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L'Atarimae Champions Sustainability with Japanese-Inspired Business Ethos

L’Atarimae advises firms on sustainability, inspired by Japanese concept of 'Atarimae'
By Gresheen Libby
April 26, 2024

In the heart of Woerden, Netherlands, a revolutionary advisory firm, L'Atarimae, is reshaping the sustainability landscape by embodying the Japanese custom of 'Atarimae,' meaning to leave a place cleaner than one found it.

Led by sustainability expert Lucy van Keulen, L'Atarimae offers strategic guidance to corporate boards and product managers, aiming to enhance the environmental footprint of companies throughout the plastic, packaging, and waste sectors. With a commitment to making processes and products more sustainable, L'Atarimae stands as a beacon of innovation and ecological responsibility in today's corporate world.

Gresheen (GG) Libby: I actually did a little bit of research and found out that “atarimae” is the Japanese concept of leaving the place cleaner than it was. So, can you elaborate on that Japanese concept and its significance in your approach to sustainability and environmental consciousness?

Lucy van Keulen: Yes, I visited Japan and I really liked the nature of their culture. One of the things is they're so precious about links with each other but also links with nature because, in the end, we need nature and they know that it's our foundation of all the life that we have, but also the food that we eat.

That actually started by getting to know that some Japanese people really get very old, and I was interested. “Hey, why do they get so old?” So I started reading a little bit about their culture and then I encountered atarimae and that was, of course, triggering me because I'm already a waste enthusiast for more than 10 years.

Also, because I saw in Japan that people wash their plastic bowls, and then go to the streets to throw away [the plastic bowls] very carefully. They can just choose between nine bins and they really carefully put it within the right bin.

It's not a belief, it's just their second nature. They're not really aware of it, for them, it is really normal. And then you also saw it in the World Cup, the Japanese were there and they were just cleaning up the stadium seats because for the Japanese, it's just normal. They were really surprised that why don't others do that?. I found that’s a really nice trait that everybody should have, and it's much more than just cleaning.

For me, it is when I visit a company or when I help a company, then I try to make it a little bit better in the sense of relations with people, how they work with others together, and it's cleaning up and leaving a better world. Not only literally cleaning everything up but also making it more sustainable and more long-lasting."

It's Lucy's way of Atari Mae. So it's the letter “L” in L’Atarimae, I made that my way of interpretation.

Gresheen (GG) Libby: I love how you added a personal touch to your company. So, can you share some insights into your experience as a leader in developing standard consumer products? I know that you work with major brands as well. What were some of the challenges you faced? And how did you overcome this - especially working with bigger brands?

Lucy van Keulen: The challenge that we face is actually a challenge that's even bigger than they are. It's such a worldwide spread habit almost, or system that we are in, and it is closely related to how they are designing, how they get their materials, for example, brand owners.

For them, it's really normal that they design [packaging] with a glossy purple silver, but they can just make what they want, what they think that's good for consumers. But actually, it would already be good even at that moment. No, they don't work with their whole world. But say, 'Hey, who gets what out of the chain? What can I get from the chain?' So that whole design thinking is already kind of not intact anymore. So, they should look back instead of only looking forward, and start something; they are in that system, and the whole plastic value chain is quite old-fashioned. It has some big forces behind it because of course, plastic is oil-based. So the original resource companies are so huge, are so big, they will supply whatever they demand, so you should be very strong, really want something else. So then you really should know why you need something else because. Then you really need to be very strong and know in detail how to convince your directors of something else and something strange because it's not like the normal system.

And often just a developer who needs to make a simple bottle or a new storage box, why should he care even if he doesn’t have that knowledge of that chaos that's around the system.

What I have seen is that to try to move ahead of the system, the small steps of everybody needs to be changed, and it is also how we look at consumers, how to go but also how consumers behave, but it starts with small steps.

I often see that if you won't change the system you will face a thousand problems. And that's the whole point. You need to be so strong and so stubborn and so willing to really change this, and legislation is sometimes even against you and speed is needed, and often in one of those thousand problems, there is one problem that really breaks down the new innovation, but only if you overcome it, then you get there.

You have to be strong-willed to really get there and quite often in such a company, it is not that easy. So they almost need somebody externally to really help them overcome all those issues because they cannot know all the issues they need to overcome. If you have the dot, you move that back to 2040, and say it will be something like this, and then to 2023, it will be something like this.

