ScopeNEXT GENERATION #4 | Clean Beauty

The Next Generation’s Choice for the Social Good

Yuka Kawaguchi, a member of Marubeni’s Next Generation Business Development Division, who is currently based at SHIGETA, an organic cosmetics sales company, calls herself a “jack of all trades.” In addition to corporate planning, her given role, Kawaguchi deals with literally anything and everything: accounting, human resources, labor management, general administration, legal, and warehouse management. She even upgrades the company’s website. “I have to keep moving forward while exploring many different areas that are all new to me,” Kawaguchi says. Sometimes, what she thought was a well-thought-out scheme doesn’t pan out, and she cannot help feeling disheartened because of that. For Kawaguchi, the antidote to negativity is to think of an ancient Chinese parable, “The Old Man Lost His Horse,” which teaches that every cloud has a silver lining. It helps shift her mood: “Bad luck may bring good luck.”

Since its inception in 2019, the Next Generation Business Development Division has identified emerging markets with huge growth potential and continues to invest in promising companies. Marubeni is committed to growing new consumer businesses in Japan and other countries in Asia, which can lure Millennials and Gen Z—the emerging consumers who will be setting the trends and driving consumer businesses in the future. At Marubeni, clean beauty has been defined as one of the pillars for its next-generation consumer businesses, and the company started out by investing in SHIGETA in February 2021. This first endeavor marked an important foothold as Marubeni plans to invest in promising brands both domestically and internationally. Harnessing the knowledge and experiences gained through the collaboration with SHIGETA, the company strives to lead the emerging market of clean beauty. The mission given to Kawaguchi, who is also a Millennial, is to cultivate pathways to success.

The next generation is aesthetically conscious and sustainability minded.

Clean beauty refers to chemical-free natural cosmetics made of plant-based ingredients, which are also sustainable and ethically sourced, such as those by companies conducting no animal testing and ensuring a decent working environment. While it is just starting to be recognized as a new category of beauty products in Japan, clean beauty is rapidly growing in Western countries, gaining popularity among Millennials and Gen Z, who are keen to buy social-good products and thus support companies that are committed to SDGs. According to Statista, a marketing research firm, clean beauty’s global market, which stood at 11 billion dollars in 2016, is expected to reach 54.5 billion dollars in 2027.

“Clean beauty has already become the norm in the Western markets. You have no choice but to shift your focus towards this direction. You cannot retain your customers otherwise,” says Keiko Suyama, a specialist based in Paris, who provides consultancy to Japanese beauty or lifestyle brands that aim to enter the European markets. She adds that highly evaluated brands in Europe are the ones that clearly communicate their sustainability commitments, such as going waterless both in terms of production and products (“waterless beauty”), fair-trade sourcing of ingredients, or doing away with the outer packaging or making refillable products. Suyama sees that “clean and green” brands have become dominant at the trend-setting retail stores, such as high-end department stores and boutiques in Paris or London, which carry stylish and sophisticated products. She also points out that cosmetics stores have continued to raise their bars, requesting that makers use recyclable plastic or glass containers, and also avoid overpackaging.

Awareness and understanding towards sustainability are growing fast in Japan, especially among the youth, thanks to the efforts by educators to teach the SDGs in school. Thus, clean beauty is held to high expectations, but success in cultivating the market depends on “whether you can win the support of young people in their twenties or thirties, who are aesthetically conscious, sustainability-minded, and willing to pay more for the social good,” says Takehiko Suzuki, general manager of Beauchard, the wholly owned Marubeni subsidiary, which is tasked with helping to strategically promote Marubeni’s clean-beauty businesses. Suzuki, formerly Chief Marketing Officer of a cosmetics brand, is an expert in the D2C (direct-to-customer) business model, which utilizes SNS to grow a fanbase and e-commerce to sell products without intermediaries.

