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Vermont Small Businesses Stay Sustainable Amid Crisis

3p Contributor | Monday August 10th, 2009 | 0 Comments

vermont_roadsignBy Makenna Goodman, Chelsea Green Publishing

Vermont has a long history of birthing sustainable businesses. Perhaps it’s because of values seeping in from rural farms who still operate outside of the corporate world, or perhaps it’s because of local laws like the one forbidding billboards on highways (which undoubtedly stimulates smaller-scale marketing.) Whatever it may be, there are some notable companies born in Vermont that create a sustainable product, and maintain those values in their workplace to boot. What keeps them in business? What makes them successful, while still maintaining a sustainable value system? Nothing’s perfect, of course, but these guys set the bar pretty darn high.

In Montpelier, Vermont’s capital city, the local government is taking action in terms of supporting local businesses. The Montpelier Downtown Community Association started a “late summer hours” program, along with local storekeepers, as a way to stimulate not just the local economy, but ensure local business owners maximize their opportunity to get customers (especially tourists, and those in 9 to 5 crowd who may only have time to shop at night). It’s an example of the local economy working alongside local business to keep them afloat, not a Darwinian ideal of survival of the fittest—it’s based in ideas of community building. Both the local economy and the local businesses will benefit, one as a result of the other.

According to Richard Seireeni, author of The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Green Brands, Seventh Generation (founded in Burlington in the 1990s) has become a top green brand because of these ideals: Its CEO thinks generations ahead. It arrived to the market early. It targets the appropriate niche, and it connects its product to a social mission. It leads a culture of change starting with the home, and promotes healthy living. It eschews big ad campaigns and opts for a more educationally centered way to gain publicity. And more, Seireeni writes:

Seventh Generation, founded by Jeffrey Hollender in the early 1990s, has ridden to success on the green wave of eco-awareness. Today this family of products is the dominant brand in the much coveted and hotly contested green household cleaning and personal care market.

…Rather than compete directly with giants like Procter & Gamble with a huge advertising budget Seventh Generation doesn’t have, Jeffrey Hollender has utilized connections within the green community…His earliest marketing efforts targeted the green-aware, a then tiny group of people willing to listen to his message and pass it on to others. He sought out technical partners and environmental experts, who helped him design a line of products that would be effective, eco-friendly alternatives to standard household cleaners and that would pass muster with the scientific community.

…Hollender is passionate, driven, and uncompromising. He is the model of what you might call the type A version of an eco-business CEO. “You can’t ever be complacent around here,” says Seventh Generation’s director of education, Susan Johnson. “Jeffrey pushes hard.” At the same time, “it’s amazing when you have a president of a company who is just so one of the crowd,” says Stephanie Lowe, director of human resources, noting that Hollender’s office is housed in an open cubicle no different from all the others. Hollender’s egalitarianism is just part of his inspirational appeal. “You can tell when he’s speaking from a place of real meaning for him,” Lowe continues, explaining that Hollender is extremely adept at moving audiences, whether consumers or employees, and that this has had a lot to do with building the Seventh Generation name.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are loads more green businesses that combine profit with sustainability–which proves that not only can it be done, but it can last amidst the rising competition of corporatized brands seeking to dominate the market, and swallow it whole.

Check out Richard Seireeni’s book on Green Businesses here.


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