By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
It’s beginning to feel a lot like 1984. Today, some politicians routinely use the term “fake news” to discredit any news they don’t like, or any news organization that asks hard questions. The term “alternative facts” is even being pushed by certain White House advisors.
Online, how big is the actual fake news epidemic? No one knows for sure, but the the scale of the problem is potentially huge. Facebook has almost 2 billion users, Twitter has over 300 million; and according to Pew Research, about 60% of Americans get some news from social media. Assuming even a small percentage of users have nefarious intent, eliminating fake news and online abuse is a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. But after accusations of Facebook turning a blind eye on its rampant fake news and potentially impacting the U.S. election; the pressure to effectively and transparently root out fake news and online abuse is likely to intensify, especially with upcoming national elections in Europe.
“I think fake news impacted the election, just by the sheer volume… It can change your perception of the world…Even people who understand news and research can be tricked by fake news.” Adam Schrader, one of 25 former editors in Facebook’s fact-checking team. The entire team was fired by Facebook last summer, just before the election.
At the recent Watermark Women’s conference in Silicon Valley, I spoke with Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, CEO of Cell-Ed, an online education startup. Here’s the report I filed with the BBC’s Click Radio. It aired today on the BBC World Service.
Listen to the BBC’s “Fake it or Leave it” podcast here (first story)
Here’s a transcript of my report, edited for length and clarity.
Click Host, Gareth Mitchell: Misinformation is nothing new, as we heard last week from classics professor, Mary Beard. Today fake news has become a news story in itself. It’s becoming political, it’s undermining social media organizations, and mainstream media. Twitter and Facebook are taking action, but with so much being posted, isn’t it a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide, trying to monitor and correct fake news? Our Silicon Valley reporter Alison van Diggelen has been seeking some answers from the big social networking companies and catching up with CEOs of startups, people like this:
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: Technology has always been a source of incredible opportunity, unlimited potential pathway and it’s always been destructive.
Alison van Diggelen: Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami is just one of many critics who argue that social network platforms are not doing enough to curb the dark side of the internet.
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: I work in community technology access centers…Everybody tells me worldwide, if you have 100 countries…with all these community access centers, isn’t that wonderful? You can bring digital media, books to that village. I say: it’s always double sided – by day maybe it’ll be used for education, and health access, and how to get a better job. But by night it becomes a digital brothel…
Alison van Diggelen: What should be done about that?
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: Own it! Twitter not taking a stand around the blatant misogyny and hate language… strange politeness in the face of atrocity is very frustrating.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel people like Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, the Twitter board should do?
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami: There’s a responsibility to – at the very least – do one or two steps. Untruth is seen as truth because it’s relayed over a screen with a picture. You believe somebody’s story…If that story is a blatant lie, have a way to say “untrue.” Hashtag untrue.
Kara Swisher interviewed Sheryl Sandberg about why she didn’t attend, or even post, about the Women’s March. Sadly, Swisher didn’t ask Sandberg what she’s doing about fake news on Facebook. Next time, let’s hope!
Alison van Diggelen: I took Rothenberg-Aalami’s complaints to Twitter who gave an off-the-record account of their completely new approach to abuse online. Twitter’s VP, Ed Ho, is leading the online safety efforts and last week demonstrated his “test-fast, fail-fast, adjust-fast” mantra by rolling out a new feature – eliminating user list notifications – and then promptly reversing it within hours, after an avalanche of user complaints. Last year, Twitter formed a Safety and Trust Council, partnering with over a dozen organizations to tackle online abuse. One of the members, Emma Llanso, a director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, cautions against a one-size fits all solution.
Emma Llanso: The same tools that can be helpful in protecting against harassment by blocking abusive content and taking down accounts can be weaponized themselves if you don’t have the right safeguards in place.
Alison van Diggelen: Without careful protections, trolls can use blocking tools to silence their victims. Although Twitter has promised an open dialogue, Emma Llanso is concerned about lack of transparency.
Emma Llanso: If I had my druthers, we’d be getting a whole lot more reporting from Twitter about the numbers…what is the scope and scale of the content moderation? What is the level of content that gets removed, what are biggest issues? It would help people pin down: harassment, terrorists content, hate speech…How are these moderation processes affecting public discourse?
