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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Perhaps that is because the man, Delowar Hossain, has not yet been charged with anything — and may never be. He has been a vilified figure since his garment factory, Tazreen Fashions, caught fire last November, killing 112 workers who were making clothes for retailers like Walmart and Sears. A high-level government investigation found fire safety violations and accused Mr. Hossain of “unpardonable negligence.”

“How do you sleep at night?” a woman screamed as Mr. Hossain left the courtroom after the hearing on June 19. The more pertinent question might be this: In Bangladesh, where the garment industry powers the economy and wields enormous political clout, is it possible to hold factory owners like Mr. Hossain accountable?

Now is undeniably the test. The Tazreen Fashions fire was followed by the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in which 1,129 people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. A global supply chain that delivers low-cost clothes from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West was suddenly redefined by images of mutilated bodies pulled from the rubble. The Obama administration responded last week by rescinding a special trade privilege for Bangladesh over concerns about safety problems and labor rights violations in its garment industry.

But Bangladeshi factories have always suffered fires and accidents, usually without attracting international attention. One study estimated that more than 1,000 workers died in hundreds of factory fires or accidents from 1990 to 2012. Not once was a factory owner charged with any crime, activists say.

“We want to set a legal precedent that factory owners can’t get away with this,” said Saydia Gulrukh, an anthropologist and social activist.

One way to interpret the hearing for Mr. Hossain was as an act of exasperation. It was not a criminal trial. Instead, Ms. Gulrukh and a handful of other activists and lawyers had become so frustrated that they petitioned the Bangladesh High Court to overstep the stalled police investigation and decide whether criminal charges should be filed. The proceeding is already bogged down and could take months, or longer.

“They are just delaying the process,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, the lawyer handling the petition, speaking of Mr. Hossain’s defense team. “They think we will lose the spirit of fighting. But they have miscalculated.”

Bangladesh’s legal system has rarely favored anyone confronting the power structure. Much of the legal code has remained intact since the British imperial era, when laws were devised to control the population and protect the colonialist power structure. Legal reformers continue to push to modernize the criminal code, but the pace of change has been slow. Moreover, the police and other security forces are deeply politicized, with a bloody legacy of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Many garment factory owners are now entrenched in the nation’s power elite, some as members of Parliament. Garments represent 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing exports, giving the industry vast economic power, while factory owners also finance campaigns during national elections, giving them broad political influence.

The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, seemed to shock a system often inured to factory accidents. On the morning of the collapse, factory workers had been ordered into the building, even though cracks had appeared a day earlier and an engineer had warned that the structure was unsafe. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, disappeared amid speculation that he would avoid prosecution because he was affiliated with the governing political coalition, the Awami League.

But incensed High Court judges ordered the police to arrest Mr. Rana, as well as the owners of the garment factories inside the building. Mr. Rana was hauled into the courthouse, along with the factory bosses, surprising some legal activists who could not remember a single case in which judges had taken such action against members of the garment industry.

“That was very unusual,” said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer and legal activist, who is not related to Delowar Hossain. “I think it was only possible because of the level of national and international outrage.”

Ms. Hossain has fought the garment industry for years over the 2005 collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory in Savar, in which at least 64 workers died. Soon after the collapse, she and other lawyers petitioned the court and pressed for affidavits from different agencies to determine who was to blame, in hopes of stirring a prosecution.

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.

Perhaps that is because the man, Delowar Hossain, has not yet been charged with anything — and may never be. He has been a vilified figure since his garment factory, Tazreen Fashions, caught fire last November, killing 112 workers who were making clothes for retailers like Walmart and Sears. A high-level government investigation found fire safety violations and accused Mr. Hossain of “unpardonable negligence.”

“How do you sleep at night?” a woman screamed as Mr. Hossain left the courtroom after the hearing on June 19. The more pertinent question might be this: In Bangladesh, where the garment industry powers the economy and wields enormous political clout, is it possible to hold factory owners like Mr. Hossain accountable?

Now is undeniably the test. The Tazreen Fashions fire was followed by the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in which 1,129 people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. A global supply chain that delivers low-cost clothes from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West was suddenly redefined by images of mutilated bodies pulled from the rubble. The Obama administration responded last week by rescinding a special trade privilege for Bangladesh over concerns about safety problems and labor rights violations in its garment industry.

