The founding of Japan Family Service, the origins of ITO EN, in 1964, was followed in 1966 by the establishment of the Frontier Tea Corporation, ITO EN’s predecessor. At the time, tea was sold in a limited number of specialty stores, primarily by weight, and customers would have to visit these stores to buy their tea. To make tea more readily available for purchase, the company developed a method of packaging tea leaves in smaller quantities. Packaged tea made it possible to sell tea at supermarkets and grocery stores, eliminating customer complaints about the inconvenience of only being able to purchase tea at specialty stores. After the company name was changed to ITO EN in 1969, it became a driving influence on the tea industry with breakthrough methods for preserving the freshness of tea leaves through vacuum processing and double packaging.
Signed a contract with the China National Native Produce and Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation, a Chinese company, to become the first company to import oolong tea into Japan.
Launched the world’s first canned oolong tea.
In Japan in the 1970s, the appearance of fast food and convenience stores brought about the rapid diversification, simplification and Westernization of beverages. This made it necessary to begin better matching green tea with the needs of times. ITO EN began developing its canned green tea in the hopes of allowing consumers to enjoy delicious green tea anytime, anywhere. After running about 1,000 trials over a 10-year research period, ITO EN developed its T-N Blow process, which involved spraying nitrogen to remove oxygen just prior to capping. In 1985, it launched the world’s first canned green tea, using this process to preserve the tea’s aroma and take advantage of its natural green color.
An ITO EN commercial broadcast in Japan at the time used the colloquial phrase, “Oi Ocha,” that had a nice ring to it and conveyed a sense of comfort and a homelike environment. Looking for the next leap forward following the launch of its canned green tea, ITO EN decided to change the product’s name to Oi Ocha. Also, since bamboo had been used as water flasks since ancient times, that image was incorporated in the overall container design, which was given a bamboo pattern. The Oi Ocha New Haiku Contest was inaugurated in 1989. At the time, there were signs that Tanka, or traditional short-form poetry, was growing in popularity as more people began taking classes and writing their own poems. There were almost no opportunities for presenting these poems, however, and there was a growing desire for a venue in which people could introduce the results of their work. This is when ITO EN came up with the idea of using the Oi Ocha product itself as a medium for presenting people’s poems. The company believed that making the Oi Ocha packaging itself available as a presentation venue could represent a new kind of cultural activity ideally suited to modern times.
Discerning that PET plastic bottles would become a mainstream beverage container, ITO EN began considering commercializing Oi Ocha in plastic bottles. Sediment, known as Ori, became an issue in the product’s development. Sediment appears in large amounts within two to three days of green tea extraction, as components in the tea precipitate as floating particles. While not harmful to the body, it can look unpleasant in clear plastic bottles, and can cause some loss of flavor. ITO EN developed its Natural Clear production method after researching ways to maintain flavor while removing this sediment. By using natural microfilters to strain the tea, the company succeeded in preserving the original aroma and flavor of green tea, while bringing out its clear, green color. In 1996, a patent was obtained for this Natural Clear production method.
As the use of PET plastic bottles spread as the primary container for beverages, ITO EN wondered whether there was a way to offer hot green tea, especially during the winter, and set out on its next challenge of developing a green tea in a heatable plastic bottle. PET containers, however, are made of resin, which compared to cans is permeable to oxygen, a major enemy of green tea. Further heating the container causes product quality to deteriorate. ITO EN succeeded in developing a PET container for heated beverages that prevents this deterioration by making it difficult for oxygen to pass through the material, and in 2000 became the first in the industry to launch a green tea product in a heatable container.
In 2013, ITO EN was awarded the Porter Prize. The Porter Prize was established to commend companies that demonstrate excellence in their competitive strategies, with the goal of increasing the competitiveness of Japanese companies. ITO EN was awarded the prize for its consistent strategy, its ability to offer unique value, the unique value chain created through each of its business processes, and for the synergies generated through the integration and fit of its various business activities. ITO EN has taken advantage of its receipt of the Porter Prize to accelerate its CSV initiatives. Those strategic efforts cover all aspects of three approaches: (1) shaping industrial accumulation, (2) reviewing and revising the value chain, and (3) improving products and services.
ITO EN was selected as one of business magazine Fortune’s "50 Companies That are Changing the World" (in the September 1, 2016 issue). ITO EN was chosen in 18th place, making it the highest-ranking of the two Japanese companies featured in the list. The "50 Companies That are Changing the World" ranking began in 2015, making 2016 its second year. In compiling the ranking, Fortune selects companies in various fields from countries around the world that have resolved social issues through their businesses, and linked those solutions to real business results. Companies are evaluated based on the following three viewpoints.
- 1. Measurable social impact
- 2. Business results
- 3. Degree of innovation
ITO EN was recognized for its Tea-Producing Region Development Project, its Used Tea Leaves Recycling System and other unique initiatives through which it works to resolve social issues through its business as part of a consistent management strategy. The Tea-Producing Region Development Project was recognized as an initiative that seeks to revitalize local communities and resolve social issues--such as the problem of abandoned farmland and the shortage of successors to agricultural businesses--by increasing food self-sufficiency, facilitating stable farm management and by creating employment opportunities through the establishment of new tea plantations utilizing abandoned farmland. The Used Tea Leaves Recycling System was recognized for the development of new recycling methods for used teas leaves (aside from conventional uses such as fertilizer and animal feed), giving used tea leaves new life as a useful and effective resource.