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Radical Transparency: Seventh Gen’s Hollender Puts His Money on the Truth

RP Siegel | Thursday July 29th, 2010 | 0 Comments

It says something about our current state of affairs in business and government when someone in a position of responsibility makes news for telling the truth, but there you have it. But then Seventh Generation’s Jeffrey Hollender doesn’t just tell ordinary truths either. Jeffrey, the company’s Chief Inspired Protagonist (they don’t have a CEO) is the kind of guy who makes you realize that we will never run out of frontier, because as long as there are pioneers like him, there will always be new frontiers.

Jeffrey’s frontier has been sustainability for as long as I’ve known of him, and probably a lot longer than that, only he sometimes gives it different names, like the Eskimos do with snow. He spoke at the World Innovation Forum in NY last month and this segment of his talk was posted on YouTube, which by today’s definition makes it news. In this segment, he speaks of “radical transparency,” perhaps one of the less obvious names for sustainability, but the connection is there since life experience teaches us that the truth is far easier to sustain than a lie. Many of these issues are discussed in Hollender’s book The Responsibility Revolution.

In the clip Jeffrey tells the story of how several years ago, he posted a list on the company’s website of all the things wrong with their products and how they fell short of what the company was, and still is, trying to achieve in terms of their focus, which is to “restore the environment, inspire conscious consumption and create a just and equitable world.” The list included things like packaging that they felt represented a compromise or certain ingredients that would have preferred to do without but couldn’t.  Alarmed by this breach of ordinary business protocol, his sales manager, fretted that this level of candor would quickly be exploited by their competitors which would adversely impact their sales. As predicted, competitors did flood their customers with copies of these online confessions. But the big surprise was that after the customers looked over the list, they asked to competitors who had so eagerly shared this information with them, to now share their own list. And since, in every case, the competitors’ lists were worse than Seventh Generation’s list, most of them were not willing to share theirs and thus no harm was done. If anything, Seventh Generation’s customer loyalty became even stronger. The bottom line, according to Hollender is that, “you can’t judge your own level of sustainability or responsibility, you can only be judged by others.”

This lines up perfectly with the Five Leadership Lessons to be learned from the BP spill that I laid out in an earlier post, particularly Lesson 1 which states: Have Nothing to Hide.

This is followed by: Tell the Truth, Be Humble and Contrite (when you make a mistake), Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help, and Understand the True Meaning of National Security.

These are all things that Jeffrey understands implicitly, even the last one. For even though you may not think that dish soap and toilet paper have anything to do with national security, think again. To be sustainable is to be secure. There are people in the Pentagon who understand this. They just don’t know how to get from where they are to here.

Perhaps it’s up to people like Jeffrey, and us, to show them.

RP Siegel is coauthor of Vapor Trails the eco-thriller about an oil spill, and the system that caused it. Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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