But Bangladeshi factories have always suffered fires and accidents, usually without attracting international attention. One study estimated that more than 1,000 workers died in hundreds of factory fires or accidents from 1990 to 2012. Not once was a factory owner charged with any crime, activists say.

“We want to set a legal precedent that factory owners can’t get away with this,” said Saydia Gulrukh, an anthropologist and social activist.

One way to interpret the hearing for Mr. Hossain was as an act of exasperation. It was not a criminal trial. Instead, Ms. Gulrukh and a handful of other activists and lawyers had become so frustrated that they petitioned the Bangladesh High Court to overstep the stalled police investigation and decide whether criminal charges should be filed. The proceeding is already bogged down and could take months, or longer.

“They are just delaying the process,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, the lawyer handling the petition, speaking of Mr. Hossain’s defense team. “They think we will lose the spirit of fighting. But they have miscalculated.”

Bangladesh’s legal system has rarely favored anyone confronting the power structure. Much of the legal code has remained intact since the British imperial era, when laws were devised to control the population and protect the colonialist power structure. Legal reformers continue to push to modernize the criminal code, but the pace of change has been slow. Moreover, the police and other security forces are deeply politicized, with a bloody legacy of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Many garment factory owners are now entrenched in the nation’s power elite, some as members of Parliament. Garments represent 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing exports, giving the industry vast economic power, while factory owners also finance campaigns during national elections, giving them broad political influence.

The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, seemed to shock a system often inured to factory accidents. On the morning of the collapse, factory workers had been ordered into the building, even though cracks had appeared a day earlier and an engineer had warned that the structure was unsafe. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, disappeared amid speculation that he would avoid prosecution because he was affiliated with the governing political coalition, the Awami League.

But incensed High Court judges ordered the police to arrest Mr. Rana, as well as the owners of the garment factories inside the building. Mr. Rana was hauled into the courthouse, along with the factory bosses, surprising some legal activists who could not remember a single case in which judges had taken such action against members of the garment industry.

“That was very unusual,” said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer and legal activist, who is not related to Delowar Hossain. “I think it was only possible because of the level of national and international outrage.”

Ms. Hossain has fought the garment industry for years over the 2005 collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory in Savar, in which at least 64 workers died. Soon after the collapse, she and other lawyers petitioned the court and pressed for affidavits from different agencies to determine who was to blame, in hopes of stirring a prosecution.

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.

For nearly a decade, thousands of peasants from this rural speck in southern China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region borrowed heavily before boarding flights for Ghana, Africa’s second-largest gold producer, with glinting ambitions and no backup plan.

The Chinese found their gold, though trouble soon found them, in the form of crooked police officers and armed bandits who prowled the mining camps. Then, this month, the Ghanaian authorities declared the mines illegal and arrested more than 200 Chinese miners, accusing them of polluting the land and abusing local workers. Countless others fled as local residents armed with guns and machetes attacked the camps, robbing miners of their possessions and killing some who fought back.

After the crackdown, images of violent deaths and vandalized mining camps blazed across Chinese social media, fueling national anger and soul searching. But here in Shanglin, a mountainous county of 470,000 in one of China’s poorest regions, it is despair over financial ruin that is most pronounced.

“My son might be killed in Ghana, but if he comes back he’s dead anyway,” said Shen Aiquan, 65, whose family borrowed 3 million renminbi, or $489,000, to build a mining operation, though from whom exactly she did not know. All she could do was wait for her son, and the debt collectors who would surely follow.

The crisis in Ghana has revealed the perils of a high-stakes economic gamble, in which countless people have taken part in overseas investment projects endorsed by the Chinese government but have been left to fend for themselves when things go wrong.

Some of the problems facing residents here stem from the informal lending practices common among the rural poor. Lacking the hard assets banks usually require, many people leverage “guanxi” — the social collateral binding business and personal relationships in China — to secure loans from relatives and friends.

Based on trust and often little else, guanxi financing has devastated the villages and townships of Shanglin, whose residents are now bound not just by blood and sweat but by bankruptcy as well.

And the trust is sometimes misplaced. Early this month, a Chinese man in Ghana disappeared with millions of dollars that miners had given him to wire home. Ms. Shen’s son was one of the victims. Another was one of her neighbors, Yang Baofa, 52, who returned from Ghana two weeks ago with barely enough money to travel to his village. “We trusted him because he was Chinese,” he said of the missing man.

