Kazuhiko Yazaki is the president and CEO of Felissimo Corporation of Japan. Felissimo has always been such a unique company that there is no one word to describe it. They create, produce and sell design-oriented consumer goods that encompass a very wide product categories – fashion, home, beauty, health, children, learning, music, books, hobbies, social interests – all that make up one’s everyday life. Sometimes their products are not physical things, but activities and experiences that are supported and participated by their customers.

Intriguing? We have received a nice collection of “(Almost) Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Ask But Never Had A Chance To Ask” questions for Mr. Yazaki. Read on.

1. Why is design (and designers) so important to Felissimo?

Design is not just about creating beautiful, stylish things. Design has the power to change the way we behave as people and as a society. I’ve always believed that design is a way to make people happy. The Raison d'être of a company should be to make that happen. There are so many problems in today’s world. So, whether as individuals, companies, or governments, we all have to be a creative force together and work on solving the problems. If you think that way, you can see that the role of design becomes more and more important. That is why design is so important to me.

Also, designers have a special creative ability that combines the power to feel, to think, and to express. I find it terribly exciting to be able to work with such people to bring happiness to our society, towards creating a better world.

2. How did Felissimo’s partnership with UNESCO come about?

I first visited UNESCO’ s headquarters in Paris in 1994. United Nations had chosen DESIGN 21, which we proposed as a UN50 commemorative project, and we were introduced to UNESCO as the project’s managing partner. It’s been 17 years since. The first DESIGN21 International Design Competition took place in 1995 with much excitement and success, starting with a fashion show in Paris followed by exhibitions in Geneva, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, and Kobe. 4 more competitions followed, each one with multi-city touring exhibits, until it exploded into a much bigger, much more impactful program – an online community of Social Design Network.

3. Outside DESIGN 21, how did you cultivate your relationships with designers?

At Felissimo, we develop tens of thousands of products every year in such diverse categories. Each product requires a design and its package design. We also work with different media – catalogs, books and websites – and that requires all sorts of collaborations with all sorts of creators: fashion designers, textile designers, product designers, graphic designers, package designers, interior designers, jewelry designers, architects, website designers, photographers, copywriters, musicians… We’ve worked with so many talented people and grown together.

4. What are the origins of Felissimo's social contribution activities? What kinds of projects have you done, and which one(s) are you most proud of?

First of all, we don’t say “social contribution.” We call it “Social culture” activities. Our goal is to live in a society where sharing and solving problems together is the culture.

In 1990 we started a program called “Felissmo Forest.” It was around the beginning of the rising awareness for the environment. Most ordinary people, however, felt helpless hearing media reports of worsening environment of our planet. We thought, “let’s do what we can, together.” We created a fundraising program called “Felissimo Forest Fund,” appealed to our customers to participate by contributing ¥100 (less than $1 at today’s exchange rate) a month, and set out planting forests in various parts of the world. In the 21 years since, over 3.5 million people have participated, and the program is still continuing. In the part of India that used to be a bare land, a new forest appeared, and to date 18 elephants have returned!

The uniqueness of our social contribution is that it is sustainable, and that it is participatory. After the great earthquake in Kobe in 1995 our fundraising campaign lasted for 6 years, raising ¥400,000,000. With this money, we were able to fund several nonprofit cultural groups, and start “The Kobe School,” a live talk series with guest speakers from many different fields of interest and walks of life, intended to inspire people in the disaster area.

“Happy Toys” is a project made possible solely by our customers. We asked them to send us scraps of fabrics sitting in their closet. With the 30,000 pieces of cloth collected, we put together 1,100 stuffed animal kits. That was in 1997. Our customers then made the animals from the kit, and sent them to us to be displayed on giant Christmas trees in Kobe, that were viewed by millions of people. Afterwards the animals were donated to children around the world. This beautiful project is still going strong, after 14 years.

Another very successful program is called TRIBUTE 21 Plate Collection, made up of plates to which celebrities contribute their artwork and messages. Since 1996, 657 different designs have been introduced, and contributed to raising a total of ¥99,508,828. Of that, $450,000 has been donated to UNESCO to fund DREAM Center program aims to provide access to arts education to children who otherwise would not have such an opportunity. In addition to the already established centers in Kabul (Afghanistan), Port-au-France (Haiti), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Monrovia (Liberia), 5 locations in E. Jerusalem, Saida (Lebanon), with another one underway in Szechuan Province in China, and in the Philippines.

At Felissimo, we have over 30 such “social culture” programs going at all times, and the number keeps increasing every year.

5. What is your philosophy behind these activities?

I believe that the most important thing is sustainability. No matter how noble the intent is, the bigger the issue, the longer it takes to produce meaningful results. Short-term help would be like a bandaid. But Continuous support requires continuous financial backing. We have a corporate policy, which we have embraced and practiced for over 20 years. It is “contribution to society through business activities.” These days “CSR” (Corporate Social Responsibility) has become a cliché, but we take pride in that we have been at the forefront in this area, creating a uniquely sustainable model. It is a business model that aims to unify business viability, originality, and social concerns.

6. So how does “contribution to society through business activities” work in reality?

First of all, we have products with a contribution component built into the price. This is the part of our business structure that supports to the sustainability of the activity. Depending on the product, the contribution percentage could be 10% to 24%. TRIBUTE 21 plates and the Allumonde Ring are two of such examples. I’m aware that after a major disaster there are efforts by other companies to sell fundraising products with the idea to donate the entire proceeds. We don’t prefer to do that, because it is not sustainable.

Another model is that of a long-term fundraising, with the entire amount creating a fund for a specific, big purpose. Felissimo Forest Fund and the Kobe Earthquake Fund were created this way. This time for the Japan Earthquake we’ve launched a program using the same concept, and studying the viability of introducing it in other countries as well.

Either way, customers participate in the program, so they become part of the team and we keep them informed of our progress. We do it together.

7. There are many problems in the world today – economy, natural disasters, hunger… It’s a challenge for any company to decide on its own charity priority. What are your criteria, if any?

At the very base of our social culture activities is the belief that we must strive for common happiness – not just ours, and not just yours, but for everyone. To this end, our 6 areas of focus of support are: Environment, Health, Education, Economic self-sufficiency, Children, Peace, and Culture. Emergency Aid is added as necessary.

8. They often use the phrase "think globally, act locally." Would it be correct to say that Felissimo “thinks locally and acts globally”?

Maybe so. I live in Kobe, but not everyone in Kobe has the same awareness for social issues or the same value system. On the other hand there may be people who share my views in New York, or Paris, or Buenos Aires, or New Delhi. It’s an interesting world now, where the physical locations don’t matter; people who share the same goal can network, so what we thought locally could turn into a global action.

I think that our society is at crossroads. Media is busy blaming everything from corrupt political system and economic supremacy that’s gone to far, to irresponsible critics of all that. They may be right. But as long as we keep blaming someone else, without taking actions ourselves, nothing will change.

Thinking about it is not enough. Blaming others is not enough. Each of us must act on what we are capable of. I’ve come to think that that’s the most important thing. Of course there’s a limit to what one person can do. But when there are enough of us moving towards the same goal, we can do something quite big – and might just make the impossible possible.

9. How does Felissimo want to be known by the world?

We want to be the most loved and respected company in the world. To work to earn that would be such a privilege for me.

Posted April 11, 2011