Kyushu-based soap maker Shabondama has been producing gentle,
eco-friendly soaps and detergents for four decades.
Go to Hakata Station, the main railway hub in Fukuoka, and a series of advertisements featuring the soap-bubble mascot of Shabondama Soap Co., a locally based manufacturer of additive-free natural soap, are sure to catch your eye. Venture out into the street, and you’ll notice that the local buses are wrapped in Shabondama livery too.
It’s all part of a special campaign for 2014. Why this year in particular? “It was in 1974 that my father switched from producing synthetic soap to producing natural soap,” explains president and CEO Hayato Morita, the third-generation of his family to head the company. “So this year marks our fortieth year promoting healthy, eco-friendly soap to the world. It’s an important anniversary”
The story of Shabondama’s switch away from synthetic soap is a dramatic one. In the early 1970s, the national railway company, concerned at the way the synthetic detergents it used to wash its rolling stock were causing it to rust, asked Morita’s father, the then company president, to come up with a pure, additive-free detergent.
Years of experimentation followed. The night before presenting the final product to the client, Morita’s father decided to test it on himself at home. To his amazement, he discovered that the rashes on his neck, wrists and waist that he had gotten from chafing clothes for decades disappeared within a week. When he reverted to synthetic soap, the rashes came back the same day.
The experience convinced the elder Morita to change course, ditching synthetic soap production to focus wholly on natural soap. The effects were immediate—and disastrous. Morita was simply too far ahead of his time. Sales crashed by 99%.
“My father stuck to his guns,” says Morita. “By the 1990s the mood changed: people began to care about ecological issues, as well as product safety.” Now Shabondama boasts robust sales of around ¥6 billion per year.
What are the demerits of synthetic soap? “It doesn’t break down easily,” Morita explains. “It kills microorganisms, plants and even fish by destroying the cells around their gills, which stops them breathing. It’s also harsh on human skin.”
By contrast, natural soap is kind to both people and the environment. Getting this message out is how Shabondama wins customers. The company seeks to educate the public via information-intensive newspaper ads as well as lectures and seminars. It also opens up its Kitakyushu factory to tour groups, welcoming a record-breaking 20,000 people in 2013.
Factory visitors get to see Shabondama’s veteran soap makers as they simmer simple ingredients such as palm oil, olive oil, caustic soda and salt in a vat, occasionally “tasting” the product to see if it is ready.
The company has traditionally served three core market segments: people with problem skin; mothers with young babies; and people interested in natural, healthy living. Now healthcare professionals represent a fast-growing new group. It stands to reason that doctors and nurses, who often wash their hands twenty or thirty times per day, should prefer a gentle natural soap devoid of harsh ingredients like chlorine. Data from tests that Shabondama is currently conducting together with Kansensho Taisaku Center suggest that its soaps are also effective against the viruses which flourish in hospitals.
Shabondama is also starting to build a loyal following outside its home base of Japan. It is making inroads into overseas markets, with Korea, China, Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and the USA as its top export destinations. Since all Shabondama products are Halal-compliant, the company also has high expectations for growth in Islamic countries around the world.
In addition to new geographic areas, the company is exploring entirely new product genres. Of particular promise is fire-extinguishing foam. At first glance it may seem a completely unrelated field, but in fact the foam used to put out fires is nothing more than soap bubbles. Soap breaks the surface tension of water, helping water permeate more deeply into burning objects, and soap's adhesive properties mean it’s also good at shutting off the oxygen supply that fires need to thrive.
Shabondama has been providing eco-friendly fire-extinguishing foam to the fire brigade in its hometown of Kitakyushu since 2007. Currently, the company is working with the Indonesian government and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) on a foam targeted at peat moss fires. Says Morita, “Peat moss fires are notoriously persistent. Smoke from Indonesian wild fires is causing smog and disrupting flights as far away as Singapore. It’s an international problem.” Shabondama foam should help put out the most stubborn wild fires while minimizing any damage to the health of the forest eco-system.
Whatever the product line and wherever the market, for four decades Shabondama has stayed committed to its mission of “promoting health and clean water.” It’s a clear win-win both for consumers and the environment.
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