Driving Sustainability: Rakuten CWO Masatada ‘Seichu’ Kobayashi on a journey of sustainable well-being
In this series, the Rakuten Today team sits down with leaders working on sustainability across the Rakuten Group to better understand their mission within the organization and how they are driving Rakuten’s vision of a sustainable future for all.
In 1996, Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi joined forces with a certain Mickey Mikitani to help build a revolutionary shopping platform that leveraged the power of something called the internet. The following year, Rakuten opened its online shopping mall, Rakuten Ichiba.
Kobayashi wields a profound understanding of what drives Rakuten, having had a hand in everything from coding Rakuten Ichiba’s homepage to signing the platform’s very first merchant — and even deciding on the name Rakuten Ichiba.
Bringing well-being to all of society
In 2019, Kobayashi took on a new portfolio: Chief Well-being Officer. “I was probably the first in the world to go by that title,” he laughs. The title comes from a combination of Japan’s economic situation and Rakuten’s own fundamental mission.
I realized that Rakuten’s long standing mission to empower the world was actually a mission of bringing well-being to all of society.”Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi, Co-founder and Chief Wellbeing Officer, Rakuten Group
“Back in 1996, Japan’s economy was in a bad place. The population was becoming more and more concentrated in metropolitan areas, leaving rural areas in decline. Major corporations were thriving, but small to medium-sized businesses were going bankrupt. Rural companies in particular — with a shrinking potential customer base — were unable to grow and succeed.”
Rakuten Ichiba launched in 1997 with the goal of giving these struggling businesses an environment in which they could flourish. “Basically, Rakuten Ichiba was also following a mission of improving well-being — at a nationwide scale,” Kobayashi explains. “Along the way, I realized that Rakuten’s long-standing mission to empower the world was actually a mission of bringing well-being to all of society.”
Not wanting to limit the scope of his empowerment goals to individuals, Kobayashi amended his title from the more traditional chief people officer. “As Chief Well-being Officer, my job is to realize well-being on an individual, organizational and societal level.”
This philosophy of multileveled empowerment is a fundamental component of Kobayashi and his Corporate Culture Division’s work.
“Rakuten moves as an organization, so ensuring the well-being of the entire group is also essential,” he argues. “But it’s not sustainable for only Rakuten employees or Rakuten as an organization to enjoy well-being. This is why we are working to bring well-being to all of society through Rakuten services. This is the mission of the Corporate Culture Division.”
Driving impact across industries — sustainability, Rakuten-style
“With our business portfolio of over 70 services, we are an extremely diverse company,” Kobayashi explains. “Since our very inception, we have always been a partnership-oriented company, and that’s still the case today. Through services like Rakuten Travel, Rakuten Ichiba and many more, we’re serving as a platform for thousands of partners and millions of users.”
It is the diversity of Rakuten’s portfolio which Kobayashi thinks gives Rakuten unique potential to create an impact on a large scale.
“This diversity allows us to drive impact across industries, addressing sustainability from multiple angles,” he argues. “Our central position as a partnership-oriented company allows us to influence both the supply side and the demand side.”
Sustainability at the organizational level (and beyond)
As part of a partnership-driven company, Kobayashi feels a strong responsibility to show leadership on sustainability.
In 2019, Rakuten Group, Inc. joined RE100, committing to adopt 100% renewable electricity for all its core business operations by 2025 — a goal it achieved just two years later in 2021. Rakuten has also been proactive in highlighting partners’ best practices through initiatives such as the Sustainability Award for merchants on Rakuten Ichiba, the sustainable shopping curation service Earth Mall with Rakuten and the launch of sustainable icons on Rakuten Travel.
“In 2021, we established our Group Sustainability Committee and also cemented our high-priority ESG topics — the result of engaging with over 5,000 partners, including employees, merchants, investors, NPOs, governments and more,” Kobayashi reports. “We have the fundamental pieces of proper sustainability management in place, which allows us to push forward with these initiatives.”
Well-being starts with the individual
One of the areas that Rakuten’s sustainability management is directed at is employees’ well-being. “There are many advantages to pursuing well-being, but one thing is certain: A company with healthy, energetic employees is a productive one,” Kobayashi stresses. “We only get one chance at life. I want everyone to be able to use that one chance to live well in the way that best suits them. As CWO, my main role is to support the physical and mental health and well-being of my friends and colleagues through our wellness efforts.”
Of the many health initiatives his team is pursuing, Kobayashi highlights the actions Rakuten has taken toward promoting sleep quality.
“We’ve been pursuing sleep improvement measures over these last few years and results so far show over 10% more employees are saying they are getting enough sleep,” he reports. “So far, the impact of our well-being initiatives on business productivity aren’t yet necessarily clear, but we are seeing clear results in specific areas such as this.”
In the realm of well-being, Kobayashi believes that slow and steady is the name of the game. “These kinds of health and well-being initiatives take years to show tangible results,” he explains. “We aren’t expecting to see significant impact on productivity and corporate value right away.”
Despite this, Kobayashi’s Wellness Department is garnering attention from around the industry. Rakuten was recently recognized by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as a “Health and Productivity White 500” company.
Not a goal, but a tool
“I think what people need to understand is that sustainability is not a constraint, but an opportunity,” Kobayashi stresses. “Companies that don’t understand this often see sustainability as overregulation. The whole idea of sustainability seems like an extra cost; a financial risk to mitigate.”
“We need to take on sustainability initiatives as a completely integrated part of our overall activities, not as something separate from our day-to-day duties.”Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi
Rakuten’s philosophy towards sustainability is considerably more optimistic.
“Sustainability is actually a way to look at business from a broader perspective, and to find opportunities,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to consider all stakeholders — not just customers — in the longer-term, and look for ways to combine social value creation with economic efficiency.”
For a company like Rakuten — whose mission is empowering people and society — Kobayashi thinks that sustainability should be recognized as a core element of business itself.
“I don’t consider sustainability to be the end goal, but rather a method to get there,” Kobayashi reasons. “We need to take on sustainability initiatives as a completely integrated part of our overall activities, not as something separate from our day-to-day duties.”
At the very heart of sustainability, Kobayashi sees a need for acceptance.
“The whole reason that humans need to build a sustainable society is to allow us to live our one chance at life in our own way. To do this, we need to learn to coexist with all stakeholders — be that other humans, or nature itself,” he stresses.
“A society in which anyone can live life in their own way; in which differences are accepted and respected; in which anyone can design their own friend circles, experiences and spaces to their liking — I will continue working to create such possibilities.”