On the day Mr. Yang arrived, several of the men who had accompanied him back to China were stuck in the southern city of Guangzhou working construction jobs to earn the $40 needed to buy a long-distance bus ticket home.

The miners who have been trickling back to Shanglin since the violence began insist that they broke no Ghanaian laws. Taking a break from playing basketball across from his concrete house, Wu Jian, 34, a former mine owner, said he had made sure to get all the necessary paperwork in Ghana, including land deeds and a mining license. “The local people said as long as we had money we could do anything we want,” he said.

Last month, he fled, leaving behind an operation that he said was worth about $326,000. The money, he said glumly, was borrowed from friends, relatives and loan sharks.

“I went there because that’s what everyone else did,” he said. Despite his debts, he had no regrets about leaving Ghana. “Coming back wasn’t the right decision; it was the only option.”

Shanglin’s connection to the African gold mining project is widespread. “Everyone has a relative or friend in Ghana,” said Lan Xiongwen, 45, as he slurped some fish stew at a restaurant in the county seat.

When relatives took his son to the Ghanaian mines two years ago, Mr. Lan’s family invested $489,000 in excavating machines, paid for by plundering savings and getting bank loans. Back then it seemed like a smart move. With 980 tons of gold being exported to Shanglin annually, he said, residents figured it would be only a matter of time before they realized their dream: after paying off the loans, they would build a house and buy a car.

Mia Li contributed research.

Well, what a difference a few months and a larger pool of C.E.O.’s make. According to an updated analysis, the top 200 chief executives at public companies with at least $1 billion in revenue actually got a big raise last year, over all. The research, conducted for Sunday Business by Equilar Inc., the executive compensation analysis firm, found that the median 2012 pay package came in at $15.1 million — a leap of 16 percent from 2011. 

So much for the idea that shareholders were finally getting through to corporate boards on the topic of reining in pay.

At least the stock market returns generated by these companies last year exceeded the pay increases awarded to their chiefs. Still, at 19 percent in 2012, that median return was only three percentage points higher than the pay raise.

In other words, it’s still good to be king.

Because the data shows only chief executives’ pay, it does not reveal how good it still is to be a prince. Brian Foley, an independent compensation consultant in White Plains, pointed out that the 2012 compensation of the No. 2 executives at some of these companies would have vaulted them to the top ranks on the C.E.O. roster.

“The interesting thing is that there are people at these companies that make as much or more than other C.E.O.’s,” Mr. Foley said. “I’m sure it’s a case of ‘Look at what the C.E.O. has; I want more of that.’ “

Lawrence J. Ellison, founder and C.E.O. of Oracle, the software company, is a familiar face on the pay charts, and is ranked No. 1 this year. And had his two top lieutenants been included, they, too, would have landed among the top five on the list. Safra A. Catz, Oracle’s chief financial officer and co-president, and Mark V. Hurd, also a co-president, each received packages worth $52 million in 2012. (Mr. Hurd, you might remember, received severance of more than $12.2 million when he left Hewlett-Packard in 2010.)

As usual, cash pay for many of the managers pales next to the value of the stock and option grants they received. Median cash compensation was $5.3 million last year, while stock and option grants came in at $9 million.

Stock grants are clearly where the action is, and their value can really add up. Equilar’s analysis calculates the median value of stock holdings of these top C.E.O.’s at $51 million.

The trouble is, stock grants, which are supposed to create an incentive to improve a company’s performance, are also where pay excesses and disconnects arise, compensation consultants say. How these boards measure corporate performance can create pay problems by failing to align long-term incentives with shareholders’ interests.

This is a significant lapse, given how hefty the incentive awards of stock or options can be. Performance shares generally comprise at least 50 percent of a typical chief executive’s long-term incentive award, consultants say.

The median of combined stock and option awards last year for the 200 C.E.O.’s on the list was 60 percent of pay. But individual cases can be far larger. Mr. Ellison received $90.7 million in options in 2012, or 94 percent of his nearly $96.2 million in total pay. Over all, Mr. Ellison’s compensation was up 24 percent from last year; his shareholders’ returns, meanwhile, were negative 22 percent in the company’s fiscal year, which ended in May.

Mr. Ellison was hardly alone in receiving boatloads of stock in 2012. Among the five top C.E.O.’s receiving compensation packages that were at least double those of last year, stock and option awards — which can vest over several years — provided the major kick.

