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July 10, 2008

Q&A on Fur with Overstock.com's Patrick Byrne

Overstock.com's CEO vows to be fur free

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne has instituted a fur-free policy. Overstock.com

Online retailer Overstock.com announced today that it will stop selling fur effective immediately.

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, spoke with us about fur, socially responsible policies and his personal connection with animals.

Q. Overstock is the first major online retailer to take a stand against fur. What led to your decision?

A. I already understood that animals are not just objects. Someone could sit in a business meeting and take out a knife and a block of wood, and start whittling: it would seem odd, but would not be morally objectionable. If, however, someone took out a knife and a live rabbit, and started whittling, that would be both strange and morally objectionable. Hence, animals are not objects.

I knew that much already. But HSUS sent Kristin Leppert to see me, and as she was discussing the fur industry I began to understand that it really does treat animals simply as objects. Decorative objects, but objects nonetheless. So I realized we should stop having any part of it.

Q. What impact do you think this will have on the larger industry?

A. Gandhi said of all social movements, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." I think the adoption of a fur-free policy by a number of major brands has shifted the fight into the third phase.

Q. You are known for your outspokenness. What's behind that?

A. I think a lot of corporate guys try to have things both ways. They generally oppose government's role in society, but when faced with various social ills about which they could do something, they say, "It's not my job," and mumble things about duties to shareholders. They cannot have it both ways. If you agree that something is wrong, and don't want government to fix everything, then you'd better roll up your own sleeves.

Q. Some retailers balk at adopting an anti-fur policy, claiming they will lose profit-inducing designer accounts. What advice would you offer them?

A. They could be right. It would be a lie for me to assure them that this will be a profit-maximizing strategy for them. Time will tell. In the end, however, you do the right thing not because of how it will affect next quarter's earnings. You do the right thing because you are the guy who does the right thing. My experience is that the universe is generally benevolent, and doing the right thing usually works out. Not always, though, and I'm curious to see if it will here.

Q. You take particular pride in Worldstock, a division of Overstock.com that sells socially responsible goods that are sustainable. What do you hope to achieve through this endeavor?

A. I consider it the single best idea of my life. About 6,000 artisans from around the world supply us handmade crafts produced in ways that sustain the producers, their culture and the environment. We put minimum mark-up on these goods in an attempt simply to grow the program while breaking even. My dream is to see tens of thousands of people, and maybe someday even more, raising themselves out of poverty through Worldstock.

Q. Has there been any reaction from Overstock.com employees regarding the fur phase-out?

A. Yes. I expected push-back from the apparel buying group when I went and told them of my decision. Instead, they were relieved and eagerly told me how happy they were. Then over the next few days, as news spread around the company, I was amazed at how many folks I would never have expected to care (e.g., software developers, mathematicians, network engineers) stopped me to tell me how much they supported the decision.

Q. Can you describe your relationship to animals? Do you have any pets?

A. I don't claim any special relationship to animals. I'm sure that to them I'm just another biped. But when I am around them they make sense in a way humans don't.

I do think of myself as a quasi-country boy. I grew up around New England and was most happy in Vermont and New Hampshire. We had a couple dogs as I was growing up, and as a teenager I lived for several years on a farm raising polled Herefords, sheep and Suffolk Punch draft horses. We had a few riding horses, and I had a 16-hand quarter horse who became as close to me as a boy and a horse can do without buying each other jewelry.

As an adult I've been too peripatetic to commit to any pets. But I see that for humans, being around animals is incredibly healing. Some years ago I decided to give it a try, and started with two giant African millipedes, but after a year they passed.

My great dream is to retire to a good piece of land somewhere and just have a few horses, dogs and goats. (I'm big on goats. I think it was the author Tom Robbins who compared them to Zen masters: a goat knows the score just by looking at you. Plus, horses and goats are natural allies.) That, plus a few hundred acres so I can see humans coming from any direction, and I'll be set.

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