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Hell Hath Frozen Over: Seventh Generation Works with Walmart

| Tuesday February 17th, 2009 | 10 Comments


It’s official: 2009 is the beginning of a new era. Barack Obama is president, Detroit’s Big Three are on the verge of becoming the Little Two (and A Half?), and Seventh Generation – a brand synonymous with sustainable values – is doing business with Walmart. It’s no full-scale partnership – Seventh Generation products will be sold in just four pilot Walmart stores, under Walmart’s “Marketside” brand, as an experiment. But this relationship is meaningful and significant, to retailers and producers of both mainstream and green products.


First of all, it’s important to point out that Seventh Generation has a lot of questions and reservations about this partnership – Jeffrey Hollender, their CIP (“Chief Inspired Protagonist”), brings these up immediately on his official company blog. For instance: Walmart’s long history with poor workforce policies, and their general symbolism as American capitalism gone bad, are particularly relevant to Seventh Generation’s mission. One imagines that this relationship has a few heads shaking at Walmart too, as Seventh Generation’s image may seem (on the surface, at least) to be inconsistent with the identity of Walmart’s customer base.
But in this situation, both corporations were able to see beyond surface incompatibilities to identify a crucial strategic match. With a little digging, it’s easy to see why. Walmart has identified that further business growth – and long term business value – are impossible without a more sustainable world to do business in. Unless the world gets more sustainable fast, Walmart’s leadership expects environmental and social injustices to have increasingly hard impacts on their bottom line. Walmart is one of the few companies who are big enough to feel directly the macro effects of unsustainable practices, and they’ve wisely realized that bringing sustainable brands to the fore is one way to improve their business prospects in the future.
Surprisingly, the situation for Seventh Generation is similar. Although selling through Walmart may seem antithetical to their image, transitioning from a niche to mainstream product is very much in line with their core values. Seventh Generation’s name derives from Iroquois law, which dictates that present-day decisions should be informed by their impact on future generations. If Seventh Generation wants to make a real impact down the line, they must transition from the fringe to the mainstream. While Walmart may be an imperfect partner, they clearly are a non-negotiable hurdle to becoming a dominant industry player, not an also-ran.
So what’s the takeaway? There are a few. First, when companies think big about long-term growth and strategy, they may find themselves in partnerships with other players that they never expected. So don’t be surprised if taking a closer look at your strategic position means making some new friends. Second, existing market players are going to need to rethink their image and identity in light of a new emphasis on sustainable business. They will need to reach across the aisle, to market players that they thought of as enemies just a few years ago. This means that outsiders like Seventh Generation will need to soften their anti-establishment tune to avoid marginalization, and insiders like Walmart will have to learn to embrace those that seemed ahead of the mainstream so recently.
What other former enemies do you think should be working together? Which ones already are? Sound off in the comments!


▼▼▼      10 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Stensson

    You make the assertion that ‘if Seventh Generation wants to make a real impact down the line, they must transition from fringe to mainstream.’ Really? Have they not already had a positive impact in so many wasy (CSR reporting, corporate responsibility, the emergence of GreenWorks) while being a niche player? And why transition to mainstream? Why not mainstream transition to them?
    Lastly, what do you mean by suggesting that Walmart is ‘a non-negotiable hurdle to becoming a dominant industry player, not an also-ran?’ Is Seventh Generation an also-ran? I would argue that there is an abundance of folks from all demographics who embrace the brand. Also, why the emphasis on dominant? I have never purchased something because it was dominant. I have often purchased something because it was the best. Look at our current economic collapse to see the beauty of dominant (sarcasm).
    Seventh Generation can do as they wish. I only hope that don’t ‘transition to mainstream.’ And I hope they focus on being the best versus ‘dominant.’

  • Dirk P’Laur

    Stensson – I think that’s a valid statement. But maybe what’s really intended, and what’ really happening is that “mainstream” is shifting more towards Seventh Generation – and that can’t be bad!