Alison van Diggelen: As for fake news, why can’t Twitter and Facebook simply flag or censor what they deem fake? Llanso has this advice:
Emma Llanso: That puts way too much power in the company’s hands…Having one centralized decider is a really risky dynamic to set up…
Alison van Diggelen: I asked Facebook to comment and was directed to Mark Zuckerberg’s first post on fake news: We do not want to be arbiters of truth, he wrote.
Last week Zuckerberg wrote this update:
“Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item’s accuracy.” Mark Zuckerberg
(To me, this sounds like an endorsement of the Orwellian concept “alternative facts.” – AV)
But Facebook fired its entire fact-checking editorial team after criticism last summer that it had a liberal bias and targeted right-wing fake news.
Adam Schrader was one of those 25 editors.
Adam Schrader: I think fake news impacted the election, just by the sheer volume of it that appears… Facebook has a bubble problem. It can change your perception of the world…Even people who understand news and research can be tricked by fake news.
Alison van Diggelen: Schrader told me he routinely flagged between 50 and 80 fake stories a day. He questions Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that fake news on Facebook is less than 1%.
Adam Schrader: I would question that statistic. I think it would be much higher…in the 5-10% range.
Alison van Diggelen: Since December, Facebook has begun partnerships with five media outlets, including the Associated Press and Snopes, that flag “suspect” stories…. But the AP’s Lauren Easton, told me that it’s only fact checked 36 stories since the project began. Facebook recently announced fact checking collaborations with German and French media. With national elections there this year, the pressure for Facebook and Twitter to tackle the deluge of fake news and abuse will only intensify.
Gareth Mitchell: So Bill Thompson, misinformation is nothing new is it?
Bill Thompson: I have a problem with the term “fake news” but the issue’s been around for a long time. In 2010, my Wikipedia entry was hacked to declare that I’d had a heart attack and died. I corrected it. (Today) it seems to me that there are actually four different things going on:
- There’s the thing that was fake news, which is overt lying by people who want to get clicks on their website and make money.
2. There’s fake news which is propaganda, designed to promote a particular ideology.
3. There’s just out and out lying, like Bill Thompson is dead…May be a joke? For whatever reason.
4. And then there’s stuff you don’t want people to read, which they* call fake news to distract you from what they’re really saying.
(*Donald Trump routinely calls unfavorable news stories “fake news” – AV)
The problem that Facebook, Twitter, and everyone have is that no single tool, or approach or set of practices can possibly deal with all of those, so there will always be some material that fails to get stopped or fails to get flagged. We do need to be a better educated and more aware population to look out for these sorts of things, and not instantly believe everything we read on a screen, just because it’s on a screen.
Gareth Mitchell: I absolutely agree and that extends to things that people listen to on this radio program, any information you receive. Check it out for yourself.
Bill Thompson: Learn how to check it.
Gareth Mitchell: It’s always been an important skill…all the more pertinent given what’s going on in these times.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Since Tesla CEO Elon Musk joined the Trump business advisory team in December he’s been under intense pressure to step down. That pressure intensified this month after Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven countries with Muslim majorities. On February 2nd, Musk’s colleague, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pulled out of the Trump team after a widespread #DeleteUber campaign went viral and his employees urged him to withdraw.
“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” wrote Kalanick to his staff.
Musk faced a barrage of similar criticism, with some saying he’s a crony capitalist and others claiming to have cancelled their orders for Tesla Model 3.
Last week, I joined the BBC’s Fergus Nicholl on the BBC World Service program, Business Matters. We discussed Silicon Valley tech’s furious reaction to the Trump travel ban and Elon Musk’s high pressure predicament.
Listen to the podcast excerpt below (it includes commentary from the always provocative Lucy Kellaway):
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicoll: Elon Musk has run into Twitter trouble…when he spoke to Mr. Trump in person and when he was seen having a drink with Steve Bannon in the White House, a lot of people said: “What on earth are you thinking?” And he came up with a fairly strong defense…
Alison van Diggelen: His key message is: “Activists should be pushing for more moderates like him, to advise the president not fewer.” And he asks, “How could having only extremists advise him possibly be good?”
