On April 3 the Leadership and the Environment podcast held its first expert panel featuring Patagonia’s director Vincent Stanley, TED speaker and NYU professor Robin Nagle and TEDx Speaker and founder of LEAD Palestine RJ Khalaf and myself as moderator. You’ll hear deeper bios in the recording. This panel was like an interactive three-way TED talk. You hear their perspectives and vibrant stories, then interacting plus taking questions from the audience. You’ll hear their rich lives and the leadership that their acting created. Notice that they are leaders first who happen to work on the worlds, on their environment second. I think that’s something missing from the environmental movement. People who are effective leaders bringing what they bear to the environment. You’ll hear what motivates them, how they stay engaged, their origin stories. You’ll find few people with as much passion as they have. Many people talk and debate, they act and you’ll hear the joy that it creates. I heard not a hint of guilt, blame, doom, gloom, giving up or despondence, just passion. You’ll hear their answers to questions from the audience. I think you’ll be inspired. So let’s listen.
Joshua: You know I want to mention one thing that when people talk about the environment they often talk about things to do. The leadership part for me is not just doing these things but enjoying doing these things. I’m doing everything I can not to talk about how much I love cooking all the stuff that I put out here because I find great joy in it and not just like doing stuff but enjoying doing stuff and what I want to share is not just behaviors but how much fun it is and how much I’m connecting with people and things like that. I hope that’s something that comes out too.
How many people here shop at Patagonia? And how many people would specifically go to Patagonia because of Patagonia’s practices, that you know about these things, it’s not just random? So, all of you. All of you who shop there shop there and that’s a big reason for it. And how many people here throw stuff away in the New York City sanitation system? Well, we all do, right? Do we put enough effort to throw away less? Is that something we all do? Isnâ€™t it pain that others donâ€™tâ€¦ I am sorry. I don’t want to get started. But I want to talk about some of the stuff that the panelâ€¦
Alright, so I want to introduce the panelists. So I’m going to say a few words about the panelists, what you read and what you might not have read before and then I am going to ask each of the panelists to spend three to five minutes describing themselves and then we will do questions for them. After the panelists speak for a while then we’ll take questions from the audience, so please prepare your questions and be curious to ask them stuff at the end and then it’ll be time for everyone to schmooze at the end if they want more food. Everyoneâ€™s been to panels before.
So Vincent Stanly, co-author with Yvon Chouinard of a book called The Responsible Company has been at Patagonia since its beginning in 1973 including executive roles as head of sales and marketing, informally his Patagonia’s chief storyteller. He helped develop the footprint chronicles, the company’s interactive website that outlines the social and environmental impact of its products, the Common Threads partnership and Patagonia books. He serves as the company director of Patagonia philosophy and is a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Management. He’s also a poet. His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry. Not mentioned is that I believe your birthday is tomorrow.
Joshua: From our first call.
Robin Nagle’s book is an ethnography of New York City’s Department of Sanitation based on a decade of work with the department including working as a uniformed sanitation worker. She is also clinical professor of anthropology and Environmental Studies at NYU School of Liberal Studies here with research in a new interdisciplinary field of discard studies. She considers the category of material culture known generically as waste with a specific emphasis on the infrastructure and organizational demands that municipal garbage imposes on urban areas. Since 2006 she has been in the Department of Sanitation of New York’s anthropologist in residence, an unsalaried position structured on several projects. Her TED talk gives a quick overview and more details about her work.
If you work at NYU and you have a TED talk, you don’t have to go and work with the Department of Sanitation.
Robin: If I hadn’t worked with sanitation, I wouldn’t have a TED talk. NYU is okay. It’s great. I love my job at NYU but that’s notâ€¦So what? Working with sanitation, that’s the interesting part.
Joshua: I agree and that’s why I brought it up. Like a lot of professorsâ€¦Well, I donâ€™t want to talk about the professors, but I really admire them. I think that’s the future. I’m getting too much into oneâ€¦
RJ Khalaf is a senior at NYU pursuing a degree in Global Liberal Studies with a concentration in politics, rights and development and a minor in social entrepreneurship. The class he took with me. Recently named one of NYUâ€™s most influential students by Washington Square News, he’s the president of the NYU Muslim Students Association and is a Dalai Lama fellow. RJ is the founder and director of LEAD Palestine, an organization that aims to inspire, motivate and empower the next generation of Palestine’s youth through a hands-on and fun leadership-based summer camp. So that’s a bit of an introduction but I wonder if each of you could take three or five minutes to describe yourselves and maybe what projects you’re working on now. Maybe we could start here and go there. So, Vincent.
Vincent: My background I am Yvon Chouinardâ€™ nephew. So I was 20 years old and working in a car wash in Southern California during the recession and getting about five hours a week of work at $1.25 an hour. And I got a postcard from my grandmother who is English was her second language she wrote these wonderful sentences where she says, â€œWhy don’t you ask your uncle for a job? I hear he pays three dollars an hour.â€ So that turned out to be not true. Only the highest paid [unintelligible] makers made three dollars an hour. But because I did notâ€¦It was then not Patagonia, it was a [unintelligible] company that did about three hundred thousand dollars a year in sales and there were about 10 employees and as the only non-surfer, I was the only person to stay in the office.
