Jeffrey Hollender’s talk on Tuesday at NYU probably wasn’t listed on Time Out NY, but nevertheless it was one of the best shows the city provided that night. Hollender, an almost impossible combination of a CEO and a rebel, is never boring no matter how many times you get to hear him. Combining gloomy economic and social observations with funny anecdotes, he managed to charm the dozens of students that packed the room, sending them home afterwards with some interesting stories to think about and many more questions to keep them awake at night.
This was a very interactive talk, starting with Hollender challenging the audience to name a good product. One answer he got was clothes made by Patagonia, which got him to a) admit he’s wearing a Patagonia shirt and b) explain that his shirt, as well as other Patagonia products are better, but not good. It’s hard to think of products that are actually good, he said and added that it’s time to start designing products that are good and not less bad. He added that even at Seventh Generation they make better products, but not good products, which I guess explains why this vision of “good” products with little or no impact at all is most likely to stay an unfulfilled vision in the near future.
Hollender’s dissatisfaction with incremental improvements was also obvious when he talked about corporate social responsibility (CSR). He explained that while we made progress in this field, it’s not enough. The problem, he explained, is the lack of standards and that there is no definition of what responsible is. This is probably why every S&P 500 company CEO thinks his company is responsible or sustainable, he added, while this is far from being true in most cases.
Which companies does Hollender see as role models? He gave couple of interesting examples. When it comes to leadership, he admires Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, who unlike most CEOs is thinking long term. Hollender mentioned both Unilever’s plan to halve its carbon footprint by 2020, as well as what Polman famously said to shareholders: “If you buy into this long-term value-creation model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us. If you don’t buy into this, I respect you as a human being, but don’t put your money in our company.” He also gave kudos to Triodos Bank, a European bank with the great slogan – more green, less greed. Triodos invests in organic and fair trade food, alternative energy, non-speculative housing, and micro-enterprise, and manages to generate better returns than its global peers.
Yet, these examples, according to Hollender, are the exception. Most companies act differently – they are writing the rules in the way that fits them and helps them to generate more profit and pay fewer taxes. He called the Court’s Citizens United decision one of the worst decisions of the Supreme Court. He called out GE, which enjoys a reputation of a greener company because of Ecomagination, yet works to rewrite the way companies pay taxes to minimize its own taxes, claiming later on that it’s OK because they don’t do anything illegal.
Hollender says that this sort of behavior is not only making problems like inequality worse, but is also jeopardizing the positive reputation business has for now. The problem with the system, Hollender pointed out, is that it financially incentivizes the wrong behavior. The solution, he said, is to build a new system within the old system. He gave Vermont as an example of such a new system that is rising, offering many innovative programs that are based on local solutions, from hospitals that buy mainly local food to energy CSA.
In a way, Hollender’s opinions are very European, and I mean that as a compliment. His ideas about getting the U.S. economy back on the right track include tax increases on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, elimination of the tax deduction on second homes, better access to capital-to-worker-owned companies, mandating a minimum of 50 percent representation of women on boards, public funding for all elections, carbon tax and federal investment in education and R&D. Interestingly, some of his ideas affect Hollender himself, as he’s a wealthy man. The audience was interested in knowing if he walks the talk. They asked him if he voluntarily pays more tax than he needs to right now, and if he took the tax deduction on his second home. His replies were no (he prefers to give more to specific issues) and yes, he thinks he did get the deduction.
Staying on a personal level, the audience was interested in what recommendations Hollender has for those who want to take action effectively. His suggestion was to focus on two things – making big commitments in your career and voting with your wallet. He admitted it’s easier said than done, mentioning his struggle to buy fewer books on Amazon and more at his local bookstore. In addition he tried to make the case not just for sustainability but also for asking the right questions and taking a holistic perspective. Hollender is convinced that if we’ll adopt these practices, we can create more good than bad and make the future better. The young students could only hope he’s right. After all, this is their future he was talking about.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.