A Q&A With Seventh Generation's Jeffrey Hollender

How its "Chief Inspired Protagonist" hopes to make an environment-friendly company even more so

Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of household products company Seventh Generation, is certain business can save the environment, if not the world. The 111-employee, $150 million Burlington (Vt.) company recently named PepsiCo veteran Chuck Maniscalco as its new CEO, But the 54-year-old Hollender, who didn't take a salary for more than a decade after starting the company in 1988, will remain as Chief Inspired Protagonist. Hollender spoke with Staff Writer Amy S. Choi about sustainability, bad business, and good government. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Q: What is the mission of Seventh Generation?

A: Seventh Generation stands for sustainability in a broader sense than just the environment. Issues of equity, justice, and education are all equally important because in a world filled with injustice and inequity we will never have real sustainability.

Q: How can a consumer products company save the world?

A: One way is by being an example of what's possible and showing other companies that you can be successful while adhering to a much higher moral standard than businesses are usually held to. The broader impact we have is through education and raising people's consciousness about the impact of the decisions they make. We can help through the products we sell and the way we do business. Our demand for sustainable palm oil, for example, has helped change how the palm oil industry works, and there are now better jobs, better health care, and better environmental stewardship at small farms that we use.

Q: Isn't there an inherent conflict in promoting environmental sustainability and selling consumer products?

A: Everything that Seventh Generation sells on a net basis has a negative effect on the environment. Our products are less bad than others, but they're not good. I have a tremendous conflict about that, and it is our goal as a company to sell products that are positive, not less negative. So far we have failed to do that. So our challenge is to figure out how to leave the world a better place. We are brutally aware of our shortcomings.

Q: How do you go from just less negative to good?

A: Our work using sustainable palm oil is a good example, because if you purchase one of our products, you are contributing to a whole positive systemic set of activities that is truly making the world a better place. That doesn't mean we're not creating waste at the same time, but it is an example of how we're improving.

Q: How do you market to lower-income groups that aren't as active in the green movement?

A: You have to make it very relevant to their life and family. For example, in San Francisco, we partner with WAGES (Women's Action to Gain Economic Security), which helps low-income Hispanic women build cooperatively owned cleaning services with natural cleaning products. It addresses our concerns about social and economic injustice and also increases awareness of the toxicity of cleaning products.

Q: What's next?

A: Hiring our new CEO allows me to spend the vast majority of my time speaking and writing. I'm increasingly involved politically because I believe that's something that we haven't done enough of.

Q: Ever think about running for public office?

A: I do. But my wife doesn't like that idea.

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