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Jeffrey Hollender Shares Four Reasons He Got Fired from Seventh Generation

| Thursday June 9th, 2011 | 24 Comments

Jeffrey Hollender onstage with Gil Friend and Chip Conley shortly after his big announcement (photo courtesy Kate Drane)

Jeffrey Hollender took the stage at Sustainable Brands yesterday and he didn’t need a powepoint for the message he was going to deliver. It was time to come clean about his departure from Seventh Generation and he was not going to mince words:

“I was fired 6 months ago after 23 years and I was never allowed to set foot back in the company. I was fired because my view of the role Seventh Generation should play in society fell out fell out of step with the board’s view of the role.”

Despite being summarily dismissed from the CEO position and then the board, Hollender was not afraid to take responsibility for his role in his firing.

How did I fail? How did I get myself fired?

  • I didn’t institutionalize values in the corporate structure
  • I took too much money from the wrong people
  • I failed to give enough of the company to the employees who would have protected what we’d built
  • I failed to create a truly sustainable brand

Because these elements were not in place, Hollender lost power and was unable to maintain his vision for the company.

The first three bullets are words for the wise for any sustainable business entrepreneur. If Hollender had paid closer attention to bullet point number one, numbers two and three would have been irrelevant. Sustainable business owners would be wise to ensure that triple bottom line values are reflected in your corporate structure- either within the bylaws or through a sustainable corporate structure like the B-Corp.

The fourth bullet was more difficult to accept. Hollender elaborates:

Seventh Generation was never a sustainable brand, not even close. I struggle to find any truly sustainable brand, though I continue to look. The problem is that we’ve confused less bad with good. The fact that we make chlorine free paper towels with 100% post consumer waste doesn’t make the product good- it’s just less bad….

[Climate change is coming faster than we can imagine] All we’ve been able to do is tap lightly on the breaks of the car that is hurling towards the wall.

Given that Seventh Generation is one of the classic examples we point to of a company that truly has embedded sustainability into it’s core, it was difficult to hear Hollender admit failure. Of course, he’s right. A consumables company is never going to do more good than harm. But, we need cleaning products. What’s a sustainably minded person to do?

Hollender went on to paint a picture of a society that continues to become more divided between the haves and the have nots. It’s a story that will be familiar to most TriplePundit readers: corporate tax lobbyists have successfully pushed for the tax code to be so unfair that hedge fund managers have a lower tax burden than their secretaries and CEOs with responsibility for the financial meltdown receive million dollar payouts.

Luckily Hollender has an idea — his latest venture. Yes, it’s a bit cheeky to point to his next project as the golden ticket to solve the monstrous problem he laid out, but given Hollender’s 23 years at as a sustainable business leader and his willingness to speak honestly to a crowd of 300+ about his own failings, we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

The American Sustainable Business Council is Hollender’s counterpoint to the conservative US Chamber of Commerce . The idea is that economic prosperity does not have to be realized at the expense of society or environment. The ASBC currently has a membership of over 100,000 SMEs, and it uses their membership dues to lobby at the state and federal level on the following issues: financial reform, health care, chemical safety policy, climate change, broad-based economic development, and business taxes.

Hollender’s bold call to action in the face of his own personal struggle was powerful, yet I fear the audacity of his truth-telling might be so outrageous that it overtakes his advocacy for the ASBC. What do you think? Are you moved to join up?


▼▼▼      24 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Ross

    Hmmmmm. Are you sure he’s telling the truth?

    • Jen Boynton

      I don’t think he has any reason to lie, but I’m sure the other folks involved have a different perspective on what went down!

  • Ross

    Just seems that for action this severe it may be much more than that he did significantly worse than not instituting his wonderful values. I mean at the bottom of your article is another one about his/their amazing csr report…

    • Jen Boynton

      good point. After Hollender’s speech Chip Conley (from Joie de Vivre) said 7thGen will now be benefitting from the strong reputation that he built. The accusation was that now that they have the amazing reputation, maybe they don’t have to work so hard.

  • http://www.1bagatatime.com Lisa Foster

    Wow. How many other CEO’s or ex-CEO’s would be that honest? It’s refreshing and inspiring.

    I say, Go Jeffery!!

  • Bob Siegel

    Jeffrey, as a business leader, like the company he left behind, is indeed imperfect; but he’s as good as or better than just about anything or anyone else out there. One thing that he has done consistently throughout, is to tell the truth as he sees it, while at the same time, never losing sight of the big picture.

  • Dennis Tracz

    Burt’s Bees sold for almost a billion dollars rewarding investors and other constituents. The board at SeventhGeneration desired a similar outcome so they hired BB’s CEO. Even sustainable companies have to deliver for investors

    • Ross Patton

      And you don’t see anything wrong with that?

    • Paul

      Thanks for bringing up this point–my hunch is that this is the crux of the matter. Investors want their financial return, they want it now, and they’ll do what they need to in order to get it.

      There is an inherent tension between short term financial gain and longer term societal gain, and it’s not easy to walk.