One of the ways for firing and therefore the person to answer the phone tapped me on my shoulder and he said, You’re a salesman now.â€ The job I tended to take six months and then get travel lasted 45 years and what’s kept me there I think is the vocation. I’m a writer, I am not a businessman but I have actually been a businessman for four and a half decades. But what has kept me there I think is fundamentally because I am a writer. I’ve been interested in how this culture survived fromâ€¦That is basically the same culture we were when we were making what we regarded as the best climbing equipment in the world to this culture that’s now a billion dollar a year [unintelligible] company. So it interests me what survived and also it interests me the journey that we’ve all been on together. It’s almost like stumbling into virtue. We did not decide to be good guys. We kept learning the things we were doing or hadn’t done on our behalf in the supply chain. Weâ€™re either harming the environment or harming people.
And what we have done as a company is essentially to address those ills one by one and then to develop that as really part of the culture and part of what keeps us going. When we get to that when we talk about leadership without leadership, when we talk about leadership, self-directed leadership, I think the sense of agency that our employees feel when they were making climbing hammers and that they feel when they’re making rain jackets that was what really kept us going. So that’s not my project. It’s sort of what brings me here.
Robin: When I was about 10 my dad took me camping in the Adirondack Mountains and we traveled a path that to me looked like it was a forest that looked like we were the first human beings to ever exist in that landscape. Remember, I was 10. Okay this was long ago. And we arrived at the camp site which was aligned to, those of you who don’t know the style of Adirondack camping, it’s a three walled hut with a sloped roof and in this case it looked out over an absolutely beautiful lake that was at the bottom of these very steep sides of the mountains that were in that area. And it really was a utopia and it happened to be a beautiful day and it’s just me and my father and it was exquisite until right behind the [unintelligible] I discovered the garbage that hikers and campers who preceded us had been too lazy to take with them. In other words, they didn’t pack out what they had packed in.
I have yet to find the word that describes the depth of my astonishment and rage. Gobsmacked is a word I’ve learned recently that kind of fits. But there’s a humor to that word and this is not humorous. And the question I had in that moment was who did they think was going to clean up after them? This is miles from a road. There was no truck that was going to come in and take all this out, and in my memory, it was about let’s say 40 feet by 40 feet. But it had that signature smell that garbage has, something tangy and sour and sort of cloying and there was one sneaker, I remember one sneaker. What? What happened to the others? Did heâ€¦
I don’t know but that question who is going to clean up after the people who didn’t care enough about this place. This place. OK. There’s someone who litters on the street. All right. That’s bad enough but to leave behind your trash in the forest wasâ€¦ I still don’t understand it. I have since learned it’s not uncommon. Perhaps that’s a whole separate conversation but so that was the seed and it stayed dormant sort of for years. But wherever I’ve ever traveled in the world my question is who’s cleaning up after this city, after this us. However the us is defined. And here in New York who cleans up after us in a municipal context is the Department of Sanitation. They only do household waste and non-profit, so commercial waste and construction debris those go to private carders. But when we say garbage and we imagine the stuff that we generate in our own homes that’s what the DSNY collects.
And I was intrigued by them but it wasn’t until I met Mierle Ukuleles who’s the artist in residence for the Department of Sanitation. I heard her give a talk while I was an undergraduate at NYU and I realized you could be a woman and you could be very serious and you could make garbage your focus and it didn’t have to be boutique or sort of cutesy. It could be very, very serious. So after graduate school I started working at NYU and proposed some classes to teach through GSAS which is where I was working at the time. And every class I came up with the fellow whose program I was working with said, â€œLook, we have people who teach that.â€ Finally, he said, â€œWhat’s your dream class?â€ What do you want to teach about more than anything else?â€ And I said, â€œOh, that’s easy. Garbage.â€ He said, â€œGood. Give me a syllabus.â€
So that was my class garbage in Gotham which I have taught many times and love. And then that spun into what became a wonderful relationship with the Department of Sanitation and I can say more about that as we go along. But the Adirondack camping, I call it the once upon a time story, like where did it begin, the obsession with fascination with and truly lifelong passion to understand mechanics around and our own sort of cognitive and emotional and personal relationship with the things that we discard and the act of discarding and that mental habits that allow it to be such a common simple practice for all of us. Enough said for now.
RJ: Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me, Josh. It’s a pleasure to be with both of you. So kind of as I set to graduate in a few weeks I’m just kind of thinking about different things why am I here in this moment. I mean thereâ€™s like a few different stories and processes that led me to this moment right here. But the one thatâ€™s coming to mind the most sends me back to when I was 10 years old sitting back home in Las Vegas in the Supercuts and the hairdresser was asking me, â€œWhat are your summer plans?â€ And I say, â€œI’m going to the blood.â€ And she responds, â€œThe what?â€ I say, â€œThe blood.â€ And she’s like, â€œWhat does that mean?â€ I said, â€œIt means my homeland in Arabic. It’s where my family is from.â€ And she goes, â€œOh, where is that?â€ And I say, â€œPakistan.â€ And for all I knew I was Arab, I was Muslim but I’m not from Pakistan. I’m from Palestine.
