Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

Fair Trade turns from a movement into a brand

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Guilt-free indulgence

We stopped buying chocolate after seeing a March 2010 BBC Panorama report about child slavery on cocoa plantations in western Africa. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, and much of the picking is done by children who are sold to plantations by their impoverished parents or human traffickers. Some cooperatives that had been approved for Fair Trade status were later found to have used child labor and suspended from receiving the designation by the Fair Trade Foundation. That meant their cocoa could not be used in chocolate that received the Fair Trade label, which indicates that production followed certain standards and producers were being paid a “fair” price for their wares. The BBC’s point was that almost any chocolate that did not bear the Fair Trade label was likely to have been produced by slave labor.

Once or twice a year, however, we do buy Fair Trade chocolate from People Tree Japan through a local food cooperative. People Tree is a non-profit group that specializes in Fair Trade products from all over the world. According to the organization’s literature, the cocoa that goes into their chocolate bars is produced in various South American countries and Ghana, and then processed in Switzerland under the People Tree brand. Shipments of the chocolate to People Tree are not continuous. When the NPO receives a periodic shipment they announce it through their various distributors, and apparently stocks sell out rather quickly. The chocolate isn’t cheap: ¥290 for a 50-gram bar. At your local supermarket you can buy the same size chocolate bar made by Meiji, Morinaga or any other major confectionery company for as low as ¥100. Does the People Tree chocolate taste better? That’s a matter of personal preference, but chocolate is chocolate. In any case, it’s apparent that people buy it because of the Fair Trade label.

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Are consumers being short-changed by the yen’s appreciation?

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

"Endaka" sale: Limited time only?

An ongoing matter of concern in the Japanese financial pages is the continued appreciation of the yen against almost every other currency. According to the overriding narrative attendant to this concern, Japanese exporters “enjoyed” a lower yen (en-yasu) until the middle of 2007, meaning that because the yen was valued low in relation to the currencies in the countries where these companies’ goods were sold, they made more money. That changed, and especially after the financial crisis of 2008, the yen shot up and continued to rise over the next three years, even after Japan’s economy was pummeled by the earthquake and tsunami last March. The yen is now up about 25 percent over what it was four years ago.

This is generally considered a bad thing since Japan’s economy depends on exports, but a lot of economists are saying the situation isn’t as dire as the media has portrayed it. Major exporters like Toyota and Sony have the ear of the mass media, so their troubles tend to represent all of Japanese industry in the financial press, but exports account for less than 20 percent of Japan’s economy. These companies threaten to move operations overseas if the yen isn’t brought down, but they’ve already moved a huge portion of their manufacturing overseas. In addition, they buy parts and materials from countries where their yen goes much further.

The economists who point this out also explain that the high yen can be considered a good thing for consumers, who should expect to “enjoy” substantially lower prices for imported products and Japanese products that use foreign ingredients. That should go without saying, and we’ve been waiting to see these savings at our local retailers. We’re still waiting. When we ask why the high yen isn’t reflected in prices we get answers like this: Though the yen is appreciating, commodity prices are increasing; many countries are experiencing inflation; since all imports have to be shipped, prices depend on the price of oil. In the end, these answers sound like excuses, because except for some isolated retail areas (Amazon; one particular brand of imported camembert, pictured), almost nothing sold in Japan from overseas has become noticeably cheaper in the last three years.

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Annals of cheap: Fukushima peaches

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Eat a peach

On Thursday, the government lifted the ban on beef shipments for farmers and ranchers in the Tohoku region. That means cattle can be shipped, but the meat they produce will still have to be inspected for radioactive materials. Ranchers in Fukushima, however, want more. They want the government to buy up the beef that went to market before the ban but was not sold.

Farmers in Fukushima, where the stricken nuclear reactor is located, may attempt similar countermeasures for other produce, which is not selling because the public is afraid it might be contaminated. Of course, the very fact that Fukushima fruits and vegetables are in stores proves that those fruits and vegetables have passed inspection and are thus deemed safe according to government standards, but there’s always fuhyo higai (hearsay damage), which can be as deadly to commerce as any trace of cesium. If sales of certain produce are banned, then the farmers can ask for compensation from the government or Tokyo Electric Power Co., but if consumers just refuse to buy the produce because they’re afraid to eat it, there’s no recourse except to throw the produce away.

As cynical as it may sound, there is a silver lining to this situation, and that’s lower prices. In particular, the prices of peaches from Fukushima are lower than they’ve ever been, and if you’ve ever tasted a peach from the prefecture, you’ll understand what good news that is.

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Which appliance is the energy hog? It’s not your air conditioner

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

See that red button on the right...

Actually, in terms of overall electricity usage in households, air conditioners use the most on a continual basis, followed by refrigerators. But on a unit per hour basis, air conditioners are not that bad, even though they’ve been made the villain by the media. Broadcasters, in particular, are offering tips to households on how to cut down on energy consumption and the main suggestion is to set your air conditioner at 28 degrees centigrade. Because so many people, in particular the elderly, have fallen victim to heat stroke, no one is saying to turn off the air conditioner any more, but the general consensus is that the average air conditioner in the average home uses about 130 watts of energy and, overall, accounts for a bit less than a fourth of the summer electricity bill, which gives you some idea of the savings potential.

