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Future of Washing: Sustainable Laundry Part 8 – Past and Future

The Future of Washing Initiative held its 8th seminar “Future of Washing – Past and Future” on April 4, 2024. More than 100 people, including companies and academia, attended the event. Under the general chair of Dr. Yohei Kaneko of Kao Corporation, the participants reviewed the activities of the Future of Washing Initiative since the first seminar and discussed various issues and initiatives from a sustainability perspective.

First, Dr. Fumiko Kasuga, Global Hub Director – Japan, Future Earth Secretariat, and Professor, Interfaculty Initiative in Planetary Health, Nagasaki University, gave opening remarks and explaining the background and purpose of the Future of Washing Initiative and its past activities to date in relation to laundry diversity and the global environment.

Dr. Yohei Kaneko of Kao Corporation then reviewed the past five years of activities under the Future of Washing Initiative. In order to achieve truly sustainable washing, that is, “a society in which people around the world can live sustainably, cleanly, and comfortably,” it is important to consider not only environmental and technological aspects such as the use of water, resources, and energy, but also various aspects related to doing laundry, including personal values and local cultures. There are also differences in hygiene awareness and the conditions of doing laundry in different countries, culture, and other aspects of doing laundry should be considered, as well as the need for a forum for discussion with people from diverse backgrounds, regardless of gender, generation, or profession, which led to the launch of the Future of Washing Initiative (2018). He also mentioned the importance of looking at washing from three perspectives: (1) life cycle, (2) social environment, and (3) diversity. He then explained how past activities to date have been based on these three perspectives and have involved people from diverse backgrounds, including academia, international organizations, companies, communities, and youth. Through the past seminars, he also mentioned (1) back casting, (2) broad perspective, (3) open innovation, (4) technological innovation, and (5) behavioral change of consumers as elements in thinking about the future of washing.

Next, Dr. Taikan Oki, a Special Advisor to the President, and a Professor at the Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo, gave a lecture entitled “Water, Washing and Sustainable Development”. He began his presentation by discussing the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 6, “Water and Sanitation.” He explained that access to water, not only for drinking and toilet use, but also for hand washing and other hygienic purposes, is important for escaping from poverty and saving lives. In this regard, he explained the number of infant deaths and domestic water intake in each country, as well as the number of waterborne diseases and infant deaths in Japan in relation to the water supply coverage rate. He then described the status and challenges in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 by 2030, and the progress in providing “safe, controlled and basic drinking water” at each stage (service level). He noted that while there has been significant improvement in the provision of safe, controlled, and basic drinking water, there are still people who have no choice but to use surface water. In addition, he mentioned the importance of the circular economy and resource recycling in terms of the “the limits to growth” and the need for the younger generation to actively address environmental issues from the perspective of world population transition (steady state). He also explained the planetary boundary (the earth’s limit) beyond the “the limit to growth”. In addition to the burden on the global environment, he also mentioned the “access foundation”, which is the minimum burden necessary for a healthy human life. In order to support the realization of a sustainable society from the viewpoint of water, he explained the water situation in Japan, including the 1964 Olympic drought and the aging infrastructure in recent years, and emphasized that the entire water supply system, including not only all water sources but also various stakeholders such as the government, which is involved in securing and maintaining the water sources, and water users, must be a key factor in supporting the provision of safe and secure drinking water. He introduced a policy study called Water Minfra (Infrastructure of all, by all, and for all), based on the idea that we must establish an awareness that the entire water supply system supports the provision of safe and secure drinking water, and that we ourselves play a role in maintaining this system.

Next, Mr. Masakatsu Takahashi, Vice President, ESG Division, Kao Corporation, gave a presentation on the topic of “Kao and Washing- Past and Future”. First, he touched on Kao’s origins and soap. He then explained that for 130 years, Kao has been committed to cleanliness and hygiene through Yoki-Monozukuri (good manufacturing) under the Kao Way corporate philosophy of “To Realize a Kirei World* in Which All Life Lives in Harmony”. He then introduced Kao’s environmental harmonization activities, including the improvement of raw materials such as soft detergents (shifting to surfactants that are easily biodegradable) and ongoing monitoring surveys of surfactants in rivers to address the past problem of foaming in rivers. In addition, as efforts toward a recycling-oriented society, he mentioned reduction innovation to reduce new plastics (refill, replace, and compact to reduce plastics by about 80%), and recycling innovation to reduce waste plastics (circulating cleaning technology, high-strength recycling technology) to reduce waste plastics. He also described efforts to save water through the development of fast foam-reducing technology for rinsing and to enable cleaning power with less water. In addition to efforts to reduce environmental impact, he also discussed the importance of using natural resources (oil palm, etc.) as raw materials with care (without waste), including from the perspective of rapid social changes such as population growth and biodiversity. He concluded his presentation by explaining Kao’s sustainable product development policy of manufacturing “Maximum Value with Minimum Waste”. He also explained that it is important to collaborate and cooperate to establish sustainable society, in the way such as: SOCIAL ECONOMY: “quantity and large-scale consumption” to “quality and circular economy”, WASHING: “hygiene, sanitation, and beauty, health” to “living a beautiful life inside and out”, EARTH ENVIRONMENT: “minimizing environmental impact” to “using natural resources carefully”.