So when my mom heard that she almost like beat me on the back of the head right in that moment. And so that kind of began the journey of my big like identity formation process because we were set to go to Palestine in a few days. And so when I landed in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport let alone I didn’t know I was Palestinian and Palestine existed, I also didn’t know Israel existed. So you know you can imagine my astonishment is like a 10-year-old like seeing like this conflict and this occupation has gone on for so long, like first-hand having no idea. And we were driving from Tel Aviv into the West Bank and to my family’s home town where I see this massive wall that separates like settlements and slums and Iâ€™m like, â€œMom, what’s going on?â€ And she goes, â€œYou don’t know about the occupation?â€ I didnâ€™t even know what occupation meant. So I mean it was just a complete culture shock.
So that summer it’s like I meet my cousins and they tell me everything. This is our country. This is our story. And I get decked out in Palestine so I go buy flags, key chains, mugs, everything I mean consumerism, I bought everything. I forget about [unintelligible] like anything with price on it, it’s mine. And so that kind of began this process where I was just like unequivocally passionate about the Palestinian cause. So we started to go back summer after summer and when I was 14 I volunteered in a refugee camp for the first time with my mom’s cousin and it was there I was offered my first cigarette by 12-year-old kid named [unintelligible]. So in that moment I was totally jolted. I just thought like this is funny – Arabs smoke, so it’s just whatever like a kid smoking but that moment still sits with me today. I mean that memory of my first cigarette by a 12-year-old kid, I said no because, [unintelligible] so don’t worry. But in that process, I began to look at the causes that lead to such things like why is the kid smoking a cigarette at 12-years-old? And you look at the conditions of these refugee camps where there’s a 70 percent unemployed rate and zero police presence and high drug abuse. You know the United Nations [unintelligible] a situation of hopelessness. So I began to look for solutions. And one of the solutions I found was leadership training. So suppose we’re going to talk about that later today. So I guess that’s why I’m here.
Joshua: So thank you. Now each of you went back really far right away you went back two decades back and when I think of environmental issues I think it would be nice if things like next year were done and fixed but that’s not general. I don’t think anyone is expecting that. How do you deal with the long-term nature of this? If you have goals, how long it takes to reach them or if you don’t have specific goals that things take a long time because a lot of people I feel like if it’s not going to happen soon they’re like I’m not going to worry about that? Is the timescale something, you guys, think about? How do you do with it?
Robin: I am going to be alive in five years, I hope, ten years maybe even, I hope. So issues of waste, I’m permanently obsessed with this. So I don’t think in terms of OK, this will be fixed in a year or if it’s not, okay, I’ll give it two years and then it better be fixed. Once one problem seems to sort of align, then there are other ways to use your energy and focus so that, first of all, I don’t think I’ll ever be done finished. It’s not so much for me how do I reach this goal. It’s how do I live my life and how do I make choices and teach and not give in to the despair which sometimes feels like a smog that settles like a scrim that you can’t see clearly anymore because it’s just like especially now. This is a long roundabout way, Josh, saying I’m not quite sure I understand your question.
Joshua: I think what I’m hearing is that you don’t think of this as a goal. You think of this is how we live. Although a lot of the despair that you describe I think I see it in a lot of other people and they despair and wonder and so they focus on something else and then just figure someone else will take care of this.
Robin: It feels to me like right now there are people who used to say that more and now they’re saying, â€œGod damn it! I have to step forward. I have to be one of the people who says yes, I’m going to work to fix this to change this, to move us away from this potential cliff that we’re headed toward running over.â€ Excuse my French.
Joshua: RJ, you’re nodding a lot.
RJ: Yeah. I’m just thinking of a couple of things. I mean the first is that quote, â€œIf not us, then who? If not now, when?â€ And maybe I’m a young bright eyed senior ready to take on the world but that’s how I see a lot of these things. Like you can complain like many Arabs do in coffee shops in Palestine and with their hookah pipe and their coffee and complain about the politics, or you can go out and do something. And that’s one way I see it but also once your work aligns with your passions, it doesn’t matter. At least the way I see it how long it takes for the long-term plan but it begins to feel less like work and kind of what youâ€™re talking about, your life calling.
Vincent: I would support that. I think if I look back I would have been much more cynical about the prospects for change when dealing with environmental problems and for dealing with social problems I would have been more cynical 25 years ago than I am now when conditions are actually much worse both environmentally and socially. And the reason that I’m less cynical is because I’ve seen time and again when people actually had to do something that actually makes a difference to others. So you know I think in 1992 when Patagonia had already adopted a mission statement whose third element was [unintelligible] harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. We were talking about that in 1991. And very few other people were.
