SOCAP11: Jeffrey Hollender on his Encore to Seventh Generation

Jeff Hollender, co-founder Commonwise, co-foudner & former CEO, Seventh GenerationJeffrey Hollender co-founded Seventh Generation Inc., the country’s largest distributor of non-toxic, all natural cleaning, paper and personal care products. Seventh Generation pioneered a new category of cleaning products, growing exponentially as it’s primary retail partner, Whole Foods, ascended. He served as CEO and Executive Chair until his abrupt departure last year. Hollender is also the co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council and a member of the board of directors of Greenpeace USA, Verite, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Health Fund. Yesterday, he spoke to a SOCAP 2011 audience about lessons learned from his Seventh Generation experience and what he plans to do next.

Heather King reports from SOCAP 11 the following as told by Jeffrey Hollender:

I’ve had a year since I’ve left Seventh Generation – plenty of time to sit on a beach, surf as much as I want, and to think about what I’ve learned and what I want to do next.

Here are some of the lessons from my Seventh Generation chapter:

1. ‘Less bad’ does not mean it’s good. There’s a lot of focus and investment these days in products that are ‘less bad’. But ‘less bad’ is not going to get us where we need to be in terms of saving this planet. We need to focus more on products that are truly good, and stop settling for products that are less bad.

2. Our economic paradigm is faulty. I think a lot about who is truly benefiting from our enterprises. Even well intended businesses like Seventh Generation are embedded in a culture that creates inequity. The fact that we capped our highest salaries at 17 times the lowest was not going to fix that. The problem is bigger; we have a societal structure that is designed to concentrate wealth.

3. Wanted: Governance for green business. The world of green lacks corporate governance. Governance is essential to ensure promises are delivered and the lofty missions are fulfilled.

4. Renegade efforts are not enough to change the system. As I reflect on the past 25 years, my conclusions are harsh. We were an exception to the rules. But being an exception to the rules was not enough to generate sweeping change. The current business climate maintains a status quo and discourages disruption. Its critical that we develop systemic solutions – such as the Sustainable Business Council is working to cultivate.

So what’s next?

I’ve found inspiration in a Cleveland, Ohio based model: The Evergreen Cooperatives. Evergreen is pioneering innovative models of job creation, wealth building, and sustainability. Evergreen’s employee-owned, for-profit companies are based locally and hire locally. Their goal is to create meaningful green jobs and keep precious financial resources within our community. I see this as core to building truly sustainable communities.

Our new project – Commonwise – aspires to evolve the concept of Evergreen. We want to build and scale a model that exists and is representative of the system solution we feel is needed. This time, we won’t be the exception to the rule, we’ll change the rules. “We’ll displace the bad [system] by bringing in the good.”

Heather King

Heather is President of kingconsulting, a leading strategy consulting practice focused on sustainability, clean tech, and green tech. Heather has over 30 years experience working with pioneering technology, consumer, B2B companies and international non-profits - including Apple, Microsoft, Disney. Oracle, Ogilvy, Waste Management, Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Day in the Life, and multiple start ups. She serves on the boards of Trust for Conservation Innovation, a fiscal sponsor and incubator for over two dozen environmental non-profits, and the Presidio Graduate School, the leading MBA/MPA program focused on sustainability.

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