by Cameron Woodworth
This article was originally published in July 2004
(July 2004) — Jeffrey Hollender has written the book on corporate and environmental responsibility. Literally. As CEO of Vermont-based Seventh Generation — the nation’s leading manufacturer of eco-friendly household products — he recently co-wrote “What Matters Most: How a Small Group of Pioneers is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Business is Listening.”
For the past few months, Hollender has been traveling the country talking about the corporate responsibility movement.
“After spending over a year writing, researching and interviewing leaders at numerous companies, I came to a conclusion I never expected — that business is changing and that there is tremendous reason for optimism because business really has taken these challenges to heart,” Hollender says.
“I’m not talking about just the usual group of responsible businesses like Patagonia and Working Assets, but companies like Chiquita, Intel and Toyota who, often quietly, have become leaders in this whole new way of doing business. Businesses have not just come to the conclusion that they don’t want to end up like Enron, they have actually engaged in very fundamental processes of change — even though it’s often not fast enough or deep enough for everyone’s satisfaction.”
Seventh Generation certainly has set a standard for corporate social and environmental responsibility. The company’s very name stems from the Native American belief that we must consider the impact of all our decisions on the next seven generations. In 1999, Time magazine selected the company as a “Hero for the Planet.”
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
— From the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy
Seventh Generation’s products include recycled and chlorine-free paper towels, bathroom and facial tissue, napkins and paper plates; natural formula baby wipes; biodegradable and phosphate-free cleaning and laundry products; plastic trash bags made from 80 percent recycled plastic; full-spectrum light bulbs, and more.
Recently, Seventh Generation developed the Food Freshness System, a product that extends the shelf life of produce in refrigerators. Seventh Generation’s products are never tested on animals.
Beyond environmentally responsible products, Seventh Generation focuses on consumer education (both the company’s products and Web site contain ample environmental information), social and environmental campaigning, and supporting community organizations and environmental non-profits.
The company also puts out an excellent and informative monthly newsletter via email, the Non-Toxic Times, provides health coverage for unmarried and same-sex partners, and offers flextime and telecommuting.
The company boasts that between 1988 and 2003 purchases of Seventh Generation products saved 343,600 trees, enough landfill space to fill 920 garbage trucks, enough petroleum to heat and cool 80,000 U.S. homes for a year, and enough water to supply 1,000 families of four for one year.
Earlier this year, Seventh Generation completed a 54-page corporate responsibility report and posted it on its Web site (www.seventhgeneration.com).
“Seventh Generation is far from perfect, and a core part of corporate responsibility is being open about our failures and shortcomings,” Hollender says. “We do practice a whole variety of techniques to help ensure that we behave in a manner in keeping with our values — it all starts with those values. Developing a culture that both understands and is committed to those values is essential. Articulating behaviors consistent with those values and creating benchmarks to monitor our behavior against our values is a discipline we are just learning to master.”