Jeffrey Hollender is the man. Period. After the audience at the “Making Green From Green: Corporate Environmental Sustainability” panel listened captively to the Chief Sustainability Officers from Pepsico and CA speak about all of the wonderfully sustainable measures their companies have been taking, Mr. Hollender, the “Chief Inspired Protagonist” at Seventh Generation, stood up and confessed that “Seventh Generation doesn’t have a sustainability program”…and then audaciously proclaimed that he’d like to speak, instead, about his company’s various sustainability FAILURES because much to the host committee (Columbia Business School Alumni Club)’s dismay, “business is the biggest sustainability problem.” Wow.
That was a pretty bold entrance, but the real beauty of this discussion was that each of the “expert” sustainability panelists had such different perspectives on the topic itself . This is what makes corporate sustainability so interesting and so...elusive, all at once. At CA, the information technology powerhouse, sustainability is spearheaded by a strategist, who aims to reduce both the cost of the company’s technology and the environmental impact of their operations. At Pepsico, the CSO (an ecologist by training) works to reduce the company’s waste and impact. Both had very impressive statistics in their powerpoint presentations, illustrating their company’s numerous feats in the sustainability realm. But then the final panelist, Jeff Hollender, approached the podium. Hollender, a career entrepreneur, apologized that his CSO wouldn’t be at the evening’s discussion… Why? Well he doesn’t have one, of course! Every SINGLE one of his employees fills that role. Every single employee strives to ideate and create in the most sustainable way possible. So, instead of focusing on Seventh Generation’s many sustainability feats, like the panelists before him, Hollender accounted for all of Seventh Generation’s sustainability failures.
Seventh Generation’s “failures” also interest and concern me most. They’re many of the same issues I’ve covered in past posts. For instance, people see the value in non-toxic products for their kids, but still aren’t grasping the immense value for themselves... It’s been difficult to encourage people to see the short and long term health value in becoming an educated consumer. And of course, the current lack of uniform certification and regulation of products in the U.S. doesn’t help things at all. There are probably over a hundred certification labels used in this country, and this causes both confusion among consumers and aggravation among marketers of truly healthy selections. In order to deal with this issue, Seventh Generation has forgone using any labeling certification whatsoever, and has focused time and resources instead on education…education…education. Given the relatively small size of the company, it's already implemented a whole lot of GOOD by doing this.For obvious reasons, people don’t generally trust the "education" they receive from businesses. But Seventh Generation is taking a unique approach - an education on values, not products - and they have had a large (“Seventh Generation Nation” is over 350,000 people) and successful (profits have grown 30% a year for the past ten years) outcome already. Remember the Million Baby Crawl to Washington? That was certainly the most unique consumer education I’ve ever witnessed! The company has also paired with Kaplan, and established the Sustainability Institute, a training program that teaches their specific values to companies. They are instrumental with the American Sustainable Business Council in DC, where they try to help small and medium sized sustainable businesses develop a presence in Washington. Finally, they (well, Hollender and Bill Breen) have even written a book on the next generation of business, called The Responsibility Revolution. Not surprisingly, these are only a few examples of their GOOD! Yet, Seventh Generation’s products are still really only popular among fairly affluent and educated consumers. The real failure is not being able to reach EVERYONE.
As Hollender mentioned, many businesses have the mentality that they “can be bad because they’re good”. This is where a sustainability department might come into play. Think of an uber-conglomerate, for instance, that includes cheap preservatives and chemicals in their products which are PROVEN carcinogens, and have been banned in the European Union and elsewhere. Chances are, this company also gives money to health research....but does that make what they are doing okay? Is it okay to improperly dispose of your company's waste, and then give money to a conservation fund? It just doesn’t make sense.
Regardless, as you could probably already tell, I found this discussion incredibly interesting. If you're intrested too, be sure to check out one of the three seminars left, which are hosted in New York by the Sustainability Committee of the Columbia Business School Alumni Club. The series is called Making Green from Green, and the next event, “Is Investing in Green Truly Profitable?” will be TONIGHT!