The state of retail: Japanese consumer-run co-op takes the sustainable route

‘We have been creating the materials we need for our daily life through collaboration … and have been solving social problems through collective purchase’

In Japan, a co-op of consumers has been working on a grassroots retail revolution of their own, forming themselves into groups of households, campaigning for organic food and even running for political office.

The Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union (SCCCU) formed in 1965, when a group of housewives set up a buying club to collectively purchase milk. Three years later it became a consumers’ co-operative, and in 1971 started work building delivery centres in each area, funded by member investments and co-op bonds.

It now has 340,000 members, divided into groups of households – called han – which order food collectively to reduce the price. Its 32 co-ops operate in 21 of the country’s 47 prefectures, maintaining a localism by giving each co-operative has its own legal status at the local level. Each co-operative is governed by local members, with decision-making divided into the local areas – although all co-ops supply the same product line.

SCCCU has a staff of 98 (approximately 1,300 if the staff of the co-operatives and associated companies are included) and an annual turnover of 87,200,000,000 yen (£627m).

Fresh produce from Seikatsu

On its website, it says: “We have been creating the materials we need for our daily life through collaboration between members and producers, and have been solving social problems through collective purchase.”

This grassroots model for retail means it works “to build systems that will enhance co-operation and mutual help in order to improve the quality of life for each member.”

Individual orders are placed a month in advance, sent via regional centres to the central co-op union which collates them and places a single order directly with each producer. The goods are delivered to each han which distributes them to individual members. This system ensure food is fresh, eliminates the need for storage and artificial preservation, and means producers can anticipate how much produce will be needed, eliminating overproduction and oversupply in the market.

SCCCU now produces its own milk and over the years has started over 600 workers’ collectives, running restaurants, bakeries, used goods stores, soap factories, childcare centres and elderly care.

The co-op only offers around 3,000 products, mostly staple foods, to keep down costs and to create closer relationships with its suppliers. It uses its bulk bargaining power to push for more environmentally friendly products, favouring organic produce and avoiding harmful chemical detergents. It has its own food safety standard for each food item it sells, and controls production to meet that standard.

To counter the large number of genetically modified food imports entering Japan, SCCCU declared itself GMO-free in 1997. In co-operation with producers, the co-op has inspected every consumer material while proceeding with its own labelling system and the exclusion of GM food, feed, and additives.

The co-op has branched out into clean energy generation

Members took the battle against GM food to the national stage, collecting a million-strong petition calling for mandatory food labelling. That’s why we circulated a petition and gathered more than one million signatures. The government enacted the law in 2000.

Further testament to its environmental commitments is its work cutting its carbon emissions and waste by using returnable bottles and containers for  food items such as soft drinks, soy sauce, and jam. It also promotes self-sufficiency and sustainability in food local agriculture. It has campaigned against nuclear power, and ensures its own energy use is sustainable by building a wind turbine and co-operatively purchasing electricity.

It also works to promote gender equality – 90% of its membership are women – by diversifying the working roles it offers to women.

Putting its political activism on a more formal level, in 1979, it started running candidates for political office through the Tokyo Seikatsusha Network and now has more 100 members who serve as local councillors.

“We try to keep vocal about the importance of building an alternative society,” said Hitomi Igarashi, board member of Seikatsu Club Insurance Cooperative Union during a fact-finding tour of the USA in 2012. “That’s why we are doing our activities.”