Alison van Diggelen: He’s faced a lot of criticism, people even saying they’re cancelling their orders for the next generation of cars, the Tesla Model 3. He is under this pressure, but he is a powerful influencer, a poster child for Donald Trump’s manufacturing jobs being in the U.S. Musk is an idealist, he wants to save the planet. He’s bringing his message of climate change and green jobs, almost as a Trojan horse, into Trump’s meeting rooms. I think a lot of people who think about this deeply deeply, are not having this knee jerk reaction and saying don’t associate with Trump. Instead they’re saying this might be a good conduit for Trump hearing this green point of view.
Here is some of the pushback Elon Musk received on Twitter and his responses:
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
In the beginning…there was no word from Silicon Valley tech leaders on Donald Trump’s presidency, despite his kingly proclamations: Let there be Two Pipelines, Let there be a Wall…Let there not be TPP!
But on the seventh day, tech leaders arose against Trump’s dominion over them when his immigration order unleashed chaos for their people. And so, on the 16th day, they filed a legal brief saying the order inflicted “significant harm on American business, innovation and growth.”
Today in San Francisco a US Court of Appeals will decide oral arguments in the case: State of Washington et al. vs Donald J. Trump et al..
I joined the BBC World Service’s Business Matters last night to report on Silicon Valley’s furious reaction to Trump. Venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse spoke for many in the valley:
“The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie…to be offensive, to be homophobic, to be xenophobic. Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!” Jean-Louis Gasse, Silicon Valley venture capitalist
Listen to the BBC World Service podcast, (my report starts at 5:15).
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of my report:
Fergus Nicoll: Donald Trump says he is pro-business. But a lot of businesses, it seems, are not pro-Trump. They’re certainly not in favor of his attempt to restrict immigration. Almost 100 mainly tech companies have filed an amicus brief arguing that the ban – already the subject of a separate legal process – inflicts significant harm on American business. Who’s signed up? Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and belatedly Tesla. I’ll hand over to Alison in a moment – but first, let’s hear from Emily Dreyfuss at the tech news website Wired in Boston.
Emily Dreyfuss: By some estimates, half of unicorn startups in America were founded by an immigrant. These big companies, Apple, Google, Facebook: they depend on H1-B visa holders. 85,000 H1-B visas go to the tech community every year in America. This is affecting their bottom line. Yes, there is some risk but I think these technology companies are calculating that together they are stronger which is why they’ve signed on to this amicus brief. I think what we’re seeing here is a clash of ideology and business acumen. In this instance, Trump saying he’s pro-business is actually just talk.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that a fair summary then, Alison…the way it’s seen on the west coast?
Alison van Diggelen: Trump is saying that he’s pro-business (and I believe he intends to be), but it looks like his immigration ban has not been thought through… as to the impact it’s going to have on business. It’s been severely criticized .
I’ve been closely watching Silicon Valley’s reaction to the Trump presidency since inauguration day. When Trump issued that immigration order some Silicon Valley leaders were compelled to break their silence and take action. It’s an issue that’s split the US in two. A CNN poll shows about 53% oppose the ban. But today Trump has said that negative polls about the travel ban are “fake news.” He accused the NY Times of making up stories and sources. So my report explores why Trump is getting under Silicon Valley’s skin via this travel ban and the role of lies and fake news.
The day after he was inaugurated, Silicon Valley took to the streets to protest. Tens of thousands of marchers carried placards saying “Stop the hate”; “Words Matter”, and “Never Again.” I asked Patrick Adams, a local science teacher…What’s your message for Trump?
Patrick Adams: Get out of the way…this is a tsunami, this is people who care deeply about what this country really stands for – which is inclusion and love and hope – it’s unstoppable. This idea: that the trickle down economics of neoliberalism and the strange backward thinking of racism is going to lead us to a better world? It’s not, it’s a dead end.
Alison van Diggelen: In the first week of Trump’s presidency, it appeared like “business as usual” here in SV. On day seven, Trump’s immigration order lit the fire under SV.
By day 10, protests had broken out at several tech campuses; and business leaders came out of their bunkers to voice concerns about the order’s morality, not just its economic impact. It was personal: almost 60% of Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born.