Those executives included Robert A. Kotick of Activision Blizzard, the software publishing company; James Q. Crowe of Level 3 Communications, the communications network company; and Mark G. Parker of Nike. Mr. Kotick received stock awards worth almost $56 million, or 86 percent of his total. Of Mr. Crowe’s $40.7 million in pay, stock and option grants amounted to $37 million, or 91 percent of the total. At Nike, Mr. Parker’s stock and option awards were 77 percent of his $35.2 million in compensation.

At least shareholders of Level 3 and Nike made money on their stocks in fiscal 2012 — a gain of 36 percent at Level 3 and 30 percent at Nike. Activision’s holders weren’t so fortunate: their company’s shares lost 12 percent.

Executives who choose to retire — or are forced to retire — often receive millions when they leave. And despite years of public outcry against such deals, multimillion-dollar severance packages are still common.

In 2012, the biggest package went to James J. Mulva, who stepped down as C.E.O. of ConocoPhillips after 10 years, according to an analysis by Equilar of the 10 largest exit packages. His total: about $156 million. As with all C.E.O.’s on the list, his exit sum is on top of salary, bonus and other compensation received while working for the company.

“We calculated severance pay as the total of any amounts given in connection with end of service as C.E.O.,” said Aaron Boyd, director of governance research at Equilar.

In Mr. Mulva’s case, much of the payout came from the market value of stock gains he received. But he also received payouts from a cash severance, a bonus and additional retirement distributions.

ConocoPhillips said that the pay packages were fully disclosed to shareholders and that they were “the same pension and benefits programs as described in the proxy statement as any other retiring executive.”

“The vast majority of Mulva’s compensation that he earned during his long and successful career as an executive remained in the form of company stock at his time of retirement,” Aftab Ahmed, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips, said in an e-mail.

Among Equilar’s top 10, four were former chief executives of large oil and gas companies, including Sunoco and the El Paso Corporation. “Typically you are seeing these big energy companies that tend to have these big payouts upon retirement,” Mr. Boyd said.

In some cases, retiring chief executives will continue to receive millions years after their retirement. In addition to his exit package of $46 million in 2012, Edward D. Breen, formerly the chief of the conglomerate Tyco International, received deferred shares, valued at $55.8 million, in 2013. Mr. Breen, who remains chairman, will also receive $30 million more as a lump-sum pension payment in 2016 as part of his employment agreement, Equilar said.

Brett Ludwig, a Tyco spokesman, said the company’s success “in large part results from key strategic decisions made by Mr. Breen and the Tyco board to create five new publicly held companies, each of which is a leader in its respective field,” adding that Mr. Breen’s pay “reflects the increase in value of Tyco’s shares.”

Other times, huge payouts go to executives as a result of takeovers. Douglas L. Foshee received millions after El Paso, the energy company he led, was taken over by Kinder Morgan.

Extreme exit packages for chief executives became more common during the hostile-takeover era of the 1980s, when the so-called golden parachute proliferated. Boards realized that without the promise of compensation, executives would be unwilling to negotiate deals to sell their companies if an outside takeover would force them into the unemployment line. Provisions were written into employment agreements that provided everything from lump-sum payments equivalent to several years’ worth of salary to extended health insurance benefits.

“They became larger in an era when executives were resistant to having companies sold and having new management come in and basically firing the C.E.O.,” said Mark Kennedy, an assistant professor at Imperial College Business School in London. “Nobody had any idea how big they would become.”

Professor Kennedy, a co-author of a paper about this practice with Peer C. Fiss of the University of Southern California and Gerald F. Davis of the University of Michigan, said that more than 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies had golden parachutes in place by 1990. Today, about 82 percent of the chiefs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies are entitled to some type of cash payment if they are replaced upon a change in control, according to GMI Ratings, a corporate governance firm.

Amid public anger over ballooning compensation, such contracts often became more complex and opaque. And many companies disputed that current severance payouts or enhanced retirement packages are really “golden parachutes,” designed to offer soft landings in the event of takeovers. However they are characterized, hefty packages for departing executives are still common.

“The main reform that I would like to see is not have severance agreements that are soft landings for executives who did a poor job,” Professor Kennedy said.

EVEN those forced out of the corner office can receive giant payouts. John R. Charman, the former chairman and chief executive of Axis Capital Holdings, an insurer and reinsurer based in Bermuda, received more than $26.5 million to walk away from the company, according to Equilar.

In an interview with a newspaper in Bermuda, Mr. Charman called his ouster from Axis Capital “an act of monumental betrayal.”

