work Article Series No.62

Sumitomo Forestry's business is centered on trees, a gift of nature. Growing forests, producing and distributing timber and construction material, building and selling wooden houses, and remodeling and marketing pre-owned houses -- the company has extended its business in various fields related to trees and housing, and is expanding into further areas of business.

What makes Sumitomo Forestry special? Mr. Tadanori Arai, Manager of Sumitomo's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Promotion Office in its General Administrative Division, says that it is their strong focus on trees. The reason for this policy lies in the company's history.

In 1691 members of the Sumitomo family founded the Besshi Copper Mine in Besshiyama Village in Uma-gun, Ehime Prefecture (called Iyo-no-kuni at the time), after which the smelting and export of copper formed the backbone of the family business. They cut the trees around the mine for construction materials, mine pillars and fuelwood necessary for their mining business. However, after about 200 years of logging large quantities of timber and pollution from smoke containing sulfur dioxide, the forests of the Besshi hills surrounding the mine were devastated to the point where they lost their reproductive power, having been reduced to exposed rock surface. Resolved to return the mountains of Besshi to their natural state and make them wild and vigorous again, and in the spirit of repaying what had been taken from the land, Teigo Iba, the manager of the mine at the time, decided to put into effect a large-scale reforestation plan in 1894. He set out to plant more than one million Japanese cedar and cypress trees every year, and today a bountiful forest has been restored around Besshi Copper Mine.

Today Sumitomo Forestry owns around 100,000 acres of corporate forest, including the Besshi forest. This is equivalent to about one- thousandth of Japan's land area. Thus, the company has an historical basis in the notion of "sustainable forestry," in which the cycle of planting and reproduction is carried on in perpetuity. Keeping the lesson of the Besshi reforestation in mind, Sumitomo Forestry has been promoting initiatives for sustainability in forestry for more than 100 years.

Trees are a renewable natural resource. How can Sumitomo Forestry contribute to the sustainability of the environment, economy and society worldwide, as it places its focus on trees? Reflecting the corporate spirit that has continued to motivate the company for generations, Sumitomo is proactive in pursuing its mission. In this article we introduce some of its initiatives.

Utilizing Japanese Timber

In Japan's domestic post-war "expanded reforestation" schemes, huge numbers of Japanese cedar and cypress trees were planted all over the country. However, imports of less expensive timber from overseas soon followed, and the domestic timber market shrank. Due to the aging of the forestry worker population and lack of younger people interested in forestry, such plantations have suffered greatly from insufficient management.

With the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect in February 2005, Japan is obliged to reduce its average annual CO2 emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. Japan expects that 3.8 percent will be reduced through CO2 absorption by domestic forests. With its forestry plantations in a dire state, Japan's Forestry Agency has conducted a publicity campaign to boost the use of domestic timber in Japan.

The trees planted in postwar expanded reforestation schemes have now grown large enough to be harvested, and so the revitalization of the domestic timber market could lead to more appropriate forest management. However, trees growing in insufficiently managed forests are not good in quality, so it is not easy to process them into lumber or other wood products.

"Japanese people, who take their shoes off when entering the house, are the world's most demanding consumers in terms of housing quality such as the floor finish. In addition, Japan's earthquake-resistance standards have recently become stricter. Quality control of housing construction materials is quite an important field in our country," Arai says.

Sumitomo Forestry has many years of experience and expertise in identifying the condition and characteristics of wood and selecting the right lumber for a specific application. The company also developed technology to efficiently control the optimum water content in wood. Its housing materials are sawn and processed under a strict quality control regime. Even wood that is normally wasted, such as narrow boards from the lumber milling process, is fully utilized as raw material for the company's unique load-bearing facing panels, called "Cross Panels."

These efforts have allowed Sumitomo Forestry to increase the ratio of domestic wood used as structural components in its products to 51 percent in fiscal 2006 as it aims for 70 percent in fiscal 2008. Its "MyForest" housing design products sold in the Hokkaido area have already achieved 100 percent--all the structural components are made of wood grown in Hokkaido.

Efforts toward Sustainable Wood Procurement

While increasing the use of domestic wood, the company also purchases foreign wood in response to market demand for hardwood and low-cost lumber. A major problem associated with imported wood is the illegal logging that frequently goes on in developing countries. Japan is one of the largest wood importers in the world. To avoid purchasing illegal wood, Sumitomo Forestry established its own timber procurement standards in October 2005.

In accordance with these standards, a committee drown from the entire company started verifying the legitimacy of wood imports. As the next step, the company started drafting a timber procurement policy in 2006. After extensive discussions at round-table meetings with non-profit organizations and working group sessions, the company published its philosophy and policy for sustainable timber procurement in June 2007. This policy aims to be friendly to the environment and society, and includes action guidelines and an action plan with numerical targets.

