Tapping Deganawidah’s Wisdom: An Interview with 'Seventh Generation' Cofounder Jeffrey Hollender
Monday, 15 April 2013 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Interview

Jeffrey Hollender photo courtesy of Jeffrey HollenderJeffrey Hollender’s title is Chief Inspired Protagonist, or CIP. He is cofounder of Seventh Generation, one of North America’s most trusted brands of environmentally and socially responsible household products. But the products that occupy half an isle of shelving in every natural grocery in the US and Canada are actually the offspring of a line of energy-conservation products once available only from Jeffrey’s mail-order catalog, Renew America. Seventh Generation is now the leading and fastest-growing brand of natural products for the home, and the leading authority on issues related to making a positive difference in the health of the planet and its inhabitants through our everyday choices.

Yet it wasn’t Jeffrey’s background in leading enterprises that monitored the triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) that led him to broaden safer consumer choices for everyday people. It was his son’s asthma attack that drove his mission home. When a leading asthma specialist confirmed that the cause of asthma is primarily environmental and the cure includes mattress covers to confine dust mites, no carpeting and nontoxic cleaner, his mission for Seventh Generation became even clearer.

Jeffrey runs the blog Inspired Protagonist and speaks internationally at sustainability gatherings. He has authored several books, including The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win.

EcoHearth: Why did you choose the name “Seventh Generation” for your brand?

Jeffrey Hollender: When we were looking for a name for our new company back in 1988, a Native American employee shared with us these eloquent words from the Huron elder Deganawidah: “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” They seemed to say it all. Somehow, in the simplest of sentences, they brought perfect clarity to the ultimate truth behind our work, the knowledge that the environment is only temporarily entrusted to us and that our actions within and upon it affect its well-being far into the future. From these words, we drew the name Seventh Generation, one that reflected not only our philosophy, but our dream of restoring and forever protecting the Earth for our children and all who will follow in their path.

EH: What other native principles inspire your product development?

JH: The appreciation and connection to nature and the understanding that we are a small part of a much larger system.

EH: Didn’t Paul Hawken observe over 15 years ago in his book, The Ecology of Commerce, that nontoxic manufacturing and closed industrial loops, as well as caring for your workers, actually increases profits? How is that possible, and why do most industries have trouble grasping that?

JH: Yes, Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, was one among numerous books that articulated the principles of nontoxic manufacturing. Unfortunately, we live in an economy that actually incentivizes business to continue to do the wrong things by encouraging them to externalize their costs. While consumers are making better choices, without full cost accounting, toxic products will remain cheaper while nontoxic products will be more expensive.

EH: You have admitted that Seventh Generation has had setbacks in making your company fully responsible, both socially and environmentally. What were some obstacles and how have you worked to overcome them?

JH: No business, Seventh Generation included, is totally socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable. That’s primarily because our products are “less bad” than other products, but still not “good” from a holistic, life cycle perspective. Our packaging creates waste even though we use recycled materials; our products create water pollution and CO2 emissions when they are produced.

EH: Though most of your paper products come from 100% recycled paper, paper still comes from trees. Does Seventh Generation concern itself with whether forests are being regenerated faster than they’re being depleted?

JH: In almost every case when we use virgin fiber, we use fiber that comes from sustainably managed forests.

EH: Does Seventh Generation occupy a niche in disposable products only, or have you ever thought about expanding your product line to include non-disposables, like organic cotton diapers and washable napkins and feminine products?

JH: Yes, it’s something we have been evaluating and may do in the next 24 months.

EH: To what extent are you able to source raw materials for your products locally? Which materials do you have to source from afar?

JH: There is no manufacturing in Vermont, but tissue paper made in Montreal for example, uses waste paper locally collected in the Montreal area. But the palm oil we use comes from Indonesia.

EH: You either partner with or cofounded some initiatives that have had far-reaching impacts on socially and environmentally responsible businesses, like San Francisco’s Women's Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES), a worker-owned, eco-friendly, residential cleaning cooperative, and Project Laundry List. Tell us about the Sustainability Institute.

JH: Seventh Generation has been on the leading edge of sustainability for over two decades, and now we’re wading even deeper into the environmental imperative with the most exciting educational initiative in our history. Last month we launched the Kaplan/Seventh Generation Sustainability Institute, an online learning program designed to teach the strategic integration of sustainability to businesses and their employees.

The Sustainability Institute provides an online library of courses, covering such topics as Sustainability 101, Sustainable Supply Chain and Greenhouse Gas Management as well as a series of ten video teaching modules designed to promote ongoing learning via topics that range from Developing a Sustainability Mindset to Being Transparent.

Seventh Generation is thrilled to be partnering with Kaplan EduNeering, a pioneer in online learning. Given our goal of transforming the way America does business, online courses will be offered for as little as $45 for a small business and $10 per employee for larger companies.

EH: What was the impetus for your book, The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win, and what do you hope its effect will be?

JH: The corporate responsibility movement has come to be defined by:

  • Too little, too late
  • Too much incremental change and little revolutionary change
  • Greenwashing and cause-marketing designed to distract consumers from deeper problems
  • The absence of transparency, standards and measurements
  • Too much “less bad” and not enough “truly good” and
  • A world where we celebrate donations to support breast cancer research by companies that make the very chemicals suspected of causing cancer.

This must change. The Responsibility Revolution is my contribution to a more radical approach to leveraging the power of business in service of what the world really needs.

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