The Archetypal Groundbreaker
Can social responsibility and sustainable profit go hand in hand? Japanese company Saraya leads the way with innovations that drive social impacts.
In the pantheon of progressive, do-good companies, Saraya Co., Ltd holds many firsts.
Founded by Shota Saraya in 1952, the Osaka-based manufacturer and seller of health and hygiene products and services developed Japan’s first antibacterial liquid soap made from coconut oil in the same year. In 1971, Saraya introduced the first botanical-based, biodegradable detergent, Yashinomi, in response to ecological damage caused by petroleum-based detergents polluting Japan’s waterways. Formulated from food-grade ingredients coconut oil and palm oil, the detergent is gentle on the skin and the environment.
In the ’80s, the company’s innovative streak continued with the launch of a no-touch sensor dispenser (for hand sanitizer) – an industry first, and the world’s first detergent refill pack to reduce garbage. By the early 2000s, the company’s reach had extended to North America, East Asia and Southeast Asia.
The wake-up call
From the start, Saraya upholds its mission to pursue groundbreaking, hygiene solutions to protect users’ health whilst existing harmoniously with nature.
But in 2004, a Japanese TV program “Wonderful Spaceship Earth – The Tears of Baby Elephants” highlighted the human-animal conflict and habitat loss caused by rampant expansion of oil palm plantations in Borneo. The show created a public backlash against Japanese manufacturers that use palm oil as raw materials. At the time, Saraya had been buying palm oil from a trading company, unaware of the biodiversity crisis in Borneo.
In no time, the company kicked into high gear to find solutions.
Saraya started consulting biologists and environmental conservation experts, launched awareness campaigns on palm oil issues and joined the Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2005, becoming the first Japanese company to do so.
BCT projects include creating the Green Corridor by acquiring land to provide a safe migration route for wildlife, preserving natural habitats and rescuing injured wildlife. Saraya donates 1 percent of the sales from some of their products, including the iconic Yashinomi detergent, to BCT.
BCT reached a milestone in October 2019 when Saraya handed over 93 ha of land in Lower Kinabatangan to the Sabah state government for protection and wildlife conservation. To date, Saraya and BCT Japan have contributed over MYR9 million (USD2 million) to Sabah for conservation programmes, including funding for the building, upgrading and operation of the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary.
In 2010, Saraya launched the production and sale of the first detergent in Japan made from segregated RSPO-certified palm oil. Dubbed the next-generation cleaner, Happy Elephant detergent is made from Soforo, a natural cleaning agent produced by fermenting natural yeast, using palm oil and sugar. Completely biodegradable, Soforo breaks down into water and CO2, returning naturally to the earth.
To date, Saraya uses 100% certified palm oil raw materials through a combination of segregated palm oil and Book & Claim credits. A Wild Asia partner since 2017, SARAYA has been supporting the Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) by purchasing B&C credits.
Effecting change globally
In the last 70 years, Saraya continues to develop groundbreaking solutions in the field of health and hygiene. Today, it boasts a diversified portfolio of products ranging from health, hygiene, food and environmental products and services. The company has subsidiaries and factories in the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific and East Asia.
Saraya remains steadfast in committing to social and environmental causes with far-reaching projects: from a UNICEF collaboration in Uganda to promote hand-washing for disease prevention to sustainable farming of monk fruits in the remote mountains of Guilin, China, to produce Saraya’s natural sweetener Lakanto. The fruits are hand harvested by local farmers and processed in a zero-waste factory near the farms, supporting the local community.
As Saraya President Yusuke Saraya summed it up best:
“We all have the responsibility to hand down what we have to the next generations…”
(The Japan Times; Aug 27, 2019)
Wild Asia reached out to Saraya to learn more about the company’s continued efforts to promote sustainable palm oil and to strike a balance between business growth and social impacts.
Q: What are the core values that define Saraya?
