TREEmagazine – For people who ! (TM)
Interview with Robin Cornelius (RC) CEO of SWITCHER 17.08.2009
We are sitting in front of the piano and we are almost ready to start the interview when Robin explains that we might be interrupted by a phone-call from India.RC: Me? We are three partners: Me, myself and I – for a lifetime. I’m Robin Cornelius born in 56 – still going on. Born in Stockholm Sweden. Grown up in Switzerland and visited some boarding schools in England and in Germany. I’m founder and now so to say the president of the board of SWITCHER. I’m about to publish a book. TM: Do you already know the title of the book? RC: This is last minute. I have plenty of titles in my draw. TM: When is it going to be published? RC: In spring 2011.
TM: Hello! Who are you?
TM: Can you briefly explain your business? RC: Business? You mean the SWITCHER business? TM: Why? Is there any other business? RC: SWITCHER was at the beginning a textile-company – Service-oriented. Year after year it turned out to be a service-company – textile-oriented. Textile-oriented meaning bringing knowledge and awareness to the end-consumers about why we produce a garment, how and where. That’s all the topic of traceability . In my book I talk about this and give my personal vision to get people to be aware of what they are doing. Though HOW can you be aware if you don’t have the total information about the side effects of buying too many products – wrong products- that means products you don’t know under which conditions they are produced. What is the ecological environmental effect. CO2, Water footprint and so on. So, our business is to dress families and individuals, corporate companies, clubs, associations with RESPONSIBLE PRODUCTS. This is our business.
TM: Why is ethics so important in your company? RC: SWITCHER is still a family company even if we have minority of shareholders. It has to work under certain conditions and rules have been developed spontaneously during the last 10 to 15 years. That is to say if you can answer the following question. Why do I develop a product? With what effect? Do I feel guilty? Do I feel responsible? This is all about ethics. And to add maybe: You can not have one hand going one direction and the other into an other direction. We have to be focused on the same values.
TM: What does sustainability mean for you and how do you want to reach it? RC: It’s an ongoing process it’s not something to reach, it’s something to maintain. It’s about survival. In life you have always 3 pillars. The first one is getting positive cash-flow. A company which is losing money will disappear. When this is fulfilled you can ask yourself HOW are we going to produce a positive cash-flow and what is going to be done with the money? The first of the 3 pillars is cash-flow the 2nd one is social conditions and as soon as you take a step forward you have an impact on people working for you. We have to define clear and stringent rules about how to behave with all the stakeholders, employees, the employees of the suppliers and shops and any other kind of customer. So the social component is the second pillar.
RC: The 3rd pillar is the ecological effect. And I was explaining that just for a simple t-shirt one cage of cotton requires about thousands of litres of water and to produce a mobile – to produce a handy as you say here – its about 100 thousand litres of water. For this reason one needs to get awares of the water footprint of any production the CO2-Impact. And maybe the re-cycling process of the water itself and chemicals – and so on. I’m talking about pesticides particularly for the organic cotton. Then they can focus and analyse and say: “Yes I buy” or “No I don’t buy”. Buying less is buying better. Consumption should be a responsible act. It should not be an act of compensation of frustration like buying power. But you don’t have any power. You are just spending the money you are earning. The more you need money the more you work and the less you have time to dedicate to your family and to yourself. So, the sustainability of a company is to assure positive cash-flow, ecological and social aspects. The SWITCHER-way is a responsible way. That’s the way Switcher will sustain – I hope -another 30 years after those first 30 years.
TM: Why did you choose the name of a TREE for your new T-shirt collection? RC: It’s for the BAO? Because originally it was of African cotton; not necessarily now. At the very beginning of the idea- an idea can evaluate like any situation. We were thinking of Africa and they have the baobab-tree that’s why we took the name BAO. And it’s not far away from “BOB”. It’s a big runner we’ve had for the last 25 years. That’s why we gave the name of the BAO- the tree. And a tree is a symbol of energy, of chlorophyll – of life. There is a lot of symbolism in a tree!