I spoke with Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a company born here in 1939:
Meg Whitman: Our view is that this was a mistake. We are a nation of immigrants and a broad-brush sweep of seven countries, of Muslims in those seven countries, is not what America is. So I hope that the president rethinks…
If you think of the innovation that’s been done in the valley over the last 75 years, much of it is from people who came here from someplace else … that’s an economic engine of the country and an economic engine of the world…
Alison van Diggelen: Alphabet’s chairman, Eric Schmidt even described the Trump administration actions as “evil” but many responses were muted.
I contacted companies, from oil to solar; from startups to Fortune 500, but many declined to talk, even LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman who was an outspoken critic of candidate Trump. Why the silence?
Is it the prospect of Trump unleashing his Twitter followers? Kevin Surace, CEO at Appvance, a software company, sums it up:
Kevin Surace: No one wants the current leader of the free world to unleash something against them. And frankly as a CEO of a corporation, it’s your duty to your shareholders to not have the US government hate you…the last thing you want is the president saying: I’ve had it with your company, I’m going to slap tariffs on you…
Alison van Diggelen: Surace emphasizes that the stock market is up over 8% since the election and the Dow hit the symbolic 20,000 point milestone last month. Trump even hosted a “cordial” tech summit with many of the valley’s leaders. Three juicy carrots are now dangling their way: the prospect of infrastructure investment, a corporate tax cut and a huge tax break for the repatriation of $2.5 Trillion in corporate profits lying offshore.
Kevin Surace: If that all comes back to the US, it’ll be the biggest boom to the US economy, possibly ever. For the next 10 years, the economy will be on fire.
Alison van Diggelen: Nevertheless, venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse addresses the disquiet in Silicon Valley. He points to H1-B visa concerns as well as a flood of uncertainties:
Jean-Louis Gasse: The stock market is up, up, up right now which we know could turn around on a dime…
It’s not good for biz to have too many uncertainties on immigration, on trade wars, on interest rates, on spending, on building a wall with Mexico…
Alison van Diggelen: Gasse was Steve Jobs’ right hand man when Apple first expanded into Europe. I asked him to sum up the Valley’s reaction to Trump:
Jean-Louis Gasse: They’re waking up to the fact that just like you need clean air and clean water… you need clean information for society to be healthy. It’s an issue of conscience for the people in tech to get up and say we’re going to fight fake news – especially the ones that stem from the top. The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie. … to be offensive…to be homophobic, to be xenophobic… Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!
Check back soon for part II when we discuss:
Elon Musk’s role in Trump’s economic advisory council and why his decision to stay is so controversial, especially after Uber’s CEO stood down.
And Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s CEO Carl Guardino’s advice to Trump.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
It’s day four of the Donald Trump presidency and he’s already infuriated women’s rights campaigners, the environmental movement and free trade advocates by signing controversial executive orders. Tech mastermind, Steven Levy put it best in his latest tech report: God help us all.
Millions around the world took to the streets within hours of Trump’s inauguration, in anticipation of these actions and more to come. The San Jose Women’s March took place here in Silicon Valley on Saturday, and in my twenty years in the South Bay, I’ve never witnessed such an outpouring of alarm, dismay and rage. One 70-year old educator I interviewed said that this was the first time in her life, she’s ever felt the need to stand up and take to the streets: not for women’s rights, not for civil rights, but to protest Trump’s presidency. And she was fired up. Today, my report aired on the BBC World Service.
One protester had this message for Silicon Valley tech leaders:
“Lead with faith, lead with truth, and lead with a kind of human dignity that is absent in a lot of our daily conversations…They gotta get rid of the fake news, people are being led down a kind of primrose path, thinking that by being angry and violent they’re going to create a better world for the future…that’s not the path, the truth, the reality that everyone can see here today,” Patrick Adams, science teacher at Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose
Listen to my report and the discussion at the BBC World Service (from 2:40 in the podcast)
Gareth Mitchell: The President Elect became President on Friday….the crowds were back on the streets on Saturday, this time in protest at the new administration. The marches around the world were led by women, but in Silicon Valley, the tech people, male and female were venting their concerns too, along with scientists, and entrepreneurs, all of them worried by Trump’s stance on trade, innovation, science and the climate. It comes in an era of disquiet about Facebook and fake news, of post truth and cyber threats. To gauge the sentiment, our reporter in Silicon Valley, Alison van Diggelen, was at one of the marches.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here at the San Jose Women’s March in the center of Silicon Valley and the women are out in force…
Yogacharya O’Brian (reading her poem, “Forward Women”): Not to the back of the line, because Delores walked in front; not to be held down, not even by gravity because Sally soared in space.