  • http://greenmarketing.tv Skot Colacicco

    It’s easy to look back and see what mistakes were made, but it takes some real guts to admit that failure for public scrutiny.

    His admission of “doing less bad, instead of doing good” is a powerful one.

    Is it possible for any economy to survive on “doing good, instead of less bad”?

    It seems like our entire system has been thriving on the quick turnaround of so many products (disposability and designed obsolescence).

    What happens when we stop turning this wheel?

  • Glen

    Good article but did Hollender ever give his vision of what a sustainable business would be in his speech or if it would even be possible to have a truly sustainable business?

    • Jen Boynton

      not really- I think he may be burned out on industry in general. He was very focused on the “doing good” rather than “less harm.” I guess that means services and products that are totally renewable with no C02?

      • Del Ray

        Or maybe you miss the big picture. Look at his new venture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alejandro-Moreno-S/554617392 Alejandro Moreno S.

    Great example of taking response-ability and owning your dookie.

  • Rodney North

    I think Ross misunderstands what Hollender meant when he said that he failed to “institutionalize values in the corporate structure”.

    The Board did not fire him because they had wanted him to better institutionalize certain values. But rather the Board gradually become more and more $-focused, and therefore at odds with his vision, because he had not institutionalize certain values. Had he done so 7 Gen. would have had a different mix of owners, and Board members, who were in greater alignment with him.

    For all the ink spilled on CSR and sustainability, etc etc I continue to be surprised how little attention is given to this fundamental problem. B Corp has begun to change that some, but otherwise the best items ever written on this (to my knowledge) is an article by Marjorie Kelly “The Legacy Problem”
    http://www.esopbuilders.com/articles/the-legacy-problem.pdf
    . . .and a book by Jill Bamburg “Getting To Scale – Growing Your Business without Selling Out” http://tinyurl.com/3kvhcml

  • Rodney North

    By the way, at Equal Exchange both our mission as an organic, 100% Fair Trade food and beverage company AND our democratically-run workplace are protected because 25 years ago our founders decide to set up the company as a employee-owned worker co-operative. This structure, and other measures (like our “no exit” strategy) means that we have, in effect, tied our hands so that the company will never be sold.
    The M. Kelly article, and “Getting To Scale” discuss our model, but you can also read a brief description of it at http://www.equalexchange.coop/worker-owned/

    • http://www.PamelaB.com Pamela Biery

      This article presents a story, but it certainly appears that there is a deeper story which will be told by the Board’s future actions. It would be lovely to believe his exit was motivated by a corporate desire to do more good, it’s just that I don’t consider this a reality for one tiny instant.

      Excellent notion that we are shifting in degrees, doing things that are less bad, rather than responding to the science, which points to a need for serious action rather than a slightly ‘less-damaging consumerism’.

  • http://www.thestoryofmeaningfuluse.com Lavinia Weissman (@WECareHealth)

    My article that I mentioned in my previous comment here is not available at this link

    http://thestoryofmeaningfuluse.com/2011/06/14/can-sustainability-sustain/ and was applauded in a personal note from Chris Laszlo of Sustainable Value Partners early this morning.

    Jeffrey thanks again for what you think. You keep pushing the edge of the envelope for all of us.

  • Josh Gelfand

    From a branding perspective, I think he’s making a mistake calling it The American *Sustainable* Business Council. He’s already trapped it’s purpose within a stigmatized movement. If they are really pushing for sustainable integration he would be better served simply calling it the American Business Council (or something like that) and institutionalizing sustainability into the core values and mission, like he claimed he failed to do with 7th Gen.

  • http://www.valuestream2009.wordpress.com Dave Meyer

    I was in the audience at SB 11 and found Jeffs comments to be insightful, honest and relevant to a primary conference theme( embedded sustainability, transparency). In a session immediately preceding the one cited in the article (also in which Jeff participated) a questioner unfairly put Jeff on the spot to discuss “the past”, and he was decidedly uncomfortable in his initial response. He was better able to elaborate his ideas and candidly reflect on his dismissal in the second session. However, its been six months since Jeffs departure and its time for the discussion to move forward. Let Jeff get on with the business of the ASBC and stop with the retrospective…please!

  • Timothy Smith

    Jeffrey Hollender wants us to believe that he failed to “institutionalize values in the corporate structure” even though he authored several books and Seventh Generation was a founding B Corporation. Perhaps Hollender should have focused more on leadership responsibilities instead of distractions like speaking engagements and book tours if he wanted his path to include retaining control of the company he co-founded. It’s ironic that Hollender wrote a book titled “What Matters Most.”

  • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke

    I like how his quote points to the need for companies to continue to push the boundaries of innovation in sustainability. Keep innovating!

  • Joe McDurmont

    Seventh Generation is actually becoming just a marketing company. I recently was in China and saw that their products were manufacturing in China. Such a Shame. I googled BBs and found they were made in China too.

    • worried

      can someone please confirm this? this is a very strong accusation and if some of seventh generation products are now made in china i would not continue to support them. can someone verify this?