TM: Speaking about the price of the bao-shirt. Can you explain why I should pay approximately 10 swiss francs more for a bao t-shirt? RC: It’s a good question. Good questions deserve good answers. I would say “Why should you spend only 29 Swiss francs for BAO when there are other t-shirts for about 49, 59, 79?” It’s a question of positioning but there is an other factual reason: It’s first of all of organiccotton. It’s not the price of the cotton it’s the supply chain process. To sow organical cotton you have to place orders in advance. It has a certain cost. It takes more time. And we came with system of offering a wide range of colors. 38 colors. It’s an equilibrium with the investment in huge stock of colors but reasonable. With organiccotton. With traceability. With fair-trade where again there are certain costs and a slight part to marketing. It’s the first time we did marketing. To explain the concept: Because there is one thing we have to change: We have been doing many many things for the last 20 years- let’s say 15 years- without having a strong communication about all our values. We have to invest a little bit to explain our vision. I can not be running around the world exclusively talking about our values. It’s not enough. We should have an impact.
TM: About the Olympic Games: Why did SWITCHER sponsor them? RC: It was nearly 10 years ago when I got a phone-call and they said why don’t you sponsor with SWITCHER the athletes, the swiss athletes? I said: “Are you kidding? Why should we?” And they said “our main sponsor dropped us” new strategy for them. Switzerland was not a priority for them. They went to knock on the door of the five majors, the major players in the sport-field. None of them was interested in the Swiss athletes. I said how can I do that? You just dress them. Then we flew to new suppliers, specialists in fibres, nylon and so and we said “yes! Let’s be sponsors”. Iit started like this. And now it’s our 8th Olympic Games. We have developed a certain knowledge in the field of sports. And sports it’s about club it’s about community it’s about family. So at the end of the day it’s quite o.k. that SWITCHER is sponsor. Then it enhances the nationalism in a positive way. In a physical way in a team in a responsible approach to get the use. The more the user is having sport activities the less they will maybe go cross the line in different activities. We An athlete prepares himself for four years just to perform sometimes just 10 seconds. That should be respected in my opinion. TM: Does it means that all the values of the Olympic Games match quite well with your own business values? RC: Yes, the values of the sportive activity of the teamwork and the sense of effort, the concentration, of the dream of performing a record. The evolution! Look at the other day with the new 9.58seconds per 100 meters. Usain was just doing the dream of millions. Hey it’s the evolution of mankind. But it’s just physical. It’s our engine. Keep your body fit and clean. SWITCHER is a popular brand and sport is popular. I am not talking about elite-sports I am talking about simple sports.
TM: About the BAO T-Shirts. You claim that your t-shirts are CO2 free. Can you explain how that works? RC: It’s difficult to understand. It’s not CO2-free. It’s carbon neutralized or compensated. I’d like to have no emission at all. But this is utopic. The production of a t-shirt requires maybe between 5 to nine cages of carbon. The system that we have with myClimate is to compensate by buying certificates. Let’s say we produce 1000 t-shirts. It will produce 10000 cages of carbon. Then we have to buy 10 tons of certificates to neutralize the carbon. What does it mean? We buy certificates of golden standard. They are about 30CHF per ton. And that means for this 1000 t-shirts we have to buy for about 100CHF certifications which is 10 cents per t-shirt. This money will be invested in sustainable projects. It could be waterwheel or raindrop eregation. So you pay for the carbon-emission you produce for projects like green solar power and so on. It’s a compensation. The best would be to have less emission as possible. That would be to produce more and more locally. It’s something to think about. One day in 10 years we will go from globalisation to focalisation. If the raw material has to come from India, Bangladesh or China whatever, it could be possible to think about a model where the dyeing stuff is done locally at their facilities and the ultimate phase is produced locally in Switzerland for instance. But the idea is to compensate by buying golden standard certificates. This is the main idea that people have to understand.
TM: Well, if you buy CO2 certificates where can you buy them and how do you know if they have the value that they are supposed to have? RC: Traceability again. (Smiles) We have companies for that. In that case we work with myClimate in Zurich and they show you by certificate: o.k. this goes for this project in that country and of course it could be traceable. So you know where your money goes. It goes for a green energy project. It’s about traceability. It’s interesting that the value of those certificates varies and is depending on the country and the lobbies of the country. I know that on the other side of the Atlantic with our US-Friends the value of a ton is 3 times lower than Europe. This is not a political question. That has to be checked by the way.
TM: Do you have a car, by the way? RC: Yes I have Sir. I have a Japanese car. It’s a PRIUS. I have a PRIUS for the last 8 years or 9. It’s my 3rd PRIUS. If it’s a more economical car – I don’t know. But I was supporting the idea of hybrid cars 9 years back. And do you know what? It’s so comfortable. A car for me it’s to go from A to B. That’s all the reason I’m using it. As less as possible. I love you know what? Trains! (smiles)
TM: You can work in a train. RC: You can work in a train. You can speak with people. You can have a nap. You can have a coffee. You have everything in a train. But people want to be independent. The feeling of turning right in the car or left when wanted. And they are on the highway most of the time.
