Following on from yesterday's introduction to the history and environmental credentials of Panasonic, today presents Part Two of this special feature.

By Patrick Avenell

For clarity, references to ‘Matsushita’ always refer to the Panasonic founder. The company, previously known by several names, is always referred to as ‘Panasonic’.

An Environmental Dilemma

In game theory, there’s a scenario called The Volunteer’s Dilemma. Imagine if an apartment building suffered a blackout. If only one resident called and paid for an electrician to visit, everyone in the apartment will get their power back. But if none of the residents call an electrician, none of them will get their electricity switched on.

The propensity for residents to do nothing — to assume that someone else will bear the cost — is natural. This leads to what’s known as ‘freeriding’.

The compulsion for freeriding in the recycling dilemma is enormous. If you’re running a business charged with making money for your stakeholders, it is a big step to invest money in a voluntary scheme that may or may not be effective.

Two years ago, Panasonic Australia managing director Steve Rust hit out at freeriders, telling that a tax on importing TVs must be industry-wide and must apply to each and every TV brought into the country.

The use of ‘freeriders’ as an epithet was thrown about by PSA executive director John Gertsakis and by Sony national technology services manager Stuart Clark. Explaining the counter view at that time was ViewSonic country manager William Tse.

“Existing PSA members are conglomerates that have large operations in Australia,” Tse said. “ViewSonic is a global company, however with a small business set up locally compared with PSA member companies.

“Becoming a member of PSA at this point in time would not be beneficial or economically viable for ViewSonic. PSA membership is not compulsory and without legislation in place, members are effectively lobbyists.”

Effectively lobbyists? Maybe.

Effective lobbyists? Definitely. The conflict between PSA members and the so-called ‘freeriders’ may have stalled progress, but it did not stop it. Under the Product Stewardship Bill 2011, “no supplier of new TVs and computer equipment can avoid their collection and recycling obligations”.

In his role as Panasonic managing director, Rust was living Panasonic’s global green vision. This longterm involvement in PSA would soon become an important backbone in Panasonic Australia’s efforts to market and sell products, rather than simply recycle them.

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Green Washing and Drying

Panasonic Australia’s consumer products revenue over the last decade has been focused squarely on its successful and popular Viera-brand plasma TVs and Lumix-brand digital cameras. With price erosion affecting both of these categories, Panasonic is now beginning to market products in new categories, such as air conditioning, irons, refrigeration and laundry.

As part of its market proposition, Panasonic will be heavily promoting the green features of its new appliance ranges. This strategy proved effective last summer, when Panasonic launched an air conditioning range with an ‘eco patrol sensor’ to monitor how many people were in the room and adjust temperatures accordingly.

When a large corporation sells its products along green lines it runs a big risk. The media and consumers are very sceptical of big companies talking up the environment while actually doing very little to improve it. It’s a practice called ‘greenwashing’, and it has led to enormous public backlashes.

One such example was BP, which rebranded itself Beyond Petroleum and stylised its logo in green and yellow in a worldwide marketing campaign. The British company was then responsible for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. The result was widespread ridicule, abandonment of public trust and an estimated total cost of $40 billion.

Panasonic is on safer ground. At the very least, its commitment to environmental efficiencies is genuine. At a presentation in Osaka by Panasonic environmental planning group manager Rui Nakao, the five key tenets of the global “Green Plan 2018” were outlined.

These objectives were to reduce CO2 emissions, improve the recycling of resources, reduce water consumption, minimise the environmental impact of chemical substances, and identify the impact of operations on biodiversity and exercise harm minimisation.

“We have made the environment central to all our business activities and we’re bringing forth innovation,” said Nakao. “The world is at a significant turning point.”

In an architectural expression of this initiative, Panasonic has built a paragon of environmental living at its Eco Ideas House in Tokyo. Features of this house include improved sunlight penetration; LED lighting; a top-loading, tilted-drum washer/dryer; a heat pump to reduce power consumption; and a solar power generation system on the roof. One practical innovation is a sit-down shower, which claims to reduce water consumption by 85 per cent.

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Home Truths

In Australia, Panasonic has endowed a professorship at Macquarie University to former Australian of the Year and climate change crusader Tim Flannery. When he’s not discovering new species of kangaroos, Flannery works to educate those who’ll listen on how the earth is changing and what humans can do to arrest these inconvenient truths.

This association with Macquarie University is worth almost $700,000 over three years, with the funding earmarked for environmental research and public education.

The first research project undertaken with this grant was a study into consumers’ perceptions about eco-conscious electronics and appliances. More than three-quarters of the 2,000 respondents said they were aware of and concerned by environmental issues, while more than 90 per cent agreed that their own actions can make a difference.

Encouragingly for a company releasing an eco range of appliances, this research found that almost 90 per cent of respondents had a positive perception of the performance of appliances with environmental features. The final report noted that past research found that consumers considered eco-friendly appliances to have inferior performance.

Konosuke Matsushita’s philosophy was highlighted by a willingness to remain open to new ideas. He described this as having an “untrapped mind”.

“The untrapped mind is open enough to many possibilities,” he said, “Humble enough to learn from anyone and anything, forbearing enough to forgive all, perceptive enough to see things as they really are, and reasonable enough to judge their true value.”

Panasonic clearly has more than an open mind on the divisive climate change issue. Regardless of the truth quotient of both sides’ claims, it is pushing on with its environmental objectives, maintaining its volunteer position in the appliances game.

This column first appeared in the October 2011 edition of Appliance Retailer magazine, under the headline, 'How Green Was My Company?'.

Read Part One of this story here.

View our image gallery of the recycling plant at the Panasonic Eco Technology Center (PETEC).