Alison: That was Yogacharya O’Brian, founder of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment and one of the rally’s powerful speakers.
Alison van Diggelen: Silicon Valley took to the streets in record numbers on Saturday to protest the country’s new president. Donald Trump’s proposed tax cuts and infrastructure investment could benefit the tech community; the U.S. economy and many of those marching in Silicon Valley. As could his plans to repatriate millions of dollars of tech companies’ overseas profits. Last month Trump even hosted a cordial summit with some top tech leaders. Despite all this, many in this community are fearful of what his presidency might mean for innovation, transparency, multiculturalism, and social progress.
Nick Shackleford: I’m here because of Trump’s election…he is bringing America back in time instead of leading us forward. As a nation we need to go forward and not backwards.
Alison van Diggelen: Here in the world tech center of innovation, what do you expect from this community of innovators?
Nick Shackleford: Like you said, we are innovators and I think we’re going to continue to innovate and lead the country – and sometimes the world – in the innovations that are being developed here in the Silicon Valley. And we have a lot of millionaires and billionaires who are liberal, believe in the cause and are true Californians and they will continue their fight, be it with their money, and their power or just lending their voice to causes that are important to our nation.
Alison van Diggelen: What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg and people like him with power?
Nick Shackleford: I think Mark Zuckerberg did not to enough to stop the fake news. I think he cared more about (getting it re-shared and) his personal stake in his company…and he can’t convince me otherwise. He’s to blame for a lot of the fake media.
Alison van Diggelen: What would you have him do?
Nick Shackleford: I’ve reported about 100 things in the last six months and nothing has been in violation of their policy, but I’ve seen other people get the same picture and be sent to Facebook jail for it. So he’s not consistent, there needs to be more transparency on this fake news fight.
Patrick Adams: They gotta get rid of the fake news, people are being led down a kind of primrose path thinking that by being angry and violent they’re going to create a better world for the future…that’s not the path, the truth, the reality that everyone can see here today.
Alison van Diggelen: Patrick Adams was one of many men who came out to support the women’s march. Like many protesters who couldn’t keep quiet, he was energized by the proliferation of fake news, and Trump’s use of “alternative facts” which continues this week in the heated dispute over his inauguration numbers. Adams had a message for Silicon Valley’s tech leaders….
Patrick Adams: Lead with faith, lead with truth, and lead with a kind of human dignity that is absent in a lot of our daily conversations …Everywhere I go I see wonderful, amazing, beautiful people working together to make this future happen and I also see people who’re giving up…either to escape into an alternate world of the Internet or they want to pretend that this doesn’t affect them. But if affects everyone. Everyone is involved.
Yogacharya O’Brian: We do not wait for you to lead with sons and with daughters in hand, with husbands and with wives, lovers and friends by our side…we march!
Crowd chanting, cheering
[End of report]
Gareth Mitchell: What do you make of the comments you heard there, Bill Thomson?
Bill Thomson: It was fascinating to hear via Alison’s excellent report just how confused people are, and how uncertain they are; and how many different perspectives there are. For me, as a member of the press, what we need to be doing is reporting effectively on what’s actually happening, not just reporting on an agenda set by politicians…So the limitations on women’s reproductive rights, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline, the Transpacific Trade Partnership, the nomination of the Supreme Court justice, are all far more important than the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
There’s a real sense from Alison’s report that many people are confused because they don’t know what’s actually going on and are trying to project on that. It’s the role of us in the press to cut through that and be much clearer about what’s actually happening and not get dragged into debates or agendas set by other people.
