03 Sep Creative Minds – Mariko McTier & mymizu
Mariko and I first met over ten years ago as fellow violinists in the National Youth Orchestra. Since then she has travelled the world and is currently living in her mother country of Japan where she’s making strides as an entrepreneur in the sustainability sector. As Co-Founder/Director of Social Innovation Japan, Mariko promotes social change in order to create a fairer, more sustainable world, something we’ve all been reminded of in 2020. Through this organisation she co-launched mymizu, Japan’s first free water refill app, which is breaking ground tackling single use plastic. On top of that she still finds time to dust off her violin with some Gavinies studies. Safe to say Mariko has had a productive decade.
It seems natural for Mariko to have excelled at music from an early age. Having parents who are musicians (violist Yuko Inoue and double bassist Duncan McTier) made an artistic life feel like the norm. ‘At that young age I hadn’t thought about the fact that other people’s parents might have different jobs. Obviously everyone’s parents are freelance musicians!’. She went on to study at Junior Academy but as sixth form and career considerations beckoned, Mariko realised she didn’t feel motivated enough to put in the hours required to make music her main focus. Nature, art and design equally held her fascination and while music had previously been an automatic path for her, she didn’t want to give up other avenues. ‘I knew that I wouldn’t want to be a mediocre musician. I’d want to be at the top of my game and that would involve sacrificing all these other things I wanted to do’.
Mariko’s love of nature threads its way throughout her life. Holiday destinations are decided not by restaurants, skylines or shopping, rather how much time can be spent immersed in a jungle or swimming in the sea. Such a curious and adventurous spirit guided Mariko across the globe, placing her in new environments which shaped her entrepreneurial thinking today. For instance, while reading Japanese Language, History and History of Art at SOAS University of London she spent a year studying in Japan. ‘I chose to go to a women’s university [having always been in co-ed], purely thinking ‘That’s interesting, I’ve never done that before, I’m going to try it!”.
Post-university she became a journalist for Chunichi Shimbun where she covered social, international affairs and politics in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Occasionally linked under these brackets were environmental issues such as sanitation resource management, renewable energy or climate change. Mariko was hugely inspired by industry experts using business to solve socio-environmental problems. Working at the newspaper also meant she learnt a lot incredibly quickly about the state of the world. Investigating current concerns, how people are dealing with them, their key players, led to a greater understanding of the complexity of international affairs and what the implications are for Japan and Asia as a whole.
A stint at the British Embassy’s International Trade and Development Department followed, helping Japanese companies integrate in the UK and vice versa. Whilst working on a number of campaigns promoting trade in and out of the UK ‘I noticed that there were a lot of cool companies, especially in the UK, tackling various environmental issues through business and I wasn’t seeing the same movement in Japan’. What was her response? She set up her own non-profit organisation alongside co-founders Robin Lewis and Keiko Ono.
Social Innovation Japan (SIJ) started simply by getting people to talk about sustainability and the environment. After the first few years of groundwork the trio realised that consumer power was key. However they found many Japanese companies weren’t demonstrating more sustainable standards of living by providing better alternatives to their customers. Nor did customers understand how much influence they have themselves. SIJ wanted to change that. Upping consumer engagement is exactly how Blue Planet 2 managed to have such a colossal effect on audiences. According to the 2018-19 Waitrose & Partners Food & Drink Report 88% of viewers who watched the memorable episode on plastic pollution in our oceans have changed their behaviour since. In the board room too changes are being implemented. By 2025 members of WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact have committed to making 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable. Mariko was in awe of the response, ‘To see such a huge change in consumer awareness in the space of two years blew my mind. I thought if that could happen in the UK, maybe we could make the same thing happen in Japan’.