But now what I’ve seen within the company is people try to change what goes in the supply chain, develop new materials that create less harm, start to work in factories where the labor is fair trade certified. And I’ve seen this spread. So I may not be around, I will be around in ten years maybe but I might not be around in 15 or 20. Well, what I see is a lot of things that are already developing now. And if we see a little bit more of them that eventually you can marginalize the kinds of forces that we now feel marginalized in the south. If you see this as a wasteful high consumption society that is despoiling the environment and we’re dealing with conditions of animal war and refugees and then in the Middle East and incredible disparity of income here that does not necessarily have to be the conditions 15-20 years from now. A lot of people working as you’re working to change the way we relate to the work we do which I think is the critical part is actually the kinds of change that we need is less from the consumer side than from the producer side because about 70 percent of the waste is determined in production, not in consumption. And yet most people don’t feel any kind of empowerment or agency to deal with environmental or big social problems at work because they feel they have to do what they’re told.
Joshua: Well, so when you are talking about empowerment, agency, a way of living your life what I’m hearing is that for you there’s a reward to this. It’s a rewarding experience which I think a lot of people don’t see that. So I’m curious what is the reward. I mean you talk about what you do. And is it that you feel joy, is it that you feelâ€¦. I mean you said empowerment. I mean what’s in it for you?
Vincent: I feel engaged. And I would say that that’s also true of the people I work with at Patagonia. Their reward is that they bring their whole self to work, they bring their values to work you know, they donâ€™t have to leave them at the breakfast table and then return to them at night.
We’ve got a guy who runs a lot of our finances who described to me he worked for ten years at Deloitte and he said he decided to leave because his seven-year-old daughter was at the dinner table, she was saying you know, â€œWhat are you doing today?â€ and what he did today was to minimize the pay out the BP had to make after the oil spill. And you know perfectly technical work for a consulting company. He was not proud to talk about that with his daughter. So I think simple engagement. I mean it’s not always joyful. Sometimes it is a royal pain. But that sense of full engagement is absolutely critical and I do think that’s what motivates people to create change.
RJ: I agree with all of that. I think for me like when we were working in Palestine this past summer through LEAD Palestine in our work like there was just this incredible feeling of fulfillment where were your hands and your heart and your mind are all working in sync toward something. And so I mean it just kind of came down to a passion for me. And I mean there are tangibles like we can talk about in terms of like measurement and impact of the work that we did that kind of kept me going but more than anything it was just kind of like this raw feeling that it’s hard to put in words too but it’s that way we feel like you’re living a life and doing work beyond yourself because I think I think life is really short. And I think you know like when I ask someone what is the meaning of life, good question, right, and I’m kind of jokingly when I asked him and he said, â€œWell, life is pretty short, right? So the meaning of life is to live a life where you can leave a legacy to better the future beyond yourself.â€ And that’s kind of how I think about it as well. You know life is short and so you just got to try and do the best you can to leave a positive lasting legacy.
Robin: I’m going to make this a little more selfish than my colleagues. I’ve lived in New York sinceâ€¦ I moved here in January of 1982. And I planned to stay five years and the five years aren’t up yet because of course New York becomes many New York says you, your life changes and you live in different places and you’re doing different things. And I’ve come to have a just deep love for this completely exasperating city and part of my project with the Department Sanitation initially was and still is how do I help a larger public understand the work of sanitation being behind the truck flinging garbage, dealing with the castoffs of this city and how do I help a larger world appreciate the people who do that work. And in focusing that way I get to learn more about my city from a perspective I couldn’t have through any other means. When I worked behind the truck, when I worked with sanitation people in Staten Island and the Bronx and Brooklyn and Manhattan and even when we were in neighborhoods I already knew well I was seeing them with a completely different eye and it threw a completely different framework in hearing the perspectives of the people I was working with. And then when I was wearing the uniform myself like it was my job and so I put on the cloaking device that is maintenance uniforms not just for sanitation but anybody who’s working a maintenance job has to wear a uniform that says I work maintenance, that’s a cloaking device in many ways.
All of this let me learn my city better and learn how it’s like when you have a beloved and you want to know everything there is about the beloved which U don’t mean to sound new agey or spiritual. No let me retract that. I do mean to sound spiritual because a there’s not a break between who we are and what is sacred and how we create community and how we choose to honor where we are and who we’re with. So that your work in Patagonia to take a model that is not profit at all cost but instead backs up and says, â€œWait. There’s a much bigger, deeper, more important context here.â€ Youâ€™re moving into holy territory there I think. And to do the work you’re doing in Palestine, of course it has a profoundly sacred component to it no less than does trash.
And I realized to say that is maybe heretical. But the reward for me, to get back to the point of Joshâ€™s question, I get to know my beloved better through learning more about the city. I get to know people whose lives I would never have encountered if I weren’t with sanitation. I’m frankly jealous of some of the social bonds that sanitation people have. There are friendships that they make in the trenches of the war on grime that are far tighter and more lasting than anything I see in the academy. I wish we had that. And I’ve also seen plenty of times when two workers where the superintendent and one of the workers are nose to nose shouting at each other. And by the time the day is over, they’re gone out for a beer together. And coming from this world that’s like, â€œWait, you were mad. Aren’t you going to hate each other for life?â€ They are like, â€œWhat? We just had an argument. What’s the big deal? Why would we be mad for life?â€ Which again in the academy it sometimes is a little [unintelligible] resolved quite that neatly. So all of those are the rewards among many others.
