外面是有些有在做事的公司，如Stoneyfield Farm、Ben & Jerry's、Working Assets，反正就那幾家，但是某些情形中，他們是其他大企業下的產業，被大公司所擁有的。我不知道他們深層的運作是什麼情形。我不知道他們是否跟其他大企業一樣都在作帳時動手腳。然而，我並不覺得以豐田公司來說，他們運用蘇格拉底模式－即從問自己許多問題的過程中，找出解決方式－跟我們的目標會是相同的。他們問自己「5個為什麼」以追求目標；我認為如此可以達到卓越的境界。
答：第一年其實相當的不順。製造價格比以往多了20%，但是為了保持市場競爭，產品的售價我們只提高了5%。過程中，因為轉移速度不夠快，我們被迫停產許多產品。但現在一切都進行的很順利。我們也影響了許多其他的公司，例如Nike, Timberland, Mountain Equipment Co-op, prAna 等，都開始使用有機素材，而我們也會告訴他們可以從哪裡訂貨。其他例如GAP和Levi’s等較主流的廠牌，也開始趕上這股潮流。這麼做對我們有利，對農夫有利，也對那些願意承擔風險的製造商優利，增加他們的盈餘，也提高了對有機棉的需求。
Q: Who are some corporate leaders that you admire?
A: To tell you the truth, I am so out of contact with corporate America that I can't say. I don't hang out with businessmen and CEOs. I hang out with surfers and dirtballs. I'm completely out of it.
There are some companies out there that are doing some things like Stonyfield Farm, Ben & Jerry's, Working Assets -- you know, the usual -- but then in some cases they're owned by a huge corporation. I don't know what they do really deep down. I don't know whether they're cooking the books like every other public corporation or not. I do think that Toyota as a company does the same thing we try to do by following the Socratic method, which is that you find your way to the solution of a problem by asking a lot of questions. They ask themselves the "5 whys" to reach their goals, which in my opinion builds excellence.
Q: Can you describe your Socratic process when you decided to take Patagonia in a sustainable direction?
A: It was back in 1990 or so and we were growing the company by 40 to 50 percent a year and we were doing it by all the textbook business ways -- adding more dealers, adding more products, building stores. Growing it like the American dream, you know -- grow, grow, grow. And one year we predicted 40 to 50 percent growth and there was a recession and all the sudden we only grew 20 percent. And at the same time, our bank was going belly-up and we had cash-flow problems and it went to absolute hell. And I had been the person who had never bought anything on credit in all my life. I always paid cash for everything, and to have to call someone and say, "I'm sorry, I can't pay my bills this month," was killing me. And I realized that I was on the same track as society was -- endless growth for the sake of growth.
That's when I decided to put the brakes on and decided to grow at a more natural rate -- which basically means that only when our customers want something do we make more, but we don't prime the pump. We don't advertise on buses in inner cities to get gang kids to wear black down jackets. I basically want to make clothing for people who need it rather than for people who want it.
Sometime after that crisis in the early '90s, we started an environmental-assessment program where we looked at all our processes and all our materials and fibers and dyes and asked the question: Is this toxic? Is there a better way to do it? We decided to lead an examined life as a company.
Q: What was the most cumbersome change that you had to make?
A: Switching over to organically grown cotton was a really big deal. Once I found out that cotton was the most damaging fiber that we could make clothing out of, I gave the company 18 months to completely get out of making any product with industrially grown cotton.
But you can't just call the fabric supplier and say, "Give me 10,000 yards of organic shirting." We had to revolutionize the industry. We had to co-sign loans for farmers because if they went organic they couldn't get a loan from the bank because the bank's tied in with the chemical companies. We had to convince gins to clean their cotton gins and then process our stuff. We had to find the right mills. It was a really big process. But we've never made a single product using industrially grown cotton since then and it's working out fantastic. It put us on a whole other level from our competitors.
And the bottom line is that every time I made the decision because it was the right thing to do, I've ended up making actually more money.
Q: Even in the short term?