Though Japan traditionally has a strong relationship with the natural world, in big cities like Tokyo it’s easy to get disconnected. ‘What Blue Planet did so well was link one’s actions as an individual with the state of the environment, connecting those dots together’. Convenience stores are ubiquitous in Japan and I love them. Yet do I want to buy a banana wrapped in plastic or drinks in single use PET bottles? Through SIJ Mariko hopes to enable people to make more informed choices in these situations, therefore encouraging businesses to re-think waste management. Just last month Japan took a step forward by requiring all retailers to charge a fee for plastic bags. It’s a great start which will impact every household, as we have experienced in the UK over the past five years.
The key is finding a universal subject that will relate to everyone. In this case, Mariko settled on water. mymizu (‘mizu’ being Japanese for water) is a movement whose aim is to reduce plastic consumption. The free app provides water refill locations as an alternative to buying bottled water. Another massive benefit is that the consumer saves a bunch of money, in my case great for helping tour per diems stretch to another round of sushi! It will be mymizu’s first birthday later this Autumn and already the app has had around 50,000 downloads, saving over 27,000 plastic bottles from becoming waste. Their online store offers insulated reusable bottles (plastic free!) and organic cotton t-shirts. If you want to buy a t-shirt why not opt for one made with organic materials, plus for each purchase mymizu commits to collecting 1kg of rubbish from waterways such as rivers, beaches and oceans 💧
mymizu and the online store have been the first projects under the SIJ bracket. Mariko is also interested in bulk stores, currently a rarity in Japan, and urban farming. Balcony gardens, hydroponics, home composting – ways to supplement our diet with organic produce grown even in the tiniest of spaces. We all saw how stockpiling in the early stages of the pandemic decimated supermarket shelves. ‘In those occasions you start to think about food security and the benefits of having food growing on your own land’. As a result Mariko has been experimenting on her Tokyo balcony. Fabric grow bags made from recycled plastic bottles have helped produce some extremely successful kale and she has even built her first composting station, a perfect lockdown project.
Naturally future plans have had to be adapted for Covid-19. mymizu has integrated more online content such as hosting Instagram Lives. There are fascinating discussions with specialists in green energy, eco-tourism, vegan beauty and sustainable gaming to name but a few. Announcing mymizu Ambassadors was another exciting moment this summer, reinforcing their message of positive change. Corporate collaborations are important for the financial side of the organisation and the team has a number in the pipeline including working with drinks companies on reusable vessels for non-water drinks like tea. Fittingly on World Environment Day, global giant IKEA joined mymizu‘s platform by registering all their stores as free refill spots, adding to the list of over 500 refill partners. What an endorsement from such a major household name.
I’m in awe of what Mariko and her team continue to achieve with Social Innovation Japan and mymizu. Making proactive decisions in our daily lives to support our environment seems so manageable when organisations such as these provide us with fantastic solutions. Talking to Mariko, it’s obvious how much purpose, determination and curiosity she has. In a country like Japan which has many contradictions in its management of green issues, it’s reassuring to have people like Mariko making waves in the community, reminding us that we have the ability to shape a better future for our planet. 🌏🌱
Minn: What are you reading at the moment?
Mariko: Brewdog’s Business for Punks is a refreshing business guide which encourages you to make your own rules. Especially in Japan where it can be so conformist, this book gives you a healthy dose of ‘f*** the system’ thinking, forget what you learnt in business school, find what works for you. At the same time I’m reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth which offers an alternative economic system that doesn’t ruin our planet.
Minn: Another gadget you’d like to invent?
Mariko: A self-cared for urban farm, one that can fit on a balcony. I’m good at killing plants so if it can look after itself that would be ideal!
Minn: Finish this sentence – I’m look forward to the day that…
Mariko: …we figure out how to consume in a way that doesn’t use up five times our Earth’s resources.
Thanks so much for reading #minnsmunchtime Please give this post a thumbs up if you enjoyed it! Do share some of the ways you are making your life more eco-friendly, I’d love to know. As ever you can find me on instagram for more food fun. Until next time! 👩🏻🎻