Joshua: I had a follow up question for all of you but I can’t help but ask when you said cloaking device I assume you mean it makes you invisible to the public. And yet there’s a familial type bomb that happens behind the cloaking device.
Robin: Well, anyone else who’s wearing the cloaking device you are bonded, you’re all cloaked and you know you’re all cloaked which not [unintelligible] cloak to each other.
Joshua: Is it just sanitation workers or sanitation where they also recognize someone on a fire truck can someone driveâ€¦
Robin: Well, they are often literally brothers or cousins or so therefore uniformed municipal workforces, the New York’s bravest, that’s the fire department, New York’s finest is the police department, New York’s boldest is corrections and New York’s strongest is Department Sanitation. So those are the uniform and those are the nicknames and MTA is different because it’s state and city so it has a different I don’t know their fastest. I don’t know what they are.
Robin: The most under siege right now. But yeah, the cloaking device it’s quite remarkable. There’s a story I tell in my book where I’m a part of a crew cleaning up after the West Indian Day Parade on the Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn. And I’ve got a hand broom which has the [unintelligible] are very coarse, this is an industrial size, it’s a very heavy-duty broom and I’m sweeping litter from underneath the barricades on the grass median into the curb. But there are people still standing at the barricade and this warm weather so they’re in sandals and flip flops and if I hit them with my broom, I’m going to hurt them. These [unintelligible] are metal. And so I’m standing this far from them. And I’m there, I’m face to face and I’m saying, â€œExcuse meâ€, I’m saying, â€œExcuse meâ€, I’m right here saying excuse me and they do not see or hear me. I am invisible until I finally am [sound] and I got one of their feet and then they moved. I only did that once. That was mean. I only did that once.
Vincent: I think you can tell an awful lot about a society by its garbage.
Robin: Oh, certainly. It’s the archaeology that we create of the moment and send into the future.
Vincent: Yeah. At Patagonia when we decided to adopt cradle to cradle manufacturing practices and that you take your waist and recycle it into a new fabric and we did that and what we discovered was that it wasn’t nearly the whole story. That if you go backwards that is much more important before that item is thrown away to be recycled to repair if it doesn’t work. And a lot of things are now made not to be repaired. It’s also important that you’re not using something to recirculate it. So you know everything that’s manufactured costs nature more than we know how to repay. It also represents an immense amount of human labor.
And then the final step was there are a lot of things that shouldnâ€™t have been made in the first place. There’s really not much point in recycling something that never should have been made because we’ve already put everything into it. And that really changed, going through that process we still send polyester off to be melted down and made into new fiber. But it changed the way we think about it.
Joshua: So when you guys talk about I mean deep fulfillment, a sense of greater purpose, beloved, engagement to me these things connect deeply with what I think of leadership and these emotional awareness and things like that. And I feel like a lot of people feel like, â€œYeah, it’s nice to work on the environment but it’s that’s separate. I really got to get ahead and you know I don’t want to get distracted by these other things.â€ But I feel like, you guys, have taken the bull by the horns and is led exactly to what’s rewarding. But maybe I’m behind times. Maybe people are stopping saying that. Do you hear that? If so, what do you say to people like that? What do you say to that perspective?
Robin: The perspective of â€œItâ€™s this thing over here that I’ll get to laterâ€ orâ€¦?
Joshua: Yeah, â€œI’ll get to laterâ€ or â€œIt’s a distraction from what really can get me ahead in life.â€ I hear that but I donâ€™t want to say that. I mean maybe you guys don’t hear that. But if you do or you hear something like that, how do you feel about that? How do you respond to it?
Vincent: I hear it from time to time especially the context in which I hear it is because I do a lot of work advising people who are interested in becoming B Corps. The movement of businesses right there most deeply held values into their business charter and submit themselves to [unintelligible] assessment of their practices. And I often hear, â€œOh well you know what side should I become a B Corp? Where should I go out and become x profitable and then go ahead and go through that process or give 2-1 percent for the planet?â€ Like I tell them you should start from the beginning because it’s much easier. If you’re giving 1 percent to environmental causes, it’s much easier to start from nothing, one percent of a dollar, than it is to suddenly become a five-million-dollar company and then decide, â€œOh, where am I going to get five thousand dollars? I got to take it from someplace else. Plus, I got to then persuade my employees that this is a virtue. Or I may have to persuade my investors or I may have to justify this to customers.â€ But if you start from the beginning that you understand this is a part X, X and X is a part of who we are as a business and a part of our purpose as a group of people, then it’s much easier to build on that and be kind of tap on them later. We speak from experience because Patagonia for a lot of it tapped on them later.
Joshua: I was going to ask you what you described before wasn’t that. So you’re sharing what you’ve learned from experience to make better mistakes than you just made.
Vincent: Yeah and also, I mean there were certain things with us from the beginning which is this level of wilderness and the desire to protect wild places but things that we learned about our supply chain are things that we learned about how we should treat people and the labor chain really did come later on.
It’s much harder and very difficult to change direction and it feels riskier. To me the more you do, the more you behave with purpose from the beginning, you start to get compliments for actions and things that are not real risks feel like they’re possible. Whereas if you don’t do that for a company that’s behaving conventionally and then they decide to take a move that feels risky to them because they don’t have the competence, they donâ€™t have the experience, they don’t have the cultural [unintelligible].
