Thursday, January 7, 2010

Suits and Stuffed Shirts

Seventeen wonderful years ago I arrived at work on a Friday, rode the elevator to the ninth floor, strode the hallway to my office, and hung my sport coat on a hook. At my other office in St. Louis, this was "casual" Friday. In Stamford I was about to learn there was no such thing.

Two hours later, our director of human resources entered my office and closed the door. "James," said this guardian of political correctness, "[The boss] noticed you were wearing a sport coat this morning. Suits are required on this floor." (Even though we took them off as soon as we arrived.)

That was Citi then. Look at Citi now.

In contrast, consider Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a company whose benefits include flextime so employees can go surfing or skiing when the weather is right or stay home with a sick child, and the freedom to dress as they like, including bare feet. In 2006, this Moses published Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman." Last year, Patagonia experienced its most success in years.

Here's what Chouinard had to say: "I love recessions for business reasons. No. 1, a recession kills the competition [unless they're 'too big to fail]. No. 2, your customers stop being silly and stop buying fashion stuff. They buy things they need and things that will last a long time. They don't mind paying more as long as it's high-quality. What they do is what we should all be doing, which is consuming less and consuming better."

Meanwhile, our recent Presidents simply urge us to spend, spend, spend. Yes, but the spending should be on things we need -- alternative energy research, local production of food and other goods, and improved health care. According to Chouinard, one in 8 women will develop breast cancer. That's up from one in 40 before the widespread use of pesticides! We must reorder our priorities.

Virginia says, "Did you notice what he said about 'wait and see?' 'There's no difference between an optimist who says 'Don't bother, it'll all be fine,' and the pessimist who says 'Don't bother, it's all hopeless.'"

I'm afraid we'll be fighting over the environment until it's over. Chouinard quotes the "Pentagon" as saying war will be endless now because we're going to be fighting over the last resources. Maybe, just in time, as in a suspense novel, smart young people will create solutions.

I bet they won't be wearing suits.

P.S. (1/10/10).   Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, observes:  "In 1965, U.S. farmers used 335 million pounds of pesticides.  In 1989 they used 806 million pounds.  Less than ten years after that, it was 985 million.  That's three and a half pounds of chemicals for every person in the country, at a cost of $8 billion.  Twenty percent of these approved-for-use pesticides are listed by the EPA as carcinogenic in humans.

"So how are the bugs holding out?  Just fine.  In 1948, when pesticides were first introduced, farmers used roughly 50 million pounds of them and suffered about a 7 percent loss of all their field crops.  By comparison, in 2000 they used nearly a billion pounds of pesticides.  Crop losses?  Thirteen percent."

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