  • dwinokur

    Stensson — you make some excellent points! While I don’t think that it detracts from my overall thesis, your point that 7th Gen has had a huge positive impact already is absolutely valid. They’ve been pioneers in sustainable business, and served as an inspirational model to many other players. As you point out, many in the mainstream are transitioning towards their practices.
    Ultimately, it seems to me that the question becomes more one of speed. We can wait for the mainstream players to gradually adopt 7th Gen’s practices, or we can urge companies like 7th Gen to displace the old and become the new mainstream. Because of my concern about how much time we (humanity) have to turn it all around, I’m in favor of the fastest option.
    To me, the quickest solution appears to be having 7th Gen grow quickly and become the new mainstream. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise …

  • White Rhino

    hey you guys, love the ideas. dwinokur, where I sit, if your impulse is to move humanity fast, I would try to push you to see the present form called mainstream as a form in need of upgrading/evolving. Not sure nature has a mainstream as there are so many contributaries that feed each stream – until we see whole systems – until we hold that in our every deliberation we are creating well being for the next seventh generation, fast only resigns us to a system that is inefficient – ohhh to move us all to see WHOLES and Preferred States – the critical path from there become obvious. White Rhino

  • dbruce

    Seventh Generation has an opportunity to scale up its sustainability impact by working with the giant. I think that is pretty good risk to take for the world. So Stensson’s comments appear to be more about wishing to remain a fringe consumer for identity purposes. Seventh Generation has a core mission that they are keen to adhere to. It is appropriate to be cautious with Wal*Mart given their past. But moving to main stream is not the problem, it is the solution.

  • http://www.mountainfarm.net Gabriel

    Well thought out, Winokur, and an interesting quandary for sure. Can we continue to fight against the obvious “evils” of a company like Walmart when they have the exposure base to legitimize and push a product line with obvious “goods?” At what point will we be forced to recognize the permanence of the mega-store and focus our energies into molding it instead of fighting it. Another curious iteration of this is WalMart’s role in health care, offering prescription medicines cheaper than the copay on most insurance policies (if one even has insurance).
    Of course, one of the dangers here is that I would go to WalMart for 7th G. sundries and come home with: a digital camera, greeting cards, halloween candy, and a slip-n-slide.
    Thought you might enjoy this short article about the growth of 7th G. prior to the WalMart deal – they were doing pretty well.
    http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/04win/sevgen1.asp

  • Sharon

    I certainly agree with your position on the importance of the time it may take to negotiate a possible marriage between seventh generation and walmart. If Walmart has the majority of mainstream consumers, why not hone in on that population with marketing that appeals to them, and simultaneously offer products which are made with a mindful and conscious eye toward our rapidly declining environment.
    Go for it Seventh Generation!

  • Sharon

    I certainly agree with your position on the importance of the time it may take to negotiate a possible marriage between seventh generation and walmart. If Walmart has the majority of mainstream consumers, why not hone in on that population with marketing that appeals to them, and simultaneously offer products which are made with a mindful and conscious eye toward our rapidly declining environment.
    Go for it Seventh Generation!

  • Sharon

    I certainly agree with your position on the importance of the time it may take to negotiate a possible marriage between seventh generation and walmart. If Walmart has the majority of mainstream consumers, why not hone in on that population with marketing that appeals to them, and simultaneously offer products which are made with a mindful and conscious eye toward our rapidly declining environment.
    Go for it Seventh Generation!

  • Bob

    Oh dear, come on people it’s all a PR exercise for Seventh Generation. Walmart are probably not a great company but at least you get what’s written on the tin with them. Seventh Generation is a PR machine that only rubbished Walmart because it was in their interests to do so. I think I prefer Walmart, at least you know what you’re getting with them. Do you know who runs Seventh Generation? A load of poxy bankers. Really, it’s all a con. Wake up dudes.