Joshua: Well, you guys have made really big moves. I mean really big moves like bet-the-company type things.
Vincent: That they didn’t feel like bet-the-company to us. We looked like bet the company to outsiders but to us maybe a couple of things. But for the most part if we had done enough that we said, â€œOkay, this we can pull this offâ€ or in the case where we would bet the farm, like switching entirely to organic cotton it was if we can’t make this change, we’re [unintelligible]. We’ve continued to make rainwear, we’ve continued to make [unintelligible] but we do not want to be involved with cotton that’s growing with intense chemicals.
Joshua: Is there something special about you guys or maybe there’s something about your company existed in a space where strategically you do things that others couldn’t or could any company do what you guys did?
Vincent: Any company could do it but again what you’d have to do is you’d have to haveâ€¦. It’s like the culture of the sanitation workers. What would look like a big risk for me to take a garbage can in my bag or to go into a crowd and work with the broom doesn’t look like such a risk to somebody who’s been doing that for a while and understands that kind of movement. So you have to develop competency.
RJ: I don’t know how much I can speak to the real direct specifics of the question but I think a lot of it comes down to like this idea of self-awareness and better understanding yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, like the way that you perceive things, in the way that you handle different emotions in moment and like total self-awareness and mindfulness really of your space either in interactions with other people, with the environment, with your work. And I mean that’s like an age-old practice. I mean it goes back to all kinds of historical figures that really haven’t played mindfulness and self-awareness as a means to promote and improve their leadership. But I think in today’s society we’re looking for a lot of quick fixes whether it’s on your phone you know like instant gratification is like a huge just thing. Now whereas self-awareness and mindfulness it’s not necessarily an instant gratification thing and that’s self-improvement isn’t soâ€¦ It really forces you to slow down almost inherently but in a society that’s only speeding up it’s almost counter-intuitive to what we’re used to. But I would say just in terms of promoting a better culture either within like an organization like LEAD Palestine and the Muslim Students Association I would say that we found the best results when we have slowed down, when we’ve taken that step back to take a breath and to really like take account of what’s the situation and to better understand ourselves on an individual level, on an organizational level and our relationship to the communities that we serve.
Robin: On the question of separation – it’s an illusion. We’re deeply ingrained in understanding that things are separate and we’re separate from each other and we’re separate from the street and we’re separate from everything but that’s not true. And framed around the question of environmental issues one of my life goals is to help make clear that an environmental concern is not a separate thing that we can worry about later. When I teach Introduction to Environmental Studies, it’s a class that some students take because they’re interested, they may have studied it in high school a little bit but at least half the class are people who are taking it because it fulfills a requirement. So might as well get out of the way. And I love that because this is my chance to kind of convert them, to kind of help them understand that whatever they study having clean water and clean air and justice around who has access to clean water and clean air those are… If those questions, if those issues are tangled and notâ€¦ If there is injustice around those very simple necessities of life everything else becomes very troubled and everything else becomes far more difficult than it should be. That can be both individually but also structurally and socially.
I had a class in graduate school at the Union Theological Seminary. I was just in Colombia but there’s this sort of sister relationship with UTS. And this was a theologian from Germany named [unintelligible] who was ferocious and stern and was basically teaching us how Christian theology is all about starting the revolution. And at the very end of the semester we each had to do a presentation. So with a couple of students we decided to do a presentation about the theology of garbage. As I said, it’s been a lifelong passion. And we actually had the class meet in the chapel and they collected litter and it’s a relatively clean neighborhood. We were impressed with the quantities of litter that they managed to collect and then we had them dump it on the floor of the chapel which was very hard for some of them. Some of them were already training for their own work as pastors and priests and whatnot. And when we were all done [unintelligible] said to us, â€œYou know I understand better now. After the revolution we will have to pay attention to the environment.â€ And I looked up and I said, â€œNo! No! It is the revolution. There is no after if you donâ€™t attend to this right now. Right now!â€
One did not speak that way to [unintelligible]. She was a bit startled at my [sound]. But I don’t know if she got it but that she even thought, â€œYeah, after, then we will clean things up.â€ And I was like, â€œNo, no, no, no. Right now. Right now.â€ And frankly climate change being what it is I assign my students they have to have read by tomorrow an essay from last November’s New Yorker by Elizabeth Colbert about carbon sequestration and climate change and the most compelling part of that I say for me is the part where she talks about, â€œYeah, the scientists say Well, yeah so all these things have to happen and then a little magic. And then maybe it will be OK.â€ We don’t likeâ€¦. We really are headed off a cliff sooner rather than later if we don’t attend to the environmental concerns of the moment. So, the idea that there’s a separation. No, there is none. So my goal how do I help make clear there’s no separation.
Joshua: One of my questions was to ask what hurdles you guys have faced and how you’ve overcome them but the passion that I hear seems to be about the hurdles although it’s also this frustration is when you jump and youâ€™re like, â€œNo, noâ€.