Read more stories about Donald Trump on Fresh Dialogues
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
On this historic inauguration day – that most of us thought we’d never see – I was invited by the BBC to opine on Trump’s likely impact on the economy, Silicon Valley tech in particular. My remit: to balance some of the pro-Trump hoopla from other guests, businessmen from the U.K. and U.S. who seem to believe that he will “make America (and the UK) great again” overnight. You can listen to the BBC podcast here. Our conversation starts at 20:50.
Here’s a transcript of my conversation with the BBC’s Colletta Smith and Mickey Clark on the program “Wake Up To Money” (edited for length and clarity):
BBC’s Colletta Smith: Also joining us is Alison van Diggelen, a Silicon Valley journalist. Good morning Alison.
Alison van Diggelen: Good morning. Good to join you.
Colletta Smith: You’re in Silicon Valley where businesses have voiced quite a lot of concern about the incoming president. What are your feelings this morning, waking up in Silicon Valley ahead of what’s going to be such a momentous day?
Alison van Diggelen: It’s going to be a very historic day…But the fact is, over 140 tech leaders signed a letter saying Donald Trump is a danger to innovation* and as you know Silicon Valley is an innovation hub, it’s one of the engines of growth for the United States. So there’s a deep feeling of malaise and fear…but at the same time business leaders are pragmatic, they’ve accepted that he will be our president and there’s a “business as usual” mentality amidst that underlying feeling of fear and uncertainty.
*The exact words of the letter were: “Trump would be a disaster for innovation. His vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy — and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth.”
Continue listening to the podcast
We also discuss Trump’s protectionist, anti-science, anti-environment stance, the fears of a trade war; his cabinet picks and his potential negative impact on jobs, especially clean tech jobs.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Why should businesses even care about a healthy environment? That’s a fundamental issue for Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. Chouinard and Patagonia are respected by many environmentalists who credit them for putting this philosophy into practice:
“Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business. Our mission is to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia
Chouinard is putting his money where his mouth is with a generous company “Earth Tax” devoted to environmental activism. He explained to me how he’s inspired young people and companies to protect the environment.
Nevertheless, Patagonia is arguably fighting a losing battle, especially at Christmas time, when rampant consumerism is in full swing. Here’s my latest BBC report that explores the contrast between Patagonia’s priorities and that of Silicon Valley shoppers who just want “more stuff” and wouldn’t dream of being seen twice in the same dress (dahling!)
This week, as the pro-business, “to hell with the environment” Trump administration prepares to take power, I plan to launch a new series of interviews. My aim is to profile leaders and organizations that are making the environment and climate change action a priority; and are standing up to Trump’s anti-science, anti-environment recklessness.
My report aired on BBC Business Matters on December 23rd. The segment starts at 16:00 on the BBC podcast.
Here’s a transcript of the segment (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of the report:
BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking at all this…the commercialization of Christmas…I imagine where you are in California, there are a lot of people being pushed into buying things they might not want to? I gather you’ve been investigating…
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. I had a rare interview with Yvon Chouinard…he’s the founder of Patagonia, the sustainable outdoor clothing company and is revered by many environmentalists. Chouinard explained to me why his company wants to minimize its impact on the environment and inspire other businesses to do the same. I visited one of Silicon Valley’s busiest malls to see if this green message is resonating with consumers.
[Music: Walking in a Winter Wonderland at Valley Fair Mall]
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here in the mall and there’s a tangible sense of stress as Christmas fast approaches. Shoppers crowd their favorite stores, cell phone lists in one hand, fistfuls of bags in the other. Exhausted mothers and fathers are pushing prams, groups of teenagers maraud the aisles, laughing and posing for photos.
I’m right by the “North Pole” and Santa is waving to wide-eyed children, surrounded by about a dozen Christmas trees with twinkling lights and red baubles. A baby took one look at Santa and started crying. There’s a sickly sweet smell of cinnamon and pumpkin spice in the air. People are looking for bargains: quantity not quality. For many shoppers, “the environment” is the last thing on their minds.
Eggnog gal: There are a little bit of Grinches…but that comes with Christmas. They’re very angry and hostile and they just want to get in the mall, get everything they want and leave. Maybe it’s just the crowds, the financial burden. Maybe they’re just not in the holiday spirit this year.
