Letters for the week of December 8-14, 2004

Former employees of Elephant Pharmacy complain that our story toes corporate line. Another former employee says unrealistic employee expectations were the problem.

“Building a Better Elephant,” Feature, 11/17

A mouthpiece for greenwashing

We found Robert Gammon’s “Building a Better Elephant” well intentioned but sorely lacking the focus we hoped for when he interviewed us. We wish he would have concentrated more on how our individual worker experiences tie into the ethical problems of creating an ecologically friendly corporate chain. There is a fundamental disconnect between running a store that promotes an organic way of life and treating human beings as expendable labor. Gammon’s article falls short on several counts.

First, the cover artwork, with its white men in suits working on a live creature, insinuates the idea that humans can build better than nature, which leads directly to an argument against corporate manipulation of the living world. If you open to the article, the first image you see is of the founder and CEO looking friendly and welcoming. The contrast between this image and the reality of our working experience is jarring and painful.

Next, Gammon presents the former employees as “young liberal-arts types,” which is a stereotypical, unfair, and unrealistic description of many unique individuals, all of whom have different experiences with Elephant Pharmacy. How is a mother of three in her late thirties a “liberal-arts type”? How is a poor urban community college student a “liberal-arts type”? How is a 35-year-old immigrant, who works two jobs to support his children, a “liberal-arts type”? This sort of baseless categorizing demeans all the people who put their hard work into a company which, speaking plainly, betrayed them. More to the point, this stereotyping leads the reader to believe that everyone who had a problem with Elephant was in their mid-twenties and a naive, starry-eyed liberal.

Third, the middle section of Gammon’s article is practically an advertisement for Elephant’s product line. How important is an overview of the store’s layout in relation to the greater issues of mismanagement, deceit, and greenwashing that Gammon never fully explored? For example, Gammon never mentions Al Briscoe, Elephant’s manager for the first two years, who has been accused of threatening employees for organizing. After presiding over the financial catastrophe that caused Elephant to lay off numerous employees, Briscoe was promoted.

Finally, Gammon only hints at the larger issue of corporate greenwashing. We define greenwashing as the process by which businesses make consumers feel that their participation in an unsustainable system of production is in fact a good thing for the environment. Elephant passes itself off as a green business, while in fact it has never even been aware of the connections it has to the systems which are killing the planet. Opening another network of chainstores across the United States will only exacerbate our ecological problems, and selling Shanghai slum slippers will do nothing but perhaps soothe momentarily the feet of people who should know better.

We feel that Robert Gammon had the chance to tell the truth not only about our experiences, but also about the problems of the nation and the planet. Instead he came off as a mouthpiece for Elephant Pharmacy and their investors.

Daniel Wolfe, Berkeley; Jeff St. Andrews, Oakland; Alicia Rodgers, Oakland; and Anastassia Shaitarova, Berkeley

Robert Gammon responds

Aside from three former employees referred to me by Stuart Skorman, nine of the ten disenchanted former workers whom I interviewed were in their early or mid-twenties

Some workers misled you

Thank you for the well-balanced article. Having worked long term for Stuart Skorman at Reel.com, and off and on at Elephant in a small capacity, I can tell you in all honesty that I have never worked for an employer who cared more genuinely for his employees than Mr. Skorman. When I do the odd job for Elephant, money is not the motivator so much as gratitude and enjoyment of working in the company of folks who I know to be genuinely caring people who are excited by the work they are doing.

I am among those original employees at Reel who benefited not only from stock options, but also from Stuart’s personal generosity. I have never known an employer who was willing to reach so deeply into his own pockets to try to show appreciation for those who work for him — and I don’t expect I’ll ever know another.

I worked with several of the individuals quoted liberally in your article regarding their dissatisfaction with Elephant, and I can tell you with certainty that some are being disingenuous when they tell you that their discontent was not about money, or that they had no idea they were working in a store that was hopefully to become the flagship for a successful chain. In fact several of those interviewed were quite excited at the prospect of receiving stock options and what the company’s future growth might mean to the value of those options. They questioned me frequently about my experiences with Reel.com and expressed hopes that “The Suits,” as they refer to them in your article, would be impressed by the store and choose to invest.

In short, despite the impression that they wish to convey in the article, these people were NOT working at Elephant for some noble, altruistic reason. They were in it for profit like any other employee of any other company, big or small. Having known some of these individuals, I can attest to the fact that several did not seem to have much of an idea as to how the economics of a retail business works — that a company’s payroll must fall within certain parameters if it is to remain in business, or that a struggling startup cannot automatically afford to pay out Christmas bonuses regardless of how low they are in capital.

It’s never a happy occasion when two groups of people who you like and respect cannot see eye to eye, and it’s particularly upsetting when one side goes to such lengths as stretching the truth to try and vilify the other. My sincere compliments to the Express for handling this article in an evenhanded and balanced fashion.

J. Clerkin-Whitcomb, Richmond

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