Photo/IllutrationYoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), speaks to a reporter from The Asahi Shimbun. (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Editor's note: The United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2015 and urged all of its member states to make efforts to achieve them by 2030.

The 17 include "no poverty," "zero hunger," "good health and well-being," "quality education," "gender equality" and "climate action."

But how should companies introduce those goals in their businesses?

The Asahi Shimbun interviewed 10 top executives of companies belonging to the Global Compact Network Japan (GCNJ), which mainly consists of firms supporting SDGs.

The following interview with Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), is the last in the series.

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I have always said there are three core factors needed in business management--heart, technique and physical condition.

Physical condition refers to the soundness of company management as displayed by various financial indices. Technique refers to technological innovation that allows a company to move into new frontiers.

Heart refers to social aspects, meaning corporate executives must think about people, society as well as the global environment. That is nothing less than what is involved in the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

There was a period in the past when company management could only be concerned with making a profit. In the 1960s and 1970s, chemical manufacturers were one of the main sources of pollution. I joined Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd. (now part of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp.) in 1974 and I remember thinking, "Why did I ever join this company?" when I saw the bright yellow waters of Dokai Bay (in Kita-Kyushu) where the company had a plant.

In 2005, when I became the managing corporate executive officer in charge of research and development, I thought about where the company should be in 10 years' time. At that time, I decided to use "sustainability" in terms of resources and the environment as well as "health" and "comfort" as the standards for choosing research themes.

After becoming president of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, I placed an index for sustainability as a core element of company management.

We are now in the process of developing lightweight parts for automobiles as one way to contribute to energy conservation. We are also engaged in developing materials for the batteries that are indispensable for electric cars as well as biodegradable plastics derived from plants.

We believe these efforts are related to seven of the 17 SDGs, including goal three about ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being of all as well as goal 12, which calls for responsible production and consumption.

At Keizai Doyukai, where I serve as chairman, we have also placed in the forefront the concept of "Japan 2.0" to deal with globalization, digitalization and socialization.

We named it 2.0 with the intention of breaking out of the mold of "1.0," which can be considered the economic and social system created through the successful experience in the postwar era, because we feel there is no future by simply following the same course as the past.

In autumn 2017, we established a committee within Keizai Doyukai to think about how we should deal with the SDGs.

We are also operating a number of other committees while seeking out compatibility with the 17 SDGs.

One issue we have to deal with is profitability. That involves trying to think about how to turn a profit in the various projects related to promoting the SDGs. Even if a technology is revolutionary, no company can continue with it as long as it only produces losses.

We have accumulated data for close to 10 years after pushing sustainability to the front of our management principles and we have reached the conclusion that there is a positive correlative relationship between properly dealing with the SDGs and increasing profitability.

One poem I remember reading as a college student was by the French writer Arthur Rimbaud. One passage from his "A Season in Hell" raised a question about whether the times could truly be considered modern since so many toxic products were being manufactured.

We do not currently have the luxury of stopping what we are doing. The industrial sector as a whole must come together and push forward the SDGs.

(This article is based on an interview by Asahi Shimbun Staff Writer Hironori Kato)

PURSUING SUSTAINABILITY AT HIS MAIN JOB

Kobayashi also serves as chairman of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, Japan's largest chemicals manufacturer. It has raised the Japanese term "kaiteki," which means comfortable or pleasant, as the banner for management. Behind the slogan is the desire to maintain a situation that is comfortable to people, society and the globe. It has pursued sustainability in society by manufacturing lightweight, durable materials as well as water purifying technology. One company under the group, Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corp., is actively engaged in regenerative medicine.

At a July Keizai Doyukai seminar, an appeal was approved that includes wording urging members to resolve global social issues symbolized in the SDGs through their individual company operations.