Stylish design, high-quality customer experience, and doing something good for the environment. Meeting all of these targets does not suffice because it is the de facto standard, Suzuki says. “You must prove that you are making a genuine commitment to the betterment of the world. Sharp-minded youth can tell if your actions are sincere or superficial.” He adds, “If you are taking substantial actions to tackle social development issues, because such aspiration is part of your brand’s DNA, you will be able to survive. If this is not the case, you won’t.”

SHIGETA has proven itself to be a “genuine” brand that can appeal to young people who prefer to consume for the social good. The brand has continued to commit itself to sustainability and ethical sourcing since its inception in 2006, and its products are certified by the most stringent international standard for organic cosmetics. Nevertheless, more work needs to be done to make its high-quality products known among younger people. The brand’s challenge lies in gaining more support from the next generation. This is precisely the reason why Marubeni has invested in SHIGETA. In order to boost online sales, Kawaguchi now sets and manages sales targets. She also hired a marketing manager who is experienced in digital marketing. All these efforts have borne fruit; its sales made via online shopping sites have recently reached a record high. Kawaguchi is also exploring the idea of creating a flagship store, which will be the “face” of the brand. While juggling a wide range of day-to-day operations, she also needs to think of a longer-term strategy, spanning five to 10 years; how to make clean beauty more prevalent in Japan and how to create momentum and spread it throughout Asia. Kawaguchi continues to think ahead.

Understanding what it really means to be thoughtful

Kawaguchi has no previous experience in consumer business. At a different division, in which she previously worked, her job was strictly internal; she did not interact with any external organizations or people. Nowadays, Kawaguchi often visits retails stores that carry SHIGETA’s products. She also takes phone calls and answers any questions that the customers ask. “Listening to what our customers have to say, we can always understand what needs to be done, which is constantly changing,” Kawaguchi says. “I am learning firsthand that a company must keep trying and doing new things, otherwise it will never grow.”

Working at an external company as a corporate planner is another thing that was new to Kawaguchi. Her role, which defines the company’s business direction, requires a certain level of management skills; however Kawaguchi, who is just into her seventh year at Marubeni, has no previous experience in this field. On top of that, SHIGETA is a small, family-owned business whose corporate culture is very different from that of Marubeni. Coming to this company alone, Kawaguchi has continued “thinking hard and working frantically” in order to gain trust from the staff members, as well as successfully restructured the company’s business foundation. One positive outcome of her efforts is the newly introduced employee evaluation and reward system. Because the top management people reside outside of Japan, it can be difficult to evaluate the staff members; this tends to create psychological distance between the two parties. Having detected vague concerns regarding this issue being shared among the staff members, Kawaguchi carried out a survey involving them. Based on its outcome, she designed a new system incorporating a clearer rubric for performance assessment, which she presented to the company’s CEO. She also showed the draft to the staff members, who then provided positive feedback appreciating the transparency of the new system.

“Whatever new action I am to take, my top priority is to make people around me happy,” Kawaguchi says. Previously, her focus revolved around “how not to be disliked by people around me.” Whenever she heard someone mentioning a problem, she used to stand up and say, “Let me handle it.” But an excessive willingness to please others consumed her time and energy; she even lost the focus of her mission. “I got it all wrong. I was completely mistaken about the meaning of thoughtfulness. I realized that my job was to figure out ways to make a favorable working environment for all, but the first thing I needed to do was to clearly define our goals,” she says.

Imagine that there are two paths to choose from; one is paved, and the other is rocky. Along the latter path, you will find a steep hill, which is difficult to climb, but has a splendid view. Kawaguchi always goes with the rocky path. “I give it a try when I face a ‘tall mountain.’ But sometimes, I climb to the summit only to have zero visibility,” she recalls. “The old man lost his horse, but it all turned out for the best,” Kawaguchi says. “I shouldn’t let myself be on an emotional roller coaster. Instead, I should focus on the next step. I always try to think positive.”

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in December 2021.