I recently had the opportunity to interview Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder and former CEO of Seventh Generation for our ongoing small business sustainability strategy series on GreenBusinessOwner.com. Mr. Hollender’s trademark transparency and candid style offer a viewpoint on social entrepreneurship, the trials and tribulations of founding a mission-driven company (including ceding control to a Board of Directors), the state of the green economy, the growing collaboration between the labor movement and the sustainability movement, how to implement radical transparency, his new book, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s rampant anti-progress policies.
As a quick aside, Mr. Hollender has long been an inspiration to me and many others like me, and I am truly honored that Mr. Hollender has agreed to give some inspiration and insight to aspiring green business owners at our free upcoming web class, “Introduction to Green Entrepreneurship!”
Triple Pundit: Obviously, the world has changed quite a bit since you founded Seventh Generation. Pioneers such as yourself early on saw the need for a sustainable economy, but has the pace of change and adoption of a sustainable ethic by corporations surprised you at all?
Jeffrey Hollender: There are two sides to the coin in answering this. 20 years ago, the language of green products and a green economy and sustainable business just didn’t exist. The good news is that these issues were outside the consciousness of business 20 years ago. Businesses these days, especially those that cater to consumers, have responsibility, ethics, and sustainability as top of mind issues. Retailers like Wal-Mart, who wouldn’t have considered this 20 years ago, are now selling green products. These are all good things.
The flip side is that, to a large extent, we don’t have a lot of standards on what ‘green’ is. It makes it hard for companies that are doing a lot to be competitive with companies that are doing a little…standing out is more difficult because of a lack of standards. Also, we’re far from a position where we’re making substantial progress on larger issues like global warming, social inequities. Problems are still getting worse.
So the question is “what will it take to get more significant solutions to impact our overall economy?” How do we get to a point where there’s sufficient capital to help startups that are creating green jobs and green products, and how, from a regulatory perspective, can we stop encouraging companies to do the wrong thing.
3p: There have been a number of high-profile sell-offs of sustainable innovators such as Ben & Jerry’s, Aveda, Odwalla, etc. Seventh Generation remains independent. Can you tell us a little bit about how you think about the tradeoff of potentially wider distribution versus a dilution in brand and values?
JH: There is limited opportunity and huge challenges in scaling progressive, responsible business. It’s very difficult for those companies to remain independent. When Ben & Jerry’s was sold, Ben raised capital to try to purchase the company away from Unilever, but he couldn’t raise enough money. Unilever just had too much on the table. That’s a structural challenge in the marketplace.
If you were to make a chart of the 100 leading responsible brands in the last decade, probably 95 of those have been sold to large companies. I don’t think that’s a good trend. The challenge is that these companies are the real innovators, the ones pioneering new ways of doing business…that process gets cut off, to some degree, when the company is sold. I am deeply concerned about that process and that trend. Seventh Generation, when it was under my leadership, which it no longer is, was very committed to keeping it independent for all those reasons. Increased sales and a larger distribution network is only one way you would measure the positive impact of selling out to a large company. The other questions you need to ask include: is the rate of innovation proceeding at the same pace as it was in the past? What is the impact on employees? Are they treated as well as they used to be? What happens to the innovative practices like Ben & Jerry’s commitment to pay equity? These policies tend to cease when bigger companies buy these smaller innovators.
3p: Seventh Generation has gone in a new direction in terms of leadership. How do you feel about how the company is progressing after your departure?
JH: I’d feel better about it if the transition had happened differently. Being fired from the company you founded is hard for any entrepreneur/founder to deal with. If I had a piece of advice for entrepreneurs, I’d say, “don’t give up control.” And if you do, do it in a thoughtful, methodical fashion.
3p: Your new book, Planet Home, is coming out this month. Care to provide a preview?
JH: What makes Planet Home different is, aside from the fact that I’ve spent as long as anyone thinking about the question of green consuming and how to do it in an effective, intelligent, and pleasurable way, is that the book introduces a framework of thinking about a green consumer in a systems-based fashion. Instead of looking at, for instance, whether you should or shouldn’t buy organic chicken, it explores the system of eating, including the process of how you prepare that chicken–are you using cleaning chemicals on the cutting board on which you’re preparing that chicken, and thereby counteracting your desire to keep chemicals out of your food? So it is more holistic, perhaps than some of the other green guides out there.
Greater consumer awareness also helps to try to increase pressure from consumers for more green products. Because we’re not going to get to that green economy without more pressure from consumers.
This is an excerpt from the 1.5 hour long interview. Read the full-length interview here.