Axis said last year that he had been terminated as chairman “without cause” after the board could not resolve “differences with Mr. Charman over his understanding of the role and responsibilities of the chairman position.”

Mr. Charman became chairman and chief executive of Endurance Specialty Holdings, an insurer based in Bermuda, which gave him about $35 million in restricted stock as well as 800,000 stock options when he joined last month.

A spokeswoman for Endurance said in an e-mail that Mr. Charman would not comment for this article.

Shareholders are starting to push back against packages that may seem excessive. Proxy advisory firms have been suggesting that shareholders reject those that seem too generous, but such votes are generally nonbinding.

Laws like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 intended to try to claw back pay from executives when it was undeserved. But a 2011 study by Jesse M. Fried, a law professor at Harvard, and Nitzan Shilon, then a law student there, found that effective clawback policies were lacking at most S.& P. 500 companies.

“If you actually read what these policies say, they are not very robust,” Professor Fried said. “They all stem from the same basic problem: the directors are not paying with their own money.”

Some companies have renegotiated their goodbye packages with departing executives. Vikram S. Pandit, the former chief of Citigroup, who is not on the top 10 list, agreed to forfeit a $26.6 million “retention” package from 2011 after he was forced out in October. The bank said in its proxy that he “did not receive a severance payment or special treatment of his outstanding awards as part of his separation from Citi.”

But the board awarded him $6.7 million as a 2012 bonus, based on the performance of the company that year.

Dr. Doshi’s renown comes not from solving the puzzles of cancer or discovering the next blockbuster drug, but from pushing the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies to open their records to outsiders in an effort to better understand the benefits and potential harms of the drugs that billions of people take every day. Together with a band of far-flung researchers and activists, he is trying to unearth data from clinical trials — complex studies that last for years and often involve thousands of patients across many countries — and make it public.

The current system, the activists say, is one in which the meager details of clinical trials published in medical journals, often by authors with financial ties to the companies whose drugs they are writing about, is insufficient to the point of being misleading.

There is an underdog feel to this fight, with postdocs and academics flinging stones at well-fortified corporations. But they are making headway. Last fall, after prodding by Dr. Doshi and others, the drug giant GlaxoSmithKline announced that it would share detailed data from all global clinical trials conducted since 2007, a pledge it later expanded to all products dating to 2000. Though that data has not yet been produced, it would amount to more than 1,000 clinical trials involving more than 90 drugs, a remarkable first for a major drug maker.

The European Medicines Agency, which oversees drug approvals for the European Union, is considering a policy to make trial data public whenever a drug is approved. And on June 17, the medical world saw how valuable such transparency could be, as outside researchers published a review of a spinal treatment from the device maker Medtronic. The review, which concluded that the treatment was no better than an older one, relied on detailed data the company provided to the researchers.

For years, researchers have talked about the problem of publication bias, or selectively publishing results of trials. Concern about such bias gathered force in the 1990s and early 2000s, when researchers documented how, time and again, positive results were published while negative ones were not. Taken together, studies have shown that results of only about half of clinical trials make their way into medical journals.

Problems with data about high-profile drugs have led to scandals over the past decade, like one involving contentions that the number of heart attacks was underreported in research about the painkiller Vioxx. Another involved accusations of misleading data about links between the antidepressant Paxil and the risk of suicide among teenagers.

To those who have followed this issue for years, the moves toward openness are unfolding with surprising speed.

“This problem has been very well documented for at least three decades now in medicine, with no substantive fix,” said Dr. Ben Goldacre, a British author and an ally of Dr. Doshi. “Things have changed almost unimaginably fast over the past six months.”

Much of that change is happening because of what Dr. Goldacre calls an “accident of history.” In 2009, Dr. Doshi and his colleagues set out to answer a simple question about the anti-flu drug Tamiflu: Does it work? Resolving that question has been far harder than they ever envisioned, and, four years later, there is still no definitive answer. But the quest to determine Tamiflu’s efficacy transformed Dr. Doshi and others into activists for transparency — and turned the tables on drug makers. Until recently, the idea that companies should routinely hand over detailed data about their clinical trials might have sounded far-fetched. Now, the onus is on the industry to explain why it shouldn’t.