Vincent: The hurdles are two-faced. I mean it’s interesting because when I talk to business people if you’re coming from a very conservative stance and business then your kind of social or environmental improvement is viewed as a constraint one when your activity and possibly on your profits. When in fact if you don’t see it that way you see it as opportunities for innovation. Because if I feel that I have to clean up my supply chain and I have to clean up my supply chain not because I want to be innovative and not my competition out but when I do clean up my supply chain I have to do the kind of thinking that actually does help the company be innovative and help the company succeed in the market. And in that case as a human being I’m engaged fully. I got this project to make the best possible rain jacket. And what in addressing environmental social concerns not as constraints but as necessities and as things that I want to be engaged in it makes a huge difference for the actual products that the company makes.
Joshua: So what they’re seeing as a hurdle you’re seeing as opportunity and a way to act on your values and then their attitudes are maybe the hurdle. I mean that’s something that must be frustrating.
Vincent: Well, I think it’s more frustrating and other companies are taking the French one and I think a lot of people if you work in a sustainability department in a large publicly held corporation, there’s often this question of, â€œOk, I care about this. But I have to give up.â€ The next person who cares about this is five subsidiaries away from me and they are for people who are working in specifically for your question there I think you have to work on smaller projects that can succeed and develop a network of comrades and a network of people who feel the way you do and also help the other larger culture around it and then that expands and eventually the people who areâ€¦. This is Daniel Goleman pointed this out, emotional or ecological intelligence. Eventually the people who you feel marginalized by become marginalized because they’re the last people in the company, because everybody else understands that when you undertake these measures you achieve successes and it also engages employee, etc.
RJ: I don’t really think about them too much usually. I mean, of course they happen but the best part about the hurdles is like when you get over it and when you look back and like just that to know you overcame it is such aâ€¦
RJ: It’s such a high, right. And so, it’s fun almost. There’s not much more to it.
Joshua: Did you always feel that way or did that come through overcoming hurdles or somethingâ€¦
RJ: No. In the moment when you’re flying over the hurdle and you don’t know if you’re going to land, it’s terrifying. And each time especially like the bigger the hurdles get and the longer your jump gets to that hurdle you know it gets harder and harder each time but you know each time you kind of get a little better and better and you learn things along the way. And so, while they get more challenging you just kind of build this resource belt that makes them a little bit better. So that’s how I see it.
Joshua: I’m curiousâ€¦ Now you’re smiling when you’re saying it and people are laughing and you’re saying it’s harder and they’re longer. How does it feel when youâ€¦Because many of us are going to face hurdles and a lot of people are like we hear you saying and it’s laughing but then we’re in the moment we’re like, â€œOh, this is really hard.â€ I donâ€™t remember laughing. I’m not laughing now. When it’s in the moment what does it feel like?
RJ: I mean it’s just like a pure physiological level. I mean when you’re stressed out and you’re sweating and your face is all hot and you can’t think straight and everyone pisses you off and everything is just going bad, you are just like, â€œWhy, God? Why me right now? Why do I have to care? Why this happened to me or why does this go wrong?â€ And it feels like a little bit like you’re out of control. But that’s kind of where I mean you know, truthfully, I’m a very religious person so for me that’s kind of when I put my faith in the big guy upstairs and I say you know, â€œHelp me out a little bit.â€ And again, that [unintelligible] a practice of mindfulness and taking a deep breath and just better analyzing the situation. And once you kind of you know put your ducks in a row and take account of the situation in that moment usually you realize it’s not as bad as it feels like it is.
Joshua: The next time I’m going to write you and be like, â€œHey, RJ. It is just like you described or slightly different.â€
Robin: We’re talking about hurdles?
Joshua: Yeah. I mean what hurdles you faced or how do you look at it if it’s different than… Because I feel like you’re describing things that other people describe as hurdles but you sound enthusiastic, I donâ€™t know what the right word is but it doesn’t sound like you’re like shying away from them.
Robin: Oh, I do some time. You know sometimes you get up and you’re like, â€œNo, no, no, no.â€
RJ: You choose your battles.
Robin: You have to choose your battles and sometimes you have to sit down and just wait and let the battle pause and then resume it again. A 24/7 effort will burn you out really quickly. And then what? Then you’re just a tired shell of an old person. Just not how I want to end up. May I ask a question? So if I can ask you, Vince, and forgive me ahead of time because this is a question out of ignorance. A two-part question. Am I correct that it is the law in the United States that a company must generate profit for its shareholders?
Vincent: It’s not correct.
Robin: It’s not correct. Good. So is that a privately held company at all as opposed to a publicly held company orâ€¦ Underneath the question is can rules about relationships between shareholders and their corporate entity be written in such a way that environmental well-being or the labor conditions in which the supply chain is created or those kinds of variables can be the priority and profit is part of the picture but not the number one at all costs weâ€™re going to go after profit, everything else be damned.
