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Lonnie Shekhtman headshot

Seventh Generation Founder Jeffrey Hollender Develops Sustainable Condoms

Twenty years ago, Jeffrey Hollender trademarked the name “Rainforest Rubbers” with the idea that he would produce a condom made of rubber harvested in the Amazon. Instead he co-founded and ran Seventh Generation, a now ubiquitous line of natural cleaning and personal care products.

In 2010, a year after Hollender stepped down as CEO and served as the company’s executive chairman, Seventh Generation’s board of directors cut his ties with the company.

When Hollender became a free agent, he decided to revisit his condom dream, now planning to launch an organic and Fair Trade line of rubbers by the end of the year, he reported recently in a presentation at SOCAP:Soul, held at MIT.

“Condoms are incredibly important for health reasons, but because the product is a good and important product and serves a critical function, people have not asked the question of ‘Where did it come from and how is it made?’” said Hollender on a recent phone call from India, where he was working on the supply chain for the new business.

So where does the latex for condoms come from and how is it made? Latex is the sap of the rubber tree, Hollender explained. Like maple syrup, latex runs into a container through a small incision in the side of the rubber tree. The tree itself originated in Brazil, but there are almost no rubber plantations left there anymore. They’re now in Africa and Asia, having been brought there by the British in the 19th century.

Needless to say, there are many issues with latex production that Hollender is trying to address. One is the significant amount of child labor, plus health and sanitation issues on and around the plantations, explained Hollander. And on the environmental and human health side, rubber plantations use pesticides and ammonia, which is employed to clean latex and keep it from gelling during processing.

No one so far has been able to come up with an alternative to the ammonia problem, nor the formation of a carcinogenic byproduct of the vulcanization process, which uses sulfur to make the rubber less sticky and more durable in heat and cold.

But Hollender is on the case. His new venture is shaping up to be an impressive example of a truly holistic approach to sustainable business.

He plans to locate the manufacturing of condoms and latex sourcing in India, he said, the only country where one can find plantations that are certified organic and Fair Trade. In fact, on his recent India trip, he was scouting a latex plantation that’s certified Fair Trade, organic, and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), for responsible forest management.

“The sustainability movement that I’ve been part of has in many cases overlooked critical issues like labor, which are to me as critical for sustainability as environmental issues,” Hollender said. “This project for me is about creating a model of what the next generation of responsible business needs to be. That’s a journey I started 20 years ago with Seventh Generation that needs to be completed.”

The virtuous condoms will be launched in the U.S. with a yet-undetermined name by the parent company Hollender Sustainable Brands, which will be a certified B corporation. Hollender said he’s raising money now and expects to have $3 million by the end of June.

He intends to sell the condoms through various channels, but mostly online, and to market primarily to women, since they purchase 40 percent of all condoms, Hollender said.

Concurrently, his wife, Sheila, is launching a new nonprofit, 10%4Women, which will divert 10 percent of the company’s sales to women’s healthcare issues in the U.S. Her organization is modeled on 1% for the Planet, a nonprofit founded by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, that encourages businesses to donate one percent of their sales to environmental groups.

For more on sustainable business, follow Lonnie on Twitter: @kuurlyq.

[image credit: jeffreyhollender.com]

Lonnie Shekhtman headshotLonnie Shekhtman

Lonnie Shekhtman is a Massachusetts-based writer covering sustainable business, food systems, social enterprises and impact investing. Stay in touch by following Lonnie on Twitter: @kuurlyq.

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