Michitaka Sawada

President & Chief Executive Officer

Kao Corporation

Michitaka Sawada, President and Chief Executive Officer of Japan’s Kao Corporation, has been at the company just long enough—39 years, to be exact—to have some sense of the changes that have overtaken the business world in that time. For him, one thing has remained constant: his company’s commitment to the principles espoused by the Kao Way. “That spirit of integrity,” he says, “has not changed and should not change.”

Of course, even an unwavering commitment to a set of ideals like the Kao Way involves adapting to enormous changes. As a leader at a consumer brand, Sawada has had a front-row view of the way that certain ideas about ethical consumption have permeated the marketplace. “In the past, anything friendly to the environment or good for society was an additional bonus to your product,” he says. “Now, it has to be integrated.”

The rise of ideas about ethical consumption have made having an ethical reputation as a consumer brand more important than ever. “Continuing to engage in a sincere manner so that we can be a force for good for people, society, and the planet is absolutely critical for us,” he insists. “It’s also important that we communicate this to consumers, to keep our license to operate.”

To satisfy these heightened demands, Kao has adapted, raising the bar in its processes while exemplifying a longstanding value that at Kao is called Yoki-Monozukuri, which roughly translates to “passionate, consumer-centric product development.” Over a decade ago, Kao introduced an environmental checklist to ensure all new products are somehow more sustainable than existing offerings. Additionally, the company utilizes principles of universal design, which according to Sawada, “ensures all of our products are easy to use for as many people as possible.”

To give just one example of these principles in action, Sawada pointed to Kao’s work developing new cleaning agents, particularly foams that lather easily and rinse with very little water. “When you want to clean using foaming products, you’re using a lot of water, hot water. The less water you can use to rinse, you’re able to save both water and the CO2 emissions to heat it.” With this research, Kao’s key products reduce water use by 20 percent.

Looking to the future, Sawada says, “It’s important to us that consumers who use our products can feel the difference in a tangible way. In order to have our consumers feel the benefits of our products, we have to communicate with them. We have to listen to their voices to understand their needs. This interactive engagement is critical going forward.”