Based on past activities, a panel discussion on “Future of Washing” followed, moderated by Dr. Yasunori Kikuchi, Professor at Institute for Future Initiatives, The University of Tokyo. Panelists included Dr. Fumiko Kasuga, Global Hub Director – Japan, Future Earth Secretariat, and Professor, Interfaculty Initiative in Planetary Health, Nagasaki University, and Mr. Masakatsu Takahashi, Vice President, ESG Division, Kao Corporation, who spoke today; Dr. Taro Yamauchi, a Director at the Center for Environmental and Health Sciences, and a Professor at Faculty of Health Sciences, Hokkaido University, who spoke two years ago; Mr. Junji Hashimoto, Visiting Professor at Musashino University, Representative of Aqua Sphere and Water Education Institute, who spoke last year; and Ms. Mana Saza, Director, SWiTCH Association of Sustainability, who spoke three years ago as a representative of youth.

First, each panellist introduced themselves. Next, Dr. Kikuchi mentioned that after the change in values such as sanitation during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increasing need for social transformation such as carbon neutrality and green transformation such as nature-positive and asked each panelist to share their thoughts on the relationship between these social issues and washing. In response, Ms. Saza emphasized that young people is still now well aware of the magnitude of the global issue of climate change  and that they lack   action on climate change, while actions such as sterilization have taken root in response to the pandemic, and she stressed the importance of education.

Mr. Takahashi, who has experienced the lockdown under COVID-19 outbreak in Europe , mentioned that he felt a responsibility as an essential worker to contribute to sanitation through the supply of cleaning agents in a situation where demand increased, and raw materials were in short supply. In response, Dr. Kikuchi asked about the production situation amid the shortage of raw materials. Mr. Takahashi responded that, amid the global shortage of ethanol raw materials at the time, they had to work hard to fulfill their responsibility to supply the product as a cleaning agent manufacturer.

Mr. Hashimoto introduced the changes in society that encouraged people to change their habits regardless of their personal hygiene awareness, such as the increased frequency and thoroughness of hand washing in Japan during the pandemic, the spread of the habit of hand disinfection as a means of infection prevention, and the installation of sanitary facilities such as disinfectants in commercial facilities. In this context, he mentioned the need to pursue the benefits of the habit from the perspectives of continuity, future countermeasures against infectious diseases, and health awareness. On the other hand, he also mentioned the disadvantages of excessive cleaning, such as the lowering of immunity and the burden on the environment.

Dr. Kikuchi asked Dr. Yamauchi about the current situation in various parts of the world where hygiene awareness and behavior are required to spread and take root, as well as measures to deal with the situation. Dr. Yamauchi began his explanation with a question from Mr. Hashimoto regarding the  situation of satniation in Japan under the COVID-19 outbreak, expressing a great concern that the installation of simple sanitation facilities in developing countries, not only in cities but also in rural areas, could disappear in short time due to other urgent issues in daily life (such as malaria) . Dr. Yamauchi also mentioned the fact that there are more children in the world today (especially in the Global South) than at any other time in human history, and touched on the need to enlist the help of children and youth, the future generation, and to connect developed and developing countries in order to change  awareness and behavior. Finally, he mentioned the importance of a bottom-up approach to the transformation of society, which requires a change in awareness and behavior, which in turn requires not only education, but also people to think of the problem as their own.

In response, Dr. Kikuchi asked Dr. Kasuga what could be done through international collaboration and networking. Dr. Kasuga shared her efforts to bring the voices of the Global South and the realities of not only the Global South but also the Global East into the science agenda. Furthermore, just as biodiversity change, ecosystem change, climate change, and global warming are each linked to human activities, it is necessary to rethink the interrelationship between the global environment and humans through pandemics, and to do so by comprehensively considering the health and wellness of the Earth, ecosystems, and people. She stated that a holistic approach, “planetary health” is necessary. Finally, she stated the need of a proactive and collaborative approach to solving the issue of climate change, referring to the rapid sharing of a sense of urgency around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, Dr. Kikuchi asked each panelist to comment on what can and should be done in the future through the network and platform established by the Futureof  Washing Initiative. Mr. Takahashi spoke about the importance of collaboration from a holistic perspective that, across companies and sectors, to address various washing-related issues. Ms. Saza discussed how to translate the power of “we can do it” into concrete actions. She emphasized that the power of youth is imperative to create such a movement and the need to actively involve young people in the “dialogue” on washing. Mr. Hashimoto spoke about the need to think about the use of circular water as the future of washing, and the necessity of a unique way of thinking (definition) about the positioning of washing (altruistic cleaning, drainage). Dr. Yamauchi reminded the audience that washing is an extremely important concept that encompasses “Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)”, and emphasized the importance of considering small individual stories (personal hygiene and case studies) to think about larger stories such as global environmental issues. In addition to scaling up these stories, he also emphasized the importance of fostering a culture (tailor-made) that takes the unique context of each region into account, in other words, a shift in thinking from “standard to tailor-made” is greatly needed for the post-SDGs. Dr. Kasuga concluded the session with remarks on the importance of communicating global environmental issues in an “easy-to-understand” manner and the need to link “small things to big things” in daily life.

Based on the above panel discussion, Dr. Masahiko Hirao, Senior Research Fellow at UTokyo LCA Center for Future Strategy, The University of Tokyo of Tokyo, gave a summary. He mentioned “backcasting,” “thinking from a broad perspective,” “open innovation,” “technological innovation,” and “behavioral change of consumers” as perspectives for thinking about future washing, and from today’s discussion, “Water Minfra (we ourselves are the bearers),” “a Kirei World in which all life lives in harmony (continuous innovation)”, “collaboration across fields,” “bottom-up transformation,” “circular water use,” “youth generation,” “making a movement,” and “sharing a sense of crisis” were some of the keywords that were mentioned. He concluded his speech by mentioning the importance of everyone taking a comprehensive view of climate change as a global issue and collaborating with  diverse  stakeholders to address it.

*a Kirei world: a cleaner, more beautiful, and healthier world for all people and the planet