The American bulk-buy chain COSTCO first opened in Japan more than 20 years ago and has been steadily growing in popularity ever since. But can a business famous for cheap meat, dairy and American fast-foods in the food court, be any good for Japan’s people and the planet?
The short answer is YES!
People: Staff, Customers & Community
Let’s start with people. How does Costco treat its staff and the community? COSTCO has won awards in Japan for promoting equality and support for female staff. Few companies in Japan have policies in place which support working women and working mothers as well as Costco in Japan. The company has a 50/50 gender equality policy and has actually won awards for its support of working women and working mothers in Japan.
There are over 9,500 employees working at COSTCO Japan and the company has a good reputation for equal pay and equal access to promotions and career opportunities. The online shop also offers access to their recruitment pages in both English and Japanese for new graduates as well as mid-career hires if you are looking for part-time (20+ hours/week) or full-time work (40+ hours/week).
There are plans to open 50 more stores across Japan in the next ten years, it seems that the Costco model is working well in the Japanese market.
On the not-so-great side of effect on the community, Costco Japan’s food court may be negatively affecting the community’s health as it has drawn students and bargain hunters to the food courts for its cheap American junk food. The foodcourt menu is full of cheap meats, cheeses, and other dairy-rich items which has a heavy impact on both health and the environment. In December 2019 a Japanese study linked Ramen shops to increased health problems in nearby communities- would a similar study reveal health problems of those who often eat at a Costco food court?
VeryWellFit.com reiterates what most of us believe that the Costco food court items like any fast-food should be only eaten occasionally. At least at Costco US food courts, the menu was updated in 2019 to include healthy items too,
..changes to the Costco food court menu have been controversial. Polish hot dogs and the berry sundae, two long-time crowd favorites, were removed to make room for healthier options. Shortly after the changes, Costco introduced açai bowls and vegan al pastor salads in attempts to add healthier options to its quick-service food stand.
We look forward to Costco bringing more plant-based items to the warehouse lineup such as meat-alternatives from Beyond Meat and Nestle gain market share worldwide. Introducing plant-based proteins at the food court would perfectly coincide with Japan’s predicted 2020 Vegan Boom.
High-Quality Kirkland Store Brand
One of Costco’s most popular points of appeal is its own Kirkland brand which offers high-quality items at reasonable prices. I use Coconut oil for vegan baking as well as Zero-Waste DIY projects such as making my own toothpaste and deodorant. Kirkland covers everything from household items like sheets and clothing to edibles. Although most of the packaging is typically plastic, the larger sizes mean you are consuming less single-use plastics than if you were buying smaller items. The large bags of snacks, pet food, nuts, and other items are better quality and lower prices than any other shop in Japan. CNBC did a review in 2019 of the Top 9 Items You Should Buy at Costco which is aimed at the US customer, but also rings true for Costco Japan shoppers.
The image of Costco Japan is a place to get your fix of American import goods, so I was surprised when told by staff that over 70% of each Costco’s items are locally sourced from the country they are based in. It’s true that a typical shop for us results in only about half of our items being imported and the remainder is Japan-grown vegetables, fruit, dairy or other items.
There is another factor that successfully results in less waste when bulk-buying at Costco Japan, Japanese groupism. If you visit any Costco warehouse in Japan you are bound to see groups of friends shopping together and separating bulk goods (like massive bags of rolls) into different trunks before they drive home. This is a great way to get value out of bulk shopping which reduces packaging waste as well as food waste.
Bilingual Online Costco Shopping Supports More Diverse Community
COSTCO currently has 26 warehouses across Japan and there are items in some stores which are not available, sold-out, or temporarily missing in others which makes member access to an online store more appealing. The COSTCO online shop is bilingual and offers free, quick shipping to anywhere across Japan. When I trialed the service, the products I ordered arrived within 2 days which was fantastic! The online shopping option supports people who don’t drive, have disabilities, or find it hard to shop at a warehouse for themselves for various reasons.
There are currently only dry-goods available online including a good-sized section to shop for the Kirkland COSTCO Own Brand, What’s New and customers can also use the online store to Pre-order party food platters and cakes to be picked up at a local warehouse.
Search Function Limitations
The search function still needs improvement as a search in English or Japanese for Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, Halal, or allergy-free does not currently produce any results. If searching by brand or product title, shoppers are able to find soy or almond milk, beans, nuts, juices and other items that are vegan and vegetarian. Also, if you search Gluten-Free, nothing appears, however, if you find the Skippy Peanut Butter listing it clearly states that it is gluten-free. As it is a new system, I hope the search function will improve and more products become available over time.
People + Planet-Friendly Costco Initiatives
COSTCO has a clear CSR mission engaging with the community and includes collaborating with charities such as Second Harvest to decrease food waste and has been transparent as an equal opportunity employer in Japan.
Costco is transparent about the environmentally-friendly policies it uses in operations and it would be great to see more of Costco’s environmentally-products available at the online store. For example, the Residential Solar Panel and Battery systems are not online, only available at the warehouse, but residential solar systems are sold on their US website.
One benefit of shopping bulk at Costco is that only reusable bags or the reuse of boxes are available at the check-out. It would be great to see further improvements to decreasing the amount of plastic packaging waste sold by increasing product lines which have more easily recyclable containers such as paper, metal, and glass instead of plastic. Costco has been clear about their efforts to improve their packaging to include more recycled materials. Adding reusable trays, plates, cups, straws, lids, and utensils to the food court as well as creating reusable containers for the in-house sold baked goods would significantly reduce plastic waste.
Plastic waste is a problem for Japan in general, and as with any shopping in Japan, a trip to Costco fills your bags with single-use plastic containers and packaging which cannot be recycled. It’s great to see some improvements, however, biodegradable (compostable) food containers sold at the online store which I hope will soon be adopted in eateries across Japan. Seeing more compostable package options like this alongside more reusables at the Costco food-courts would be a welcome change.
While there are no reusable containers in use at Costco yet, the bulk-buy concept without plastic-bags at check-out (reusable shopping bags or reuse of boxes) results in less overall waste than a typical grocery trip in Japan.
Plant-Based & Zero-Waste
If you are seeking to reduce your waste or live a zero-waste lifestyle in Japan, it is possible to buy flour and other key cooking and baking ingredients in bulk and sometimes in paper packaging instead of plastic. For vegans or vegetarians, Costco has a lot of hard-to-find plant-based items like tortillas and refried beans, baked beans, cereals, vegan butter, oats, vinegar, canned beans, oils, miso paste (without dashi), frozen fruit, green smoothie supplements, breads, bagels, and nuts. Also, for vegetarians, according to Vegetatio, the blocks of Kirkland cheeses (except Parmesan) are rennet-free. Many of these items are usually hard to find or too costly to make a part of a regular shop in Japan. It is also sometimes possible to buy fruit and vegetables in cardboard containers instead of plastic.
I have noticed improvements in packaging reduction at Costco over the years and I think there is great potential for international chains like this in Japan to have a positive effect on the grocery and retail industry by setting new standards for sustainable operations.
Customer feedback is an important aspect of the COSTCO model, so if you have a suggestion or concern, make sure you fill in a customer feedback form at the warehouse or via the customer service portal online. As it doesn’t hurt to ask, I always take the customer-feedback booth opportunity to ask for more plant-based products and options in the food court, more products with less plastic packaging, and an opportunity to bulk-buy foods and household items with reusable containers.