IN summer 2009, Dr. Doshi received a call from Dr. Tom Jefferson, a British epidemiologist based in Rome. That year, the swine flu pandemic was spreading worldwide, and Dr. Jefferson had been hired by the British and Australian governments to update an earlier review of Tamiflu, a drug produced by the Swiss company Roche, aimed at reducing the flu’s severity and preventing more serious complications. He asked if Dr. Doshi wanted to help.

Determining Tamiflu’s efficacy had significant economic as well as health consequences. Around the world, private companies and governments — including that of the United States — were stockpiling Tamiflu in case of influenza outbreaks, and their spending accounted for almost 60 percent of the drug’s $3 billion in sales in 2009.

The review of Tamiflu was being conducted under the auspices of the Cochrane Collaboration, a well-regarded network of independent researchers, including Dr. Jefferson, who evaluate medical treatments’ effectiveness by analyzing all available research.

At the time, Dr. Doshi knew little about clinical trials or even much about the drug industry. But he knew Dr. Jefferson. Dr. Doshi, after receiving undergraduate and master’s degrees in anthropology and East Asian studies from Brown and Harvard, had shifted focus and was pursuing a doctorate at M.I.T., studying the intersection of medicine and politics. He met Dr. Jefferson, a prominent skeptic of the flu vaccine, after researching whether the Centers for Disease Control was exaggerating the deadliness of the disease.

“We were both lone wolves in the field of influenza,” Dr. Doshi recalled.

Dr. Jefferson had conducted a Cochrane review of Tamiflu’s effectiveness a few years earlier, concluding that the drug reduced the risk of complications from the flu. He assured Dr. Doshi and other researchers on his team that the update would be fairly simple.

But just as their work was getting under way, a simple comment arrived on the Cochrane Web site that changed the course of the research and would ultimately fuel a worldwide effort to force drug companies to be more transparent.

The author of that comment, Dr. Keiji Hayashi, had no connection to the Cochrane group; he was a pediatrician in Japan who had prescribed Tamiflu to children in his practice, but had come to question its efficacy. He was curious about one of the main studies on which Dr. Jefferson had relied in his previous analysis. Called the Kaiser study, it pooled the results of 10 clinical trials. But Dr. Hayashi noticed that the results of only two of those trials had been fully published in medical journals. Given that details of eight trials were unknown, how could the researchers be certain of their conclusion that Tamiflu reduced risk of complications from flu?

“We should appraise the eight trials rigidly,” Dr. Hayashi wrote.

Fast-forward a few months. Flying surveillance cameras, also known as drones, are increasingly in the news. So are advances in facial-recognition technology. And wearable devices like Google Glass — which can be used to take photographs and videos and upload them to the Internet within seconds — are adding to the fervor. Then there are the disclosures of Edward Snowden, the fugitive former government contractor, about clandestine government surveillance.

It’s enough to make countersurveillance fashion as timely and pertinent as any seasonal trend, like midriff tops or wedge sneakers.

Adam Harvey, an artist and design professor at the School of Visual Arts and an early creator of stealth wear, acknowledges that countersurveillance clothing sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel.

“The science-fiction part has become a reality,” he said, “and there’s a growing need for products that offer privacy.”

Mr. Harvey exhibited a number of his stealth-wear designs and prototypes in an art show this year in London. His work includes a series of hoodies and cloaks that use reflective, metallic fabric — like the kind used in protective gear for firefighters — that he has repurposed to reduce a person’s thermal footprint. In theory, this limits one’s visibility to aerial surveillance vehicles employing heat-imaging cameras to track people on the ground.

He also developed a purse with extra-bright LEDs that can be activated when someone is taking unwanted pictures; the effect is to reduce an intrusive photograph to a washed-out blur. In addition, he created a guide for hairstyling and makeup application that might keep a camera from recognizing the person beneath the elaborate get-up. The technique is called CV Dazzle — a riff on “computer vision” and “dazzle,” a type of camouflage used during World War II to make it hard to detect the size and shape of warships.

Mr. Harvey isn’t the only one working on such products. The National Institute of Informatics in Japan has developed a visor outfitted with LEDs whose light isn’t visible to the wearer — but that would blind some camera sensors and blur the details of a wearer’s nose and eyes more effectively than a pair of sunglasses.

And Todd Blatt, a mechanical engineer in New York, is working on a lens-cap accessory for people who don’t want to be recorded while talking with someone who is wearing Google Glass. Instead of asking that the computer glasses be removed entirely, they could instead hand the wearer the lens covering. Presto. No taping or photographing would occur during the conversation.

