Ricoh’s CEO on why greening business should be seen as an investment

The Japanese technology firm’s boss Jake Yamashita believes companies have a clear role to play in mitigating climate change – and that those which don’t, risk being ‘left behind’
Climate-conscious: Jake Yamashita

For Jake Yamashita, the CEO and president of Ricoh, the Japanese imaging and electronics company, tackling climate change is not an option, but a necessity. He sees global warming as impossible to ignore and points to mounting “abnormalities”.

“The way it rains, the level of typhoons. It’s been getting more fierce,” he tells Raconteur at Ricoh’s European headquarters in London.

Businesses, Yamashita believes, cannot afford to be passive. “There are clear opportunities for companies to transform their operations and help to solve these issues.” If not sufficiently motivated by the human need to protect the planet, he adds, they should understand that a failure to modernise will result in them being “left behind”.

Consumers and investors alike, Yamashita explains, are becoming increasingly – and rightly, he stresses – concerned with companies’ environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) credentials. “People care about how sustainable a business is. It could be the difference between a growing business and a failing business,” he warns. “Companies that do not modernise can risk becoming obsolete because people will go to the ones that do.” 

Yamashita joined Ricoh in 1980. He held numerous roles within production, supply chain management and general management in Japan, the US and the UK, before taking up his role as CEO and president in 2017. 

Across his 42-year career with the company, he admits to a frustration at having many of the same conversations about businesses’ environmental impacts. Breaking bad habits such as overreliance on paper, and cutting unnecessary flights, he says, are examples of immediate changes companies can make.

While devastating in many ways, the coronavirus pandemic, Yamashita reflects, offered an insight into what is imminently possible for business transformation. “During Covid, we didn’t take any flights for nearly three years. It became obvious that many meetings could be done remotely.” 

People care about how sustainable a business is. It could be the difference between a growing business and a failing business

Yamashita holds his hands up with a grin and admits that he clearly didn’t walk to London. “It’s not about banning all business trips,” he clarifies. “Ricoh is a global company. I can appreciate there are some conversations, some levels of connection and understanding, that will always require human interaction. In my opinion, it is about flying less often and flying smarter.”

In the past, Yamashita estimates he was taking international flights “maybe once a month”. Instead, he suggests, businesses should try to schedule as many meetings as possible into a single trip.

Many conferences can also be done remotely, he insists, “with the added advantage that you can have many different people [potentially in different countries] attending the same space”. Previously, Yamashita says, meetings had been ”limited to general managers” but doing things digitally has enabled contributions from people in other teams. 

Despite Ricoh’s position as a multinational company with a revenue of 1,758bn Japanese yen (£10.6bn), Yamashita is not unsympathetic to the plight of SMEs. “I understand that smaller firms might perceive a cost,” he says, “but greening a business is actually an investment and a chance to be more efficient. It will help them in the long run.”

Rewarding green initiatives

Yamashita subscribes to the view that you’ll achieve more with a carrot than a stick. “Governments should be looking to incentivise green behaviour.” While he doesn’t dispute the urgency of climate action, he does not think “punishing” small businesses that do not green their business quickly enough is the right way to encourage change. 

“The reality is that if you use sanctions,” Yamashita says, “you can put a small firm out of business. You need to think about ways to reward them for making the changes. This could be in the form of tax breaks, or business rates, or subsidies, or in a government-approved credential or certificate which marks them out as a good option for investors. In Japan, we have this and Ricoh is one of 33 companies to have received one.”

Addressing the climate emergency, Yamashita claims, is not just a gimmick for Ricoh. It has become an essential component of its business strategy, and the ambitions to cut its carbon emissions by 63% by 2030 and to become carbon-neutral by 2050 are evidenced by the technologies the company is now prioritising.

These include PLAiR, a new plant-based resin that can be used in packaging, which is strong, flexible and compostable. He also points to dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSC), which is a “type of renewable energy that works by mimicking the photosynthesis process of plants but using indoor light”.

According to Yamashita, technology companies in particular have a duty to help decarbonise society. “At Ricoh, we try to use our products to help solve the most important issues.”

Ricoh’s relationship with the UK

Despite the fluctuating value of sterling and several “interesting” developments in British politics, Yamashita maintains that the UK is an “important market” for Ricoh. He won’t be drawn on which party he would prefer to see in government, nor his views on the rates of corporation tax.

Yamashita, who lived in London between 1995 and 2002, chooses to view the UK’s decision to leave the European Union as an outward-looking, rather than isolating, move. “Brexit, for me, said that the UK did not want to limit itself to Europe. It suggested that it was open for business with the rest of the world.”

Ricoh’s European headquarters is in London, though its supply chain runs through Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, which is still part of the EU. Ricoh has several other UK offices and production sites, including in Cardiff, Exeter, Leeds, Birmingham and Telford. 

Brexit, for me, said that the UK did not want to limit itself to just Europe

“We haven’t experienced disruption at UK customs,” Yamashita notes. “In fact, we have expanded our marketing capabilities in Telford because of the expertise the UK has. We have tried to leverage our strength that we have in the UK because there are skilled people here.”

Yamashita says there is “a lot that Japan can learn” from the UK, which he considers to be “leading in digitisation… Particularly the SMEs here are more digital, whereas in Japan many are still using paper and fax machines. The UK is leading in this space and they’re a benchmark for us.”

Both in the context of business and the environment, Yamashita says there is no going back. “At Ricoh, I have already declared to our employees that the way we work is never going to return to the way it was before Covid. We are trying to establish a new work style per job description, per type of work. Flights are going to be 50% less.” 

Ricoh has come a long way since it was founded in 1936, Yamashita ponders, but guided by its principles of “love your neighbour, love your country and love your work”, it has a long journey still ahead of it. He smiles. “We’ll never stop monitoring the ways we can improve.”