By Mark Kobzik
Jeffrey Hollender has been in the sustainability business for last 30 years, helping to found two companies in Vermont. In 1987 along with Alan Newman, he co-founded Seventh Generation, a pioneer firm in the environmentally sustainable cleaning and household product industry. Hollender was CEO of Seventh Generation until 2010, when he was let go by the board of directors. Since then, he and his daughter, Meika, have started another eco-friendly company, Sustain Natural, focusing on women’s reproductive health products.
Hollender, who lives in Charlotte, recently sat down to discuss Vermont, climate change, business philosophy and more. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Question: Going back to a 2010 interview, you were talking about how sustaining the planet isn’t enough, it’s about renewing the Earth. Do you think this is still the right perspective – that we shouldn’t just be sustaining?
Hollender: I think when we think about sustainability over the last 20 or 30 years the primary focus has been less CO2 omissions, less water pollution, less waste; and unfortunately, we’ve reached a point in the evolution of humanity, evolution of our planet, where we’re doing less bad stuff that is still going to leave us in a bad place. And to successfully live on the planet with the billions of people that are here and the billions more to come, we have to have a different model and we have to have a model where business leaves the world better than it was.
Question: How do you reconcile capitalism and the environment?
Hollender: I have deep concerns about the way in which we practice capitalism. I’m not sure if we have to get rid of capitalism, but we certainly can’t afford to practice capitalism the way we have and continue to do so. We’ve designed the way in which we practice capitalism so that it is cost effective for businesses to pollute and destroy the environment.
Question: What needs to happen in Vermont to grow business?
Hollender: There’s no capital to build these companies locally. We need capital. We need access to capital… We need a whole economic strategy that supports responsible business in Vermont to create new businesses and opportunities for all the young people who come to college here who would like to stay if they could find a decent job.
Question: Where did the idea for Sustain Natural come from?
Hollender: The idea for Sustain was to create a fair-trade, vegan, non-GMO, not tested on animals, forest-friendly condom that was marketed to women with a message that basically said, don’t depend upon the guy. You take the responsibility for your sexual wellness and sexual well-being. The wonderful thing about condoms is not only do they deal with STDs and AIDS, but they also help women manage the size of their family. That has a positive effect on the environment. Here we’re looking at affecting climate change, affecting health, the well-being of the rubber tappers by doing fair trade, we’re looking at less-toxic products. The goal was to create a positive effect on all parts of the system, not just a single attribute.
Question: What advice do you give younger people in the area who see the potential in Vermont, but also face dilemmas?
Hollender: On the positive side of the equation, now is the best time to start a sustainable business. There’s more interest, demand, consumers and there’s more capital looking to invest in these kinds of companies. If you think about the companies that have been very successful in Vermont, they focused on a national market. I think there’s tremendous opportunity in Vermont especially if you market the products and services you have, outside the state. Particularly, Sustain sells 80 percent of its products through e-commerce to people all over the United States. Vermont, despite where it’s located, is a fantastic place to have an e-commerce business. It doesn’t matter that there’s only 600,000 people in Vermont; you have 300 million people you can market to in the United States, if not also Canada, Mexico and the rest of the world. E-commerce opens the door for you