Mr. Harvey likened his work and that of others to the invention of the rivet in denim jeans. “That was a practical way of making them more durable,” he said. Stealth wear, he said, is an “updated way of thinking about making your clothes more resistant to your environment and adapting them to protect you a little bit more.”

But these designers face a challenge: although technology has inspired some new fabrics and materials, high-tech fashion of any kind has yet to really take off.

There simply isn’t much of a market for tech-savvy haute couture, said Becky Stern, an artist and the director of wearable electronics at Adafruit Industries, a company in New York that sells do-it-yourself electronics kits. Ms. Stern noted that a few years ago, clothing embedded with illuminated lights was relatively popular, but that interest later “kind of fell off.”

Some of the most exciting experimentation is in the world of sports, she said, where athletic wear is being developed that can monitor a player’s vital signs. Such products are commercially viable, she said, and the technology could eventually migrate to clothing designed specifically to protect the privacy of its owner.

Jan Chipchase, executive creative director of global insights at Frog Design, says he sees tremendous potential for an eventual stealth-wear market. He described current prototypes as “provocations,” saying they raise “issues that are impacting our cities and public spaces that need more discussion and debate.”

Mr. Harvey’s items have not yet been thoroughly tested by intelligence firms or security experts. Most are still concepts, not ready for mass production. But he said he hoped that awareness of his designs might “empower you to control your identity a little more.”

AND the mere fact that such designs are attracting attention online could pave the way for development of a mass market, said Joanne McNeil, a writer who covers Internet culture.

On her blog “Internet of Dreams,” Ms. McNeil says that videos and mock-ups of not-yet-developed products, whether clothing or futuristic smartphones, are often popular online and may reflect the desires of a populace that larger corporations haven’t tapped.

“Dreams outpace physical realities,” she said.

In other words, even if stealth wear never becomes a viable or commercial reality, the newfound intrusiveness it responds to is genuine enough.

While studying mass communications at what was then San Jose State College, I wrote a story about a man who trained seals and whales at Marine World Africa USA, in Redwood Shores, Calif. The park’s vice president for marketing liked the article and offered me a job that turned into educating schoolchildren and others about the park, animals and nature.

A young staff member and I brought a llama, a falcon and an 80-pound lion cub to a mall one day, and she accidentally let the lion loose. He ran into the mall; I ran after him and found him nose to nose with a toddler in a stroller. I dove for the cub, grabbed him to my chest, and rolled away from the stroller. Luckily, that was the end of it.

I graduated with a degree in photojournalism in 1976. Afterward, I worked as chief photographer for The Longview Daily News in Washington State, then briefly in public relations and for The Associated Press. In 1978, I joined The San Jose Mercury News as its first picture editor and was promoted to managing editor 16 years later. In 1995, Knight Ridder, the paper’s parent company, appointed me as the first vice president for content of its online division, Knight Ridder Digital.

The group was like any Silicon Valley start-up at the time. We had terrific ideas but no business model. We tried publishing an early online magazine, but it was shuttered after 18 months. (The group eventually switched to providing online services through Real Cities, an online information network.) I returned to my job as managing editor at The Mercury News, a post that had been left open, and rose to executive editor in 1999.

A few years later, I started thinking about an encore career. In 2005, I joined the Environmental Defense Fund as executive director and had the chance to work in China and on corporate partnerships with companies including Wal-Mart. I was promoted to president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund in 2003. It was a great learning ground for someone new to nonprofits and environmentalism.

A recruiter contacted me in 2010 about the top position at the National Audubon Society, and I joined that August. My first challenge was to find a unifying message for the society. After a month in which I listened to staff members, chapter leaders and our international partners, a story emerged. Birds’ migratory routes are like four superhighways in the sky, and below them are their rest stops and homes. When you connect all these flyways and habitats, there’s a web of biodiversity, and it’s our job to protect that. I’m not a bird expert, but I’m skilled in figuring out a story. That vision became the basis of our new strategic plan.

We’ve improved our corporate functions, from I.T. to finance, and have engaged more fully with our 470 chapters. They’re our strength. We’re also experimenting with new ways to reach young people, as with apps and games. Two weeks after I started, I joined some chapter members on a birding trip down the Pascagoula River in Mississippi. I had new binoculars and was desperately looking for the birds I was hearing all around me. I saw four people farther down the boat holding their iPhones to the sky. All four were using apps of loud and melodious bird calls to try to attract birds.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.