Here’s a little experiment for you: While you’re sitting in your office, wearing your usual work outfit, set the thermostat at 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Now see how long you can handle it before you’ll run to the thermostat and change it back to its original temperature. Is it difficult to stay focused after couple of minutes? Are you feeling sweaty? If you are, you’re probably not one of the Japanese salarymen taking part in Japan’s annual energy-saving summer campaign. In other words, you’re not really super cool.
On June 1, the Japanese Environment Ministry began a “Super Cool Biz” campaign, encouraging office workers to keep the office thermostat at 82 degrees Fahrenheit during summer and dress a bit more casually to be able to keep it cool even at such temperature. Recommended outfits include polo shirts, Hawaiian shirts and sneakers and even jeans and sandals under certain circumstances. The Environment Ministry is hoping the campaign will assist the government’s efforts to cut electricity use by 15% this summer, as Japan is facing possible energy shortages caused by damage to the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.
Although this year this campaign seems more relevant than ever, it actually started in 2005 and goes on every summer since then. The Cool Biz campaign (the ‘Super’ was added only this year) was originally introduced by the then Minster of the Environment, Yuriko Koike. The goal was simply “to prevent global warming.” Even the Prime Minister at that time, Junichiro Koizumi, got involved in the campaign, announcing that “from this summer, government is planning to start no necktie, no jacket.” He also gave a personal example by showing up in a newspaper ad wearing a half-sleeve shirt with no tie, urging his Cabinet to follow suit.
This campaign might sounds like a crazy idea at first given the relatively conservative tradition of Japanese salarymen, whose dark business suit has been the beloved uniform for generations, but apparently it is working, or at least it generates less resistance.
“When we started Cool Biz in 2005, people said it was undignified and sloppy, but this is now the sixth year and people have grown accustomed to it ” Ms. Koike said at the fashion show held at a Tokyo department store to kick off this year’s campaign. Data from the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) proves her point. In 2005, almost a third of 2,000 poll respondents said that Cool Biz had been implemented in their workplace. In 2007, the figure had jumped to 47%, and in 2009 it had reached 57%.
But resistance is still there and not everyone is excited about this initiative, both at governmental offices and in the private sector. “I do not see employees wearing the clothing (allowed by Super Cool Biz), and our company does not allow it, anyway.” A spokesperson from Mitsubishi’s PR division told the Mainichi Daily News. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance implementation percentage will go even higher this year because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster Japan experienced last March.
The guidelines of the MOE tried to maintain some limits so you won’t think you got by mistake into a beach party when entering a governmental office or a company’s headquarters. This means Yes to polo shirts and sneakers, but No to tank tops and beach sandals. Some items can be used but only under certain restrictions like jeans (have to be respectable-looking) or T-shirt (only nice looking ones). Everything makes sense except the fact the Hawaiian shirts are OK – how come shorts are forbidden but Hawaiian shirts are good to go? Where’s the consistency here? Another thing that doesn’t make much sense is the fact that the environment ministry’s dress code doesn’t include specific rules for women. Should they continue with business attire as usual?
Some retailers are exciting about the campaign. “This is a big chance for us,” Naoki Ootoma, chief operating officer at Uniqlo, Japan’s leading clothing retailer told the Wall Street Journal, adding that it has estimated that an average consumer will spend around $210 on a new Super Cool Biz wardrobe. On the other hand, the necktie business seems to be suffering and a group of necktie manufacturers and wholesalers asked last year the Environment Minister to halt the campaign, claiming that necktie sales have dropped around 35 percent since 2005.
Super Cool Biz is not only about casual outfit and higher temperatures in the office, and it includes 9 more suggestions for lifestyle and work-style changes. One of these recommendations is to shift work hours toward the earlier, cooler mornings. In Tokyo, for example, where the governor set even a more aggressive target of a 25 percent reduction in energy, city workers on the earliest shift will start at 7:30 a.m. and be allowed to leave at 4:15 p.m.
If this whole campaign sounds to you like a retro thing, you might be right. The Japan Times reports that “there is a comeback for retro summer items like uchiwa hand fans and old-fashioned suteteko underwear (lightweight knee-length drawers for men).” But like many retro things, Super Cool Biz might be a futuristic trend at the same time. Don’t be surprised if you’ll see more countries adopting this casual dressing code in the future, once they understand they really can’t afford to waste energy on cooling offices in summer just to make it easier for workers dressing like it is winter. After all, conserving energy is more important than conserving an outdated fashion tradition.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.