Young mom: My son’s closet looks like Beyonce’s…it just has so much clothing in it. I love children’s clothing and I buy him so so much. He’s two and a half and he’s so cute! [laughter]
Teen: I just feel like, if I wear a dress once, people see me wear it, like I’d rather have a new dress…something else people can see me in. I’d rather have more stuff than just like one really expensive thing.
Alison van Diggelen: This “wear once” mentality is abhorrent to Yvon Chouinard, who’s notorious for wearing the same flannel shirt for over 20 years. His company, Patagonia is known for its sustainable outdoor clothing. As a founding member of the “One Percent for the Planet” organization, it donates one percent of its sales (not just profits) to environmental causes.
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve impacted so many businesses. Steve Jobs once called you to “green” Apple?
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing.
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little bit tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What do you feel has been your biggest influence in greening the world? The business or consumer side?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” that has gone around in nine languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with Jesse Simons of the Sierra Club, an environmental group founded by Scottish naturalist John Muir. He praises Patagonia’s eco leadership but feels it could do more…
Jesse Simons: I’d like to see Patagonia go “all in” on their work on clean energy (and follow Apple’s lead by) committing to 100% clean energy and doing it all the way up the supply chain to ensure that every piece of clothing, zippers, everything are coming from a manufacturing site powered by the wind, the sun and the earth.
Alison van Diggelen: Gary Cook at Greenpeace credits Patagonia’s efforts against our “throw away culture” with its “don’t buy this jacket” campaign and its repair and recycling services. But he points to the company’s continued use of toxic chemicals and he’d like to see them eliminated from its supply chain.
Although Patagonia is seen to be raising the bar on corporate sustainability practices, its prices are out of reach for many consumers. Back at the mall, I spoke with another bargain hunter…
Diana V: We went to check out the Patagonia store in Reno, Nevada and couldn’t find anything for under $100, so we left…We’re just being very cautious right now with our money. Waiting to see what happens with our economy and our national political situation.
End of Report
This part of our interview didn’t make the final cut:
On Patagonia doing more
Sierra Club’s Jesse Simons: I’d like to see them (Patagonia) work with other outdoor industry brands to show them how it actually makes biz sense to stand up to bad trade deals. It would be great to see them take their leadership and use it to get other companies to similarly pay a living wage, take care of the environment in countries where they’re manufacturing their goods, so that they can feel good about saying no to bad trade deals.
Chouinard talks on Earth Tax, Agriculture and Death (I’ll post the full interview here soon for your listening pleasure)
A: Tell me about your trip to Scotland in 1970 – why was that the inspiration for Patagonia clothing?
Y: I was in business of making climbing equipment. I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in Dept store in Edinburgh. At that time, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts, pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said “Woah!” A light went off…I imported a few…I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
A: Tell me about that 1% for the planet? An earth tax?
Y: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their biz. We believe it should be done in the business as well.
I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
A: Some people say there’s a conflict here: you are an environmental company. You’re saying: save the planet but at the same time, you’re saying: buy our products. You have to make your products, you have to sell your products. You have to make a profit in order to stay in business. Otherwise you go belly up. So talk about that conflict between being a company, a business and doing good for the planet.
Y: Well, to put a spin on it. I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon. And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet.
A: So is that going to be a major focus for Patagonia?
Y: It’s a major focus for me, that’s for sure. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
A: Tell me about the long term future. How are you going to make sure, beyond your lifetime, that Patagonia keeps the environment central to its mission.
Y: We’ve become a B-corporation company. That’s different than a regular corporation. In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society. So the way the law states: if I die tomorrow, the stock is in a trust and this trust would have 8 years to divest 80% of that because the law doesn’t want you to have all your stock, your foundation have all your stock in one corporation. (In) a B-corp you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that and we wouldn’t have to sell to the highest bidder which would be to go public. All the laws force you to go public, pretty much…we wouldn’t have to do that
A: But would it keep the environment central to its mission?
Y: That’s part of the values that we’ve inculcated in our charter, under being a B-corporation.
A: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Y: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
A: Are you grooming them to do so?
Y: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
A: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Y: (laughter) When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains; and our attitude was you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.