Changes in society's values and customer trends due to increased penetration by the SDGs

Imazu: Today I'm joined by Michihiro Yamada, Kaoru Yamashita, and Nobuhito Owaki, who were involved in devising TOPPAN Business Action for SDGs, as well as Yuko Takano, from Toppan's Head Office.

集合者写真 Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the dialogue was held online.
Clockwise from top left, Yuko Takano (Head Office), Hidenori Imazu (facilitator), Kaoru Yamashita (People Sub-working Group Leader), Michihiro Yamada (Environment Sub-working Group Leader), and Nobuhito Owaki (Communities Sub-working Group Leader)
(More information on the dialogue participants)

Imazu: As Toppan accelerates its efforts to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, I believe we are seeing much greater consciousness of them and of the environment in particular throughout society. Have you sensed this kind of social trend or changes at client companies in your day-to-day work?

Yamada: Consciousness of the environment among our clients is increasing every day and at a rapid pace. For example, until last year, the stance of many clients was that they wanted us to propose solutions that were good for the environment. Recently, however, companies have announced clear target figures, and the impression I have is that they have very specific requests, including the need for evidence, about what they can do to achieve their targets or how a particular package is recycled. A lot of clients are coming to us not so much for individual solutions but for ways to drive enhancement of their corporate brand and value overall.

Yamashita: Yes, that is the case. I think that a large part of the background to that is probably change among the consumers that our clients serve. The sustainability consciousness of consumers has risen rapidly. I feel that businesses have to keep changing their approach to respond to it. With this going on, Toppan, as a B-to-B company that aims to create value by supporting its clients, has to be aware that the slightest mistake could lead to the wrong kind of approach, such as so-called SDG-washing. Trying to attract the attention of consumers by creating a piece of copy that only touches the surface and not the real issues or by putting together a story in a context that suits the company is not the right way to go about it. There is a challenge here that is unique to B-to-B companies.

Owaki: If we think in terms of changes in society and at clients, it may not be directly linked to the SDGs, but I think the COVID-19 pandemic has also changed people's awareness. Being faced with a crisis has in part prompted us to do away with conventional practices and appearances to create a foundation for more streamlined business. For example, when you have a foundation that is not bound by conventional practices, it is much easier to effect large-scale change, such as by using DX to find common solutions for entire industries and not just individual companies.

Imazu: Everyone seems to be seeing change in various forms. Takano-san, you're well-versed in the situation overseas. How does Japan compare to the rest of the world?

Takano: The Japanese government and businesses are undertaking a range of initiatives, but I feel that we are several years behind Europe, which is advanced in terms of the environment. With the EU leading efforts, Europe is firmly driving industrial policy to solve environmental, social, and economic issues at the same time, and the level of commitment and speed with which legislation is introduced are overwhelming.
In response, brand owners are also feeling a strong sense of urgency. Non-profit organizations are powerful in Europe, and their calls have prompted businesses to announce specific commitments on what is to be reduced by how much and by when. These moves have started to have a knock-on effect on Japanese companies, and I think we have to be proactive in keeping people at Toppan informed of the latest trends.

The process of formulating TOPPAN Business Action for SDGs

Imazu: When we devised TOPPAN Business Action for SDGs, we tried to set quantitative values for all the targets. This was a challenging undertaking. We actually discussed whether or not it was necessary to set quantitative targets for everything. How do you look back on that?

Yamada: Setting the targets was hard work. Within our division we are currently going through a process of trial and error to set specific target values, but it really is difficult. However, it was very enjoyable to discuss it with everyone. It has made us realize that we can't make progress if we only think about the environment. When we shifted our gaze from what was immediately in front of us to a wider view considering how we want to shape the world for 2030, the targets seemed to jump up. This meant that when I took the targets back to my division, they were met with exclamations of surprise, but we wanted to set targets that would be compelling for stakeholders inside and outside the company. Owaki-san had a different view about setting quantitative targets.

Owaki: I think it's a big challenge to align the target values for individual companies to the SDGs. For a long time, consumers have essentially paid for things that benefit them directly. From this perspective, if drinking straws for example change from plastic to paper, it doesn't improve flavor or convenience. But I think that without extensive knowledge and creativity it is difficult to recognize that it saves sea turtles and reduces impact on the global environment, and how that in turn feeds back to be beneficial for us. However, we can't expect results unless large numbers of consumers, not just individuals, act in the same way. I think the SDGs have that element of getting everyone to believe in something even though we may not experience the impact immediately. In those terms, thinking about quantitative targets and narrowing them down to the level of individual years is very difficult. If you try to come up with specific figures, the targets end up being realistic and small. That's why I think we need to divide them into realistic targets that have to be met and targets to strive to achieve in the long term.

Yamashita: As Owaki-san says, these need to be ongoing discussions. But at this stage, I feel that it was very meaningful to set quantitative targets. Yamada-san spoke about how difficult it is, and we are currently holding various discussions focused on target values, but I think this is only possible because we have set quantitative targets.
Setting targets is hard work, but it was a very good experience to listen to diverse opinions during the process. At first I thought the best thing to do was to narrow down the material issues as much as possible and make things simple, but I realized that it is exactly because Toppan's business fields are so wide-ranging that we can contribute to the achievement of the various targets of the SDGs.

Takano: This is the first time that we, as a company, have held specific discussions about quantitative targets for the SDGs, and I think it is very valuable in terms of having been able to visualize the various elements involved.
One area in which I think we need to continue discussions is the question of how we will respond when something is not aligned with the approach that Toppan has devised. For example, when what a customer asks for is not necessarily sustainable and we are not able to find common ground by proposing an alternative. Yamashita-san spoke about this a little, but I think that a key point of our subsequent discussions will be moves to create value going forward while making the choice to not select things that deviate from our philosophy.

Imazu: Thank you very much. Next I would like to ask you about the unique Toppan qualities that are embodied in the targets.