What the media doesn’t say, according to an article in the most recent issue of Shukan Post, is that there is another appliance in your house that actually uses more electricity. A typical large screen (over 37 inches) LCD television set uses on average 220 watts, or 70 percent more energy than the air conditioner if both are being used continuously, but, of course, media companies aren’t going to suggest you turn off the TV because that would hurt their business.

Continue reading about the most power-hungry appliance →

Annals of Cheap: 32-inch flat screen TVs

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

In your face: Most families have already replaced their main TV with one of these huge babies

Now’s the time to buy a TV if you’re in the market to replace the old analog CRT clunker that’s been your backup. Prices for mid-size and small flat screen sets are as low as they’re ever going to get owing to several factors that happened to have converged during the last few months.

According to an article in the Mainichi Shimbun, the average price of all the TVs sold in May was a little more than ¥53,000. Moreover, the average price of TVs in the 30-39 inch size range was ¥49,000. That’s a decrease of 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively, from the same month last year. And since those are general nationwide averages, the savings become even starker when you go to discount electronics stores. In March, the average price of a 32-inch flat screen TV set at a discount store was in the ¥50,000-60,000 range, and then dropped to below ¥39,000 in May. Right now, Bic Camera near Yurakucho Station in Tokyo is selling the most vanguard types — energy-conserving LED TVs — for about ¥50,000, but older models are going for as low as ¥30,000. The store’s sales of TVs are 80 percent higher than they were for the same period last year.

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LEDs make it cheaper to blind family and friends

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Freedom of choice: Lots of LEDs at Yamada Denki

The government wants you to save energy this summer because of the mess they’ve made up in Fukushima. The request is for you to reduce your consumption of electricity by 15 percent. Just in time for this setsuden (electricity reduction) season, the price of LED lamps is coming down. When LEDs first appeared on the market in 2009 the average price of a bulb was ¥3,827, according to the Light Bulb Manufacturers Association. The average price as of March was ¥2,274. Moreover, discount stores like Aeon and Don Quijote sell the 60-watt types for about ¥1,650.

Of course, when you say “60-watt type” you have to qualify the designation, since a 60-watt type LED does not, in fact, use 60 watts. Neither does a fluorescent bulb with that designation, which is still used because consumers are conditioned to think of a bulb’s brightness in terms of wattage, since that’s how you measured relative brightness with incandescent bulbs: the more power, the brighter the illumination. The same goes for fluorescents and LEDs but the proportions are much different, making comparisons almost pointless. For instance, a 60-watt type LED uses about one-eighth the power that a 60-watt incandescent bulb uses, but the brightness in terms of lumens is about half. The light bulb industry would prefer that you choose a bulb based on lumens, since the “XX-watt-type” designation is basically meaningless in the LED age.

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Only chumps recharge their cell phones at home

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

A popular and long-running theme on variety shows is zero-en seikatsu (no-yen living), an idea that goes beyond mere frugality to embrace a sort of charismatic philosophy. Since the March 11 earthquake and the attendant electrical power crisis, adherents of the zero-en lifestyle have been promoting the fact that sales outlets for the major mobile phone carriers all offer free battery-charging services to customers. Recently TV Tokyo’s “Sunday Big Variety” profiled a female office worker who makes a fairly good side living clipping coupons and taking part in product promotional lotteries, but the aspect of her no-spending lifestyle she was most proud of was the fact that for the last five years she hadn’t spent a single yen to recharge her phone.

DoCoMo recharger with locker.

Some people have to recharge their phones every day. How much does that normally cost if you do it at home? A number of Japanese bloggers have wondered the same thing. Apparently, it requires up to 10 watts of electricity per hour to recharge a cell phone, and the fee for household electricity is about ¥20 for 1 kilowatt per hour. Therefore, if it takes, say, four hours a day to recharge your phone, you will end up spending between ¥2 and ¥3 a month to do so. So that means the zero-en woman on the TV Tokyo show has, over five years, saved about ¥180.

To most people that won’t mean much, and for sure the providers don’t offer the recharging service for that reason. It’s mainly for busy people who need an emergency recharge when they’re not at home, and in that regard it’s a real life saver since the alternative is buying one of those clunky, expensive supplemental batteries in a convenience store. Nevertheless, the employees of the service providers don’t seem to know exactly how long it takes to recharge a cell phone. We went to several service centers that offer recharging and asked the employees how long it takes to recharge from zero, and only the DoCoMo staff was able to come up with a consistent, credible number: 2 hours. An au representative told us she didn’t know how long it took but most customers spent 30 minutes; while Softbank said only 20 minutes.

DoCoMo’s recharging service is slightly more elaborate in that it even offers juice for Mova models, which have been discontinued. They also have little “lockers”: If you can’t hang around while your phone is recharging, you can place it in a locker with a combination lock while it’s doing so and come back later. And if you want to copy data from one phone to another, or from your phone to another storage medium, like a CD, they have devices that will do that for free, too. Some service centers of DoCoMo and Softbank even have free beverage services while you wait. I’m sure that’s a big lure for zero-en tribe; even if the coffee tastes like mud, it doesn’t cost a thing.

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