As prescribed in these action guidelines, Sumitomo Forestry emphasizes direct communication with suppliers, which Arai says is typical of the company's style. "As we know from history, the fate of forests and woodlands are in the hands of people. We consider face-to-face dialogue with suppliers important for better mutual understanding, as opposed to simply examining their documents. We would like to do business with people with whom we can build a sound, cooperative relationship, not only in pursuit of profit, but also with attention paid to the impacts of our activities on the global environment and society," Arai says.

Arai notes that the company's timber procurement philosophy and policy still need improvement. Forest sustainability incorporates such concepts as biodiversity and "high conservation value forests" concepts that still lack well-defined standards. Increasing efforts to protect threatened animals and plants and conserve biodiversity might eventually make forestry impossible. "How are we to strike a balance between conservation and business? We will continue to address this challenge in order to make our procurement philosophy and policy more practical and useful," he says.

"Feeling Cool and Warm" and "Remodeling Traditional Houses"

Sumitomo Forestry is gaining attention as a house builder for its efforts in designing Japanese-style houses so as to make them warmer in winter and cooler in summer -- the home construction version of "Warm Biz" and "Cool Biz." The company proposes to build houses that respond well to seasonal changes by adding modern technology such as insulating material and double glass only where necessary to complement traditional Japanese house-building wisdom that utilizes natural features such as sunlight and wind (as seen in removable paper sliding doors, fan lights, bamboo blinds, etc.).

Another project involves remodeling traditional houses to make older houses more livable given current lifestyles and building standards. It is one of the company's growing projects, in response to considerable demand throughout Japan, and is particularly suitable for Sumitomo Forestry in view of the importance it places on history and tradition.

These two projects share a common concept: putting to use all existing resources to meet housing needs, for example by harnessing natural forces such as the wind and making continued use of long-inherited Japanese customs while utilizing modern technology when necessary. Arai says, "Sumitomo Forestry wants to be a builder that does not depend too much on the use of fossil fuels, but does not merely protect tradition, either. We want to build houses where people feel truly comfortable."

Using Green Spaces to Connect the Forest and City, and the Spirits of Trees and People

Sumitomo Forestry Landscaping Co., Ltd., one of the Sumitomo Forestry Group companies, offers a consulting service, called Eco-Asset, that helps companies utilize their green assets, in cooperation with InterRisk Research Institute & Consulting, Kajima Corporation and Kokusai Kogyo Co. Sharing its know-how of 300 years, Sumitomo Forestry helps clients fulfill their corporate social responsibility by means of green spaces.

Some of its achievements include the Toyota Foresta Hills model forest, a project designed to create satoyama woodlands (areas of rich biodiversity near human settlements in the countryside) for the 21st century, the Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Company's Surugadai Building where part of a rooftop garden was replanted as a vegetable garden open to neighboring residents, and the "Hamatonbetsu project," an effort to conserve 1,250 acres land owned by Daido Steel Co. near Lake Kutcharo in Hokkaido (a wetland designated under the Ramsar Convention).

The company also produced a clone sapling in order to conserve a famous weeping cherry tree named "Togyu no Sakura" at Daigoji Temple in Kyoto, using clone propagation techniques developed in their tropical forest regeneration project. In future, the company plans to use this technology to help save other trees in danger of extinction.

Arai says, "Our company name has not been publicized in the case of this type of 'greening' activity, so the majority of people are not aware of our role. But we are satisfied if people are happy to see more green areas in towns; it is also important to pass along the genetic legacy of historic trees to future generations. We are trying to connect mountain forests and cities, and the spirits of trees and people through greening. It is our pleasure to assist in such endeavors."

Global warming has raised public awareness about the importance of forests and trees as well as about other environmental issues. Recently, Sumitomo Forestry is putting more efforts into education. In 2006, the company started the Ecology School for families, a summer vacation learning program about environmental issues in which parents and children enjoy quizzes and building an eco-house prototype. Sumitomo Forestry employees dressed as forest doctors serve as tour guides: the events are organized by Asahi Shimbun and Asahi Elementary School Newspaper and sponsored by Sumitomo Forestry. The company also fully cooperated in its role as a forest management company in the publication of "Secrets of Forests and Trees (Easy-to-Understand Manga Series)" (Gakken). This book was distributed free to elementary schools and public libraries across Japan.

Arai says, "We would like to bring the comforts of nature into every aspect of urban space. As it explores ways to blend nature with technology, Sumitomo Forestry will continue to be a proponent of traditional lifestyles in harmony with nature and take an approach to the environment that involves projects centered on trees."

(Written by Reiko Aomame)