This generation is coming up, and they have big paradoxes. They want convenience. They want to have speed, they want to have everything on their phone, but they also want to be sustainable for their friends, and they want to do good. That's okay, but they're coming up and spending more money. But you also know that, for style, the world and Europe, and even the separate countries have said in 2030, 'You want to use fifty percent less of fossil resources?' Okay, but what are we using then? So bio-based will be coming up. So, already there are some developments that are coming up and... putting that in a compressed presentation. You really see how it helps people but also gives them a little bit of enthusiasm and positive energy, and then you see that somebody from Production really starts talking to somebody from sales or..purchase or innovation centers, and then they see that they all need each other. And I think that's really where I would like to reach. That they start talking to each other and even with suppliers and clients. so that gives insight for a lot of people.

Gresheen (GG) Libby: So it really is a team effort by everyone around you.

Lucy van Keulen: Yeah, it's an effort – a team effort within each company, but also a team effort in the full chain. So you talk to that recycler, or to that waste company, but you never talk to them, and you don't know anything about it. That's one of the main things that I've learned is that data will become so important. Of course, it's in so many places, but then I ask the companies very often, “How is it with your data? Do you have your data in order? Are you able to even analyze yourself and know what your level of maturity is ?” All the companies know somebody important.

But then this starts with myself and if I have my own data in order, if I have analyzed myself, and how can I share anything with anybody in the chain to help the chain improve? And that's something that you can easily do. Do you have the data in your company? You can start doing it tomorrow, and then it really gives you energy if you have analyzed that, start with yourself and analyze your own data, and it will give insight. I've seen it with companies for whom I did that already. It gives so much insight and therefore energy and your decision becomes so clear then if you have that.

Gresheen (GG) Libby: How do you see the role of creative solutions? Because L’Atarimae is all about creative solutions in order to address and tackle this particular issue. And how do you see the role of these creative solutions and perseverance in driving meaningful change towards sustainable practices, especially in the context of waste and recycling?

Lucy van Keulen: Nice question. Somebody needs to be strange enough and stupid enough to do this and to try to change this.I see that overcoming all the issues and people often are quite negative because yes, it is difficult. I think the only way to solve this is creativity and thinking outside that box because if we do what we were always doing, we get what we always got. It needs to be creative, but creativity can be very simple.

As I say, the problem is so big. We just cannot solve it with a little bit here and there. We need to create a new system and new ways of collaboration in the full chain. That is the only way we can come up with new systems and with other things that we have now. You need creativity, perseverance, other thinking, and trying 10 times and failing nine times. Yeah, that's the only way I think to find out what will be the new balance. But that new balance and new system is needed. You need them both.

Gresheen (GG) Libby: For individuals or organizations that are looking to enhance their recycling efforts, what advice or strategies would you offer based on your expertise and network in the waste and recycling industry?

Lucy van Keulen: First, start analyzing yourself. What is the biggest volume in packaging that you have, to whom do they sell it? What's my waste? For example, you can get from a certain supplier, everything in carton boxes. Can you make that a closed-loop packaging? For example, start with yourself. What's the knowledge of my people – are they really aware? Do they know the thing they should know to move ahead? Did we do anything really to teach them or to give them some insight? So start with yourself.

Start with getting your data in order, be smart about it, and then note the useful KPIs., Delve more into a way of circular system development. So start analyzing yourself, get your data in order, and know the knowledge level of your own people because you're as strong as your weakest link. And everybody really wants to go out and do everything in the world. Start with yourself and be the strong example for the rest of the chain.

Then you can move ahead, and you see by analyzing yourself. Hey, but if I do this, I make the most impact. Hey, if I change this, that really makes sense and start there.

Starting also costs a lot of effort. But you also get a lot of energy back because you start doing something that makes sense, because you have very good reasoning, and because you have figures based under it.

Then [next is] going to a supplier, for example, “Hey, I want to change this because of this, here, look at the data. And if we change this and this, then we can do that. Then the supplier gets enthusiastic because he really sees the reasoning. So, start with yourself, then you attract suppliers or clients.

Have a discussion and be open. How could we reach that together? And that's a discussion. There you will face a lot of companies that have fear, that don't know, that only see problems.

Look for the company or the supplier or the client that is willing, that is open, that tries to reach the same goal as you have, and that is not that easy but really feel where it feels good and not try to pull too hard on people that don't. They will be the losers in the end, find the people who are really willing because yes, it will be a tough road, and so you need strong partners. Then if you have a table of nice companies, then you can make the next steps.

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