“It was freezing!” is a phrase you may catch yourself repeating way too often during wintertime and almost never during summertime. Or at least you would expect so. In fact, a series of articles this summer noted that many consider office spaces overly chilled during the summer, leading some to layer up even though it's scorching outside. Surveys conducted for an EPA study found that building managers “don’t adjust the temperature set point higher in summertime when people wear lighter and more revealing clothes than they do in wintertime. However, you can understand managers’ bias toward keeping the lower, wintertime setting when many are men and might wear ties and jackets no matter the season.” Unfortunately, keeping temperatures so low when it's hot outside is very energy-intensive, which makes for steep utility bills, and, depending on the source of the electricity, more pollution.

An easy, energy-efficient alternative to over-cooling would be to stop wearing ties and jackets during summer. For the past ten years, Japan has given this alternative a try through its ‘Cool Biz’ initiative. Implemented in 2005 by the Ministry of the Environment in an attempt to quickly reduce carbon emissions, ’Cool Biz’ encourages offices to set air conditioner temperatures to no less than 82.4 °F (28 °C)—compared to a summer average of 70 °F in U.S. offices. In order to achieve this goal, the government led by example: it raised office temperatures and introduced a simpler, more casual summer dress code for its employees. To ensure the code is appropriate for a business setting, it is precisely defined by the Ministry. For example, government employees are not allowed to wear exercise shorts, t-shirts or jeans, but are allowed to wear polo shirts or a pair of sneakers. The dress code also extends to public facilities such as schools, community centers and libraries, which are also required to set the thermostat above 82.4°F. And private sector employers tend to follow the government's example, so that practically all employees in Japan adhere to the same dress code.

Met with skepticism—and some resistance—at first, 'Cool Biz' has become one of Japan's most successful environmental initiatives. In its first year alone, the Ministry estimated that the campaign reduced carbon emissions by 460,000 tons. The Narita International Airport Corporation alone reported that, in 2005, they cut carbon emissions by 28 tons and saved 5,700,000 yen (about $47,300) just from setting the office temperature to 82.4°F. By 2010, the amount of CO2 emissions reduced by the initiative was estimated to have reached 1,690,000 tons. In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, more than 2.2 million tons of carbon emissions were avoided. According to Nanae Fujimoto, an official at the Japanese Ministry of the Environment interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, “this was a case in which the policy and the demand from the public worked well together, with many people willing to dress lighter during the summer while the government was trying to cut down carbon emission.”

In addition to cutting carbon emissions, the 'Cool Biz' program is likely making workers more productive. Though older research found that lower temperatures increase work efficiency, newer, more reliable research finds the exact opposite. Professor of design and environmental analysis Alan Hedge of Cornell University, who has been studying office ergonomics for more than 40 years, says the optimal office temperature is 76 degrees. According to Hedge, working in uncomfortably cool environments (68-70°F) can lead to a 33 percent drop in productivity.

The policy's success looks set to endure, with public awareness rising steadily every year. In 2015, a survey conducted by the Ministry of the Environment showed that 96.1 percent of the Japanese population was aware of the initiative. This was up from 90.4 percent in 2011, 94.7 percent in 2012, and 94.9 percent in 2013.


Author: Kana Takagi