In the postwar era, when poor sanitation led to prevalent food poisoning and dysentery, we developed and began selling Japan’s first antibacterial liquid soap that could sterilize and disinfect, as well as a unique sanitary dispenser. We started Saraya to contribute to the improvement of “hygiene.” Since then, we have expanded our themes to “environment” and “health,” to help solve social issues pertinent to the times, which eventually shaped our corporate philosophy – “to contribute to the improvement of sanitation, the environment, and health of the world.”
Q: What were Saraya’s early initiatives to change public perception about palm oil?
When we took the lead in raising public awareness and kicked off on-the-ground conservation activities in 2005, the general public were unaware of the existence of palm oil in the first place. Other companies that use palm oil also tried to avoid mentioning the issue of palm oil and the environment at that time. Aside from holding symposiums on sustainable palm oil production, we felt it was necessary to make an appeal (via an NPO like Borneo Conservation Trust) that is easy for the public to understand and has an impact. Saraya’s customers have always been highly conscious of environmental issues, and we believe that the value of our actions is well understood by our core consumers. However, we feel that awareness of palm oil itself is still low among ordinary households.
Q: What are the outcomes from these projects?
Initiatives like the Green Corridor Project and the Suspension Bridge for Orangutans Project were broadcast on TV networks and appeared in several elementary and junior high school textbooks. Our activities have also been introduced in photo books, which have been selected as educational books for elementary schools and placed in all elementary schools in Japan.
Q: Does Borneo Conservation Trust face any challenges in meeting its project targets?
For the average consumer, the contribution to biodiversity conservation in Borneo seems to be easier to understand than the RSPO certification. The Green Corridor Project and orangutan conservation activities are often covered by the Japanese media, so it seems easier to gain the empathy of the general public. However, it has been quite a challenge to expand the network of support. We still need more collaborators and people who can lead the activities on project sites, especially in Sabah. The current BCT secretariat in Kota Kinabalu is a small, niche group of people who have managed to keep the project going. However, we need the support of many more people.
Q: In April 2019, Saraya joined the Japan Sustainable Palm Oil Network (JaSPON) as a board member. What is Saraya’s role in JaSPON?
Saraya was the first company in Japan to actively raise awareness about the issues of palm oil and the environment in 2005. By inviting other companies to participate in the sustainable palm oil symposiums, we were an early driving force behind the establishment of Jaspon. Today, Saraya is a founding member of Jaspon and is involved in its operations. Now, many industry giants that use large amounts of palm oil are core members. We feel that we have accomplished what we set out to do. However, many companies are still learning about the RSPO, its significance, and the process of obtaining certification. Therefore we would like to play a role in helping them in their journey.
Q: Any example of Saraya’s strategy to meet JaSPON’s goals and to further promote sustainable palm oil?
Unlike certified palm oil, certified palm kernel oil is scarce in the market. In addition, certification is not yet widespread among small-scale farmers who account for 40% of total palm oil production. We would like to improve this situation by actively cooperating with organizations like Wild Asia.
Q: Why did Saraya decide to partner with Wild Asia in 2017?
There are many obstacles to achieving sustainable palm oil, and we believe that Wild Asia is addressing the core of the problem. The problems that exist are urgent but their resolution will take many years and require a forward-looking attitude and a confident mindset. We feel and sense these attitudes in Wild Asia.
Q: How does Saraya plan to move forward with the Wild Asia partnership?
Biodiversity loss is progressing to the point where carbon offsets and reforestation to compensate for the destruction are no longer sufficient. Wild Asia is one of the few organizations that are taking note of these issues. By actively participating in Wild Asia’s cutting-edge endeavors, we hope to demonstrate to the public what Saraya is aiming for.
Q: How does Saraya strike the delicate balance between becoming a profitable, global brand and being responsible?
The key factors are the strong leadership of our top management and our widely disseminated corporate philosophy. On many occasions, our top management has preached to employees the need to balance business and social contribution. From the company’s founding to the present day, we have always adhered to our philosophy that the fulfillment of social responsibility is as important as, if not more than, the pursuit of profit.
*Find out more about Saraya’s sustainability initiatives here.
Photos courtesy of Saraya Co., Ltd