KYOTO — At the 7-Eleven across from the Shusse Inari shrine here, the glare of fluorescent light bulbs that is synonymous with convenience stores has been replaced by the soft glow of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, that consume half the energy and last much longer.
The store, which opened a year ago here in the birthplace of the Kyoto Protocol, is the prototype of the latest eco-friendly 7-Eleven, one of 100 that will be open in Japan by the end of February.
An ambitious green project calls for the company to build 100 more such stores in the country this year and to convert another 100 existing outlets into “eco-konbinis” — the Japanese term for convenience store — powered by solar energy and equipped with electric-vehicle chargers. The plan is to continue that pattern in the years ahead.
At that rate, it would take more than half a century to turn the 12,000 7-Elevens in Japan green, but the company says that as the costs of outfitting a store come down, the number of conversions is expected to go up.
And refitting a mere 100 stores as eco-konbinis will cut carbon emissions significantly — the equivalent of taking about 600 cars off the road, according to Ken Zweibel, director of the Institute for Analysis of Solar Energy at George Washington University in Washington.
Kozo Maeoka, the 7-Eleven regional field operation manager who is overseeing the program in Japan, said the ultimate goal was “100 percent of our stores.”
Along with the photovoltaic panels on its roof that generate as much as a third of the store’s electricity, the 185-square-meter, or 2,000-square-foot, eco-konbini in Kyoto also has a light-reflecting floor and sensors that automatically adjust the lighting.
The store’s green credentials are colorfully displayed outside in computer-generated images, complete with animated descriptions.
The main obstacle to more 7-Elevens like it is the expense: An eco-konbini costs as much as 30 percent more to build than a traditional 7-Eleven. For stores operating as franchises, that burden falls mostly on the owners, typically small businesses. For the store in Kyoto, government subsidies defrayed less than 10 percent of the cost.
But Hiroshige Ozasa, the franchisee, said that when he was negotiating the opening of a new Kyoto branch a little more than a year ago and 7-Eleven told him it wanted to use the city as a base for the eco-konbini rollout, he was not dissuaded.
“Nowadays, people in Japan are really concerned about the environment,” Mr. Ozasa said, “so I felt proud to have my store chosen to be the first one in Kyoto.”
In fact, 7-Eleven, owned by Seven & I Holdings in Japan, has been adding eco-friendly features to its stores since 2008. Its first prototype for an eco-konbini had only energy-saving lights. The third, which opened in August 2009, introduced solar panels and LEDs. The difference at the Kyoto store, the fourth model, is that it is the first outlet to combine all of those efforts plus the electric-vehicle charger.
Mr. Maeoka said the efforts were, in part, a response to a call by Yukio Hatoyama, the former prime minister, for lower greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Hatoyama made a speech to the United Nations in September 2009, at the beginning of his tenure, in which he pledged to cut Japanese emissions 25 percent by 2020.
“We decided to fulfill our social responsibilities,” Mr. Maeoka said.
7-Eleven Taiwan recently introduced a prototype similar to the one in Japan, although efforts among the 5,000 stores there are much more scattered. While the company is reticent to talk about its international plans, citing competition concerns, several stores in Taiwan have introduced energy-saving measures, although franchise owners decide for themselves how and to what extent they want to go green.
Stores in Malaysia, the Philippines and Hong Kong are also testing LEDs, and last year, 7-Eleven U.S.A. opened its first green store in DeLand, Florida.
Throughout the United States, by contrast, big retailers like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods Market and Kohl’s have been turning to solar power in ever greater numbers. Last year, Kohl’s announced that it had 100 department stores getting more than 50 percent of their electricity from solar power. The chain, which runs nearly 1,100 U.S. stores, topped the list of big-box retailers using alternative energy there, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Similarly, large retailers in Europe, like Casino and Castorama of France, Delhaize of Belgium and Tesco of Britain, have all been wading into solar energy.
But Japanese retailers have been slower on the uptake, mainly because big-box outlets like those in the United States and Europe are less common. 7-Eleven’s two biggest competitors in Japan, Lawson and Family Mart, have tested solar-powered stores, but their reception has been much cooler.
Family Mart actually led the solar charge, opening its first shop using solar energy in 1997, but 14 years later, the company still has only two solar-powered eco-konbini and no plans to introduce more. A Lawson spokesman, Yuuki Takemoto, said the chain had rolled out 10 solar-powered stores last year. But the company, which operates 9,500 stores in Japan, does not have any plans beyond that.
Apart from its solar component, perhaps the most pioneering aspect of 7-Eleven’s eco-konbinis is the introduction of electric-vehicle chargers. In Japan, as in many countries, use of electric cars is low — in part, executives say, because of the lack of infrastructure to charge them. “It’s an important start,” Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing strategy at AeroVironment, a California-based manufacturer of charging products for electric vehicles, said of 7-Eleven’s efforts. “It’s going to be helpful in getting people comfortable with the idea of using electric vehicles.”
And what of people’s comfort level inside the new stores? Saving the planet aside, some are put off by the muted lighting in the Kyoto 7-Eleven. “It’s a little too dark,” said Mikihiko Tsuji, a 46-year-old native of the city. Others, like Naoko Okada, 27, who lives nearby, are more supportive.
“I’ve been hearing the word ‘eco’ on TV a lot, and I think it’s great 7-Eleven cares about that,” she said. “They should do it in all their stores.”