A: For the first year it was rough. The product cost us about 20 percent more, but we only raised our prices about 5 percent just to stay in business. And we had to drop a lot of products because we couldn't switch over fast enough. But now it's working out great. And we're influencing lots of other companies to use organic cotton -- Nike, Timberland, Mountain Equipment Co-op, prAna -- and we tell them where to get it. Other mainstream brands like the Gap and Levi's are also picking up on the trend. It helps us, it helps the farmers, and it helps the mills that have taken the risk with us to be profitable and to create a demand for organic cotton.
Q: Are there any sustainable measures that you want to implement but you can't simply because your bottom line won't allow it?
A: We're not constrained by the bottom line at all. We're constrained by the fact that some technologies don't exist yet. Like we make a lot of products out of recycled soda-pop bottles -- polyester and fleece. Well, those bottles have a carcinogenic heavy metal, antimony, and we are working with the mills to take the antimony out before they make the fiber. And down the line we will try to make some of our clothing out of synthetics that can be completely -- and indefinitely -- recycled into new products. But we can only go as fast as industry goes along with us.
Q: Are there inevitable environmental tradeoffs to running a multinational company, given all the shipping and flying and energy-intensive transporting of goods?
A: It adds a certain complexity to your business, that's for sure.
Q: But doesn't it also add substantial environmental burden? Would it even be feasible to manufacture your products from domestic sources?
A: No, impossible. I could make everything domestically, but I would be out of business so fast I would become a martyr. But we do our best to use transportation methods with the least environmental impact. By far the cheapest and least energy-intensive method of transportation is by boat, then comes trains, then comes trucks, then comes airplanes. Airplanes are so much more wasteful than anything else -- there's no comparison. A lot of companies air-freight everything in because of cash-flow problems -- they can bring a whole shipment of something and have it from their factory to their warehouse in two to three days, and that really helps their cash-flow problems. But we don't do any of that. We have everything sent by boat from our suppliers slowly to cut down on energy consumption.
Q: We see an increasingly vast array of so-called green products -- hybrid cars, organic produce, solar panels, recyclable jackets. But is it dangerous to send consumers the message that they can buy their way out of our environmental problems?
A: That's a good question because, number one, there's no such thing as sustainability. There are just levels of it. It's a process, not a real goal. All you can do is work toward it. There's no such thing as any sustainable economy. The only thing I know that's even close to sustainable economic activity would be organic farming on a very small scale or hunting and gathering on a very small scale. And manufacturing, you end up with way more waste than you end up with finished product. It's totally unsustainable. It's just the way it is.
Q: So at best, we can slow down our march toward obsolescence.
A: That's the best we can do -- slow it down. But thinking that we can buy our way out of it is totally bogus.
Q: I read that your house is made completely of reused and recycled materials.
A: It's fairly guilt-free. I basically built the whole house of recycled materials. Busted-up sidewalks for the walls. The roof tiles are reused. All the wood is reused. All the furniture is used. All except the plumbing and electrical. Because the walls are 28 inches thick, I don't have to heat or cool it, and it's fully solar-powered.
Q: You are also known to be an avid alpinist, angler, and surfer. Can you tell us how your outdoorsmanship feeds your professional philosophy?
A: I've spent a lifetime doing so-called risk type sports. I don't call them extreme. Climbing is risky. Whitewater kayaking is risky. I think the one lesson you learn from that is that you don't exceed your resources. You try to live life on the edge, because that's when you get the most value -- you're really sticking your neck out, really working at optimum efficiency -- but you don't go over the edge because you die. And I think we're over the edge with society. Right now we have the government we deserve. They are absolutely a reflection of who we have become.
Q: In your own life, how do you avoid going over the edge?
A: In my own personal life, I'm trying to simplify everything, which is the hardest thing you can try to do. It's so easy to complicate your life, it's so hard to simplify it. Whether it's eating more simple food and not consuming, just buying the things you need rather than the things you want. We're constantly being pulled toward complexity rather than simplicity. And I think that's really wrong. I fight that all the time. But it has to start with each and every one of us to make change in our lives. It's up to each individual to lead an examined life.
Q: I got a fortune cookie the other day that said: Simplicity is the natural result of profound thought.
A: That says it all.