Vincent: Yeah. First of all, there’s the privately held companies, those traded on the stock market. There are only thirty-seven hundred and seventy-one in the United States. And there are hundred, thousand at least privately held companies that are not traded on the New York Stock Exchange. And privately held companies that are traded are subject to fiduciary rules that private companies are not. And actually, a great book has been written, The Stockholder Myth, I think is the title that somehow that case law and business law supports this notion that businesses are obligated to primarily answer the needs of their shareholders. This is actually not really true but it is the main dictum taught in the finance departments of business schools and it is a theory developed by Milton Friedman that was published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1971 that the shareholder primacy, that the sole goal of a corporation is to maximize stock value and that became very widely accepted. It wasn’t accepted beforehand. If you went to General Mills or you went to General Electric or you went to Johnson and Johnson in 1960, they wouldnâ€™t have said, â€œYes, the excellence of our company is determined by our product, by our financial help, by our relationships with our communities, our employees and our customersâ€¦.â€ [unintelligible] But there’s a big movement now kind of a return to stakeholder, call that stakeholder capitalism, in which all of those elements â€“ community, employees, customers – become important again and we would add the environment also has to be an important constituent of any business because the environment is strongly affected by the way businesses behave. But the B Corp movement is also an indication, a representation of that.
Robin: That’s very helpful. Thank you. And I didn’t mean to hijack the conversation butâ€¦
Joshua: I’m going to use actually to segue toâ€¦ I mean I want to keep asking questions but I also want to take questions from the audience so please speak up.
Vincent: Investors are putting pressure, institutional investors and the Catholic Church. The Calpurnia, the big pension funding in California, these investors look atâ€¦.Companies are not reporting their environmental liabilities. And so you know the companies, the investors have got burned in BP when it stopped, got cut in half after that spill they want to make sure that they are protected in the future that they are actually getting the information they need to make an investment. But that’s only part of it. The other part of it is good God, what’s happening to the world and what are you doing to address this?
Robin: I don’t think population by itself… It’s far too complex to say we have too many people or if we had fewer people we would have less waste and fewer conflicts. Weâ€™ve certainly had conflicts since we came down from the trees and learned how to pick up a stick we’ve had conflicts. In terms of waste there have been cultures in the past that matched us and by us I mean sort of global Western culture to put a broad gloss on it. Supposedly them the Mayan civilization was so wastefulâ€¦ An archaeologist colleague of mine said it says, â€œIf you throw out the Cadillac when the ashtray is dirty.â€ So we are not the only culture to be quite so pornographically engaged in waste and I don’t think it’s just because of population like numbers of people. There are ways in which we have been deeply enculturated to not look behind us or ahead of us. So either what came before or what’s going to happen next when I let go of this thing, this object, like everything around us is temporary. We may not live to see when this building crumbles as a ruin as it will in some distant millennial moment. But I think distribution of resources and access to things like arable land and potable water regardless of the population size, although population size can stress those resources of course but just there’s some analysis that says we have plenty of land and we have plenty of know-how to feed the whole world with leftovers for seconds, if you want to come back for seconds. But that’s not how we’re using the technology, that’s not how large-scale agriculture is being deployed. So that’s a long- winded answer to say. I think itâ€™s too simple to say that too many people and thatâ€™s the cause of all these problems.
Vincent: The other complication if you look at, when I started work world population was about four and a half billion and now it’s seven but the size of the economy has increased by 500 percent. So the population hasn’t quite doubled but the size of the economy including the number of goods that we make and throw away and dispose of and those twin activities, population growth and higher consumption of things that we do throw away has made big difference on the environment in terms of polluting rivers and turning soil to sand and ocean acidification, etc.
Robin: They’ve done studies about how do you limit family size, how do you encourage family size to be smaller and one of the most uniformly and universally successful ways to do that is to teach women to read. Literacy for girls and women has a direct consequence of smaller family sizes.
Vincent: Pawl Hawken edited a book called Drawdown which shows about over 100 technologies that can be used to actually not just reduce the amount of carbon we’re emitting but suck it back into the ground. And he thought electric cars was going to be like five or six or something and electric cars was 40 and educating women was number 6. And population increases is relatively low precisely because having a lot of kids except on a farm doesn’t make any sense. So as countries industrialize the number, even in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries of the earth the rate of population increases. People are having two, three kids, [unintelligible].
Vincent: It’s such a complicated question because it depends on the fuel that’s being used inâ€¦For instance, in India a lot of factories are fueled by wood which is an extraordinarily polluting source, a lot like coal. So it really that’s a very complicated question. In general, I think Lester Brown, the World Resources Institute they looked at this a while ago and they said that overall humanity weâ€™re using, weâ€™re consuming the resources of one and a half planets on the planet we have. But in the end the U.S. itâ€™s somewhere between 5 and 7 planets and then Europe is something like 3.
There are a lot of questions about equity and development and I think one of the things that actually has been very useful, in the same year that the Paris Agreement came to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals I think it’s a very interesting way to look at what makes for community help and economic help anywhere in the world not just in a developing country or not just in a very developed country. And to look at what does economic and social and environmental health look like and what do we need to do to create those things in the place we live.
If you’ve listened this far, you found value in this panel. We’re already working on future panels. If you would like a panel at your place of school or work or community, let me know at joshuaspodek.net or go to joshuaspodek.com and find how to reach me there. We’re happy to work with you, to support you. This is what we want to do more of and we’re happy to work with people who want to do more of it too.
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