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Guardian Article:
20/09/02 Rosie Walford

Towards the end of their final year, a class of teenage schoolgirls in miniskirted uniforms strode into the factory of Shiseido, Japan's largest cosmetics company. Corporate chemists, managers and the Chief Engineer ushered the young girls into the boardroom with deep bows.

Last year, a class had scrutinised the factory's production of an olive-oil based moisturiser, from ingredients to packaging. Finding that during oil extraction, 80% of olive biomass goes to waste, the girls had searched out alternatives on the internet. They discovered Israelis burning olive stones to potash - an ingredient of soap. Couldn't such processes make the local product less wasteful, more sustainable, they had asked in formal presentations back to the board. This year, the girls were looking at the factory's current practices on waste.

While many corporations successfully channel youthful attention to their brands, nurturing uncritical loyalties, inAsia, some schoolchildren are forming more intelligent relationships with companies. Through Projects International, an initiative created by British and Canadian educationalists at EON foundation, the next generation interact with corporations and grow conversant with environmental responsibility from an early age.

The framework for sustainability projects in local companies was piloted in Mukdaharn, N. Thailand. The idea was to develop a sustainability module for English-as-a-foreign-Language teaching, since then a universal structure could be taught worldwide. Under EON guidance, ordinary Thai village teachers briefed children on the principles of sustainable production cycles. Soon a class of 16 year-olds were let loose on the backparts of the nearest five-star hotel, auditing emissions, waste, resource consumption and more.

The set-up was collaborative - not looking to criticise the hotel but encouraging children to find ways it might be more sustainable. Teachers and students sailed together into uncharted territory, researching areas where a particular -sometimes technical - business practice could maybe improve.

After much browsing and e-mail dialogue with companies and universities internationally, they presented actionplans - in English - to the hotel management and published findings through the internet. Such was the project's success in advancing the use of English that across 70 states of Thailand, English language resource centres are now disseminating the Project International methodology.

The realism of the projectwork seems to captivate students. In Kamakura Jogakuin Girls' Highschool, (KamaJo),twenty one students attend the bi-weekly English project voluntarily. The buzz comes from 'quizzing older officials on technical questions', said one girl, from 'realising that I myself can have innovative ideas' and 'corresponding with real professors and companies abroad,' said others. The process of pursuing an agenda with the outside, adult world, seems to have its own rewards.

This is just as well, for the schoolchildrens' proposals for environmental practice, according to Shiseido, can be 'uneconomic' or simply - like the extraction of olive ingredients - 'beyond the company's influence'. So this year's KamaJo students visit the factory with less focus on improving the company's behaviour. Instead they seek ways to adapt the environmental measures they are shown in the factory into ideas they might implement at home or school.

The students are designing a mini-version of the factory's thirtyseven-way waste sorting for their canteen. They've also decided to emulate Shiseido's policy of environmental awareness-building among staff. They mounted an 'environment fair' for schoolmates too junior for Projects International, illustrating pleas to re-use grey water, to not flush twice, and planting seedlings in old plastic lemonade bottles.

The children work closely with the corporate, asking questions and making presentations to management as before. But, conveniently for Shiseido, they take the factory's environmental measures as gold-standards to follow, rather than as starting points to be improved upon. The pupils are, nonetheless, highly motivated by inventing measures they themselves can take.

Projects International can certainly be easy corporate PR: environmentally confident companies get to showcase their good practices in the heart of the local community - to impressionable minds. Subject to rather inexpert scrutiny, they receive suggestions they are free and able to refute any way they choose. And in return for relatively little company time, they are seen publicly to be investing in progressive education for local children.

But a year of interacting with a factory on its sustainability certainly sensitises children to big issues. ,19, an ex-KamaJo student, is now studying Environmental Law in Tokyo. The Shiseido experience sparked off a life-interest she would not have considered. "My parents didn't believe in the ideal of zero emissions when I came home from class. But I saw how businesses strongly affect the environment, and that there are laws, which I thought must be the most powerful way to protect the environment…. Now I realise companies seek to evade them wherever possible" she added wryly.

The 1992 Earth Summit called for education which leads to 'an informed and involved global citizenry with the creative problem-solving skills, scientific and social literacy to engage in responsible individual and cooperative actions'. Working as it does, through English-as-Foreign-Language teachers, Projects International is one of themost transferable, practical approaches yet. And with business increasingly dominating global sustainability, there's much to be said for students like Ikuko learning to think autonomously about the behaviour of corporations, not only to consume their brands.




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