TM: Did you ever hear about newTree? It’s a non profit organisation. RC: Yes, we spoke about it in the mountains, if you remember, in Montana. I’ve been in the business of SWITCHER for the last 28 years now. I know a lot of NGO’s and only a few CEO’s which is maybe wrong. Now we have a CEO, recently nominated. So his duty is to see what the competitors are doing. But in your approach NGO’s have to be supported. You will be the referees in the future because nobody can attack you about the aim of doing money for personal sake. Any NGO have a clear vision. Any NGO and its stuff is not working for money they are working for an idea. And this is rare in economy that people are working for ideas. It’s a fresh air or a green tree.
TM: What is aqua verde? I’ve heard from “la maine verte” but not from aqua verde… RC: It’s forest protection project in the Amazonian forest to support tree-plantation. These are facts people should know! Every year areas like the canton de vaud are disappearing. De-forestation. So if people are aware of this. It’s again the problem with politics. Not enough information is given. And people are reading the headlines “Oh millions of trees are disappearing” ok let’s change topic and have a coffee. We should distillate information daily. Education is a long process. And I think we should not be moralists we should do education by motivation and say “do you know if you do something, there it will help so many people” . It’s very subtle to get people on your side. So you won’t look like an activist or a dreamer. You have to show economical results to have credibility. And you can go back and say we can achieve this while behaving like that. So people don’t think it’s a utopia.
TM: Which is going to be the next project in this direction? RC: We have plenty of projects on the list. We are supporting now in the ecological field We have opened a big school. We’ve just raised the funds for five years. It’s a gymnasium in India. We are planning to open a school in Bangladesh Dhaka, one of the poorest countries of the world. It makes sense to give production, to give support to these people. In Switerzland, wehave a nice education project at the gymnasium Freudenberg of Zurich. “Freudenberg” is the one of the plenty other gymnasiums in Zürich where we made a sensitization for the students. We call it “Kleider machen Schule” . It comes from “Kleider machen Leute”. And they are all behind us. We are all together in this project. Hundreds of students are behind it. To explain just the fact to produce garments requires education, energy, resources and conditions. The whole process is in there. This is one of the biggest projects we have in Switzerland. It’s our foundation who takes care of these projects. And we have other global projects to educate and act. You can compare our foundation to an NGO, because it’s like a non-governmental organization – in a certain sense. So, my personal project is to take SWITCHER – it will take an other couple of years- to where it should be: We’re spending so many years to show we can produce clean products at affordable prices with a certain success. We added the traceability, you know the DNA code in each garment. We’ve gone even further. We have launched our first PET recycling collection. We recycle the old garments. People can bring them back. The project of SWITCHER is to be recognized as something useful. It’s more than just to dress people. In my book I go even further. I try to make the peopleunderstand the strong values we try to distillate here. For exemaple, the feminine values versus the masculine values. I’ve already spoken to you about this. Masculine values are most of the time fear-based: control, power, hierarchy, fight. And the feminine values: openness, sharing, apologizing, opening, transparency which comes from courage. I think the 21st century will be more feminine-oriented. It doesn’t mean women against men. It’s the feminine part you have in you versus the masculine part. This equilibrium should change slightly towards the feminine approach. This is my conviction.
TM: So this is what you do every day in your business? RC: To be busy day and night.
TM: The last question is a funny-one because I am going to ask you if you would like to become a sponsor of the TREEmagazine which is a pure online magazine that is mainly dealing with environmental things, music art and charity.
RC: If it’s personal for me Robin, yes, obviously. Than we have to turn our self to Christelle and the stuff. Then I have to enter into political to convince them because to delegate is not to impose. I would go against my principle. But my answer would be immediately yes!TM: Well, That’s fantastic! There is a little gift: A mandala-book. RC: We have also a gift for you… (I received a painted t-shirt, which was painted at the PALEO-FESTIVAL in Nyon) TM: Thanks a lot for the interview. RC: Nandre – it means thank you in Indian.
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- Food & Beverage Industry to Focus on Water Footprint and Greater Sustainability, Says Frost & Sullivan. (prnewswire.com)
- Cotton Grown in Africa is Easier on the Earth Than Conventional Plantations (inhabitat.com)
- What Will ‘Virtual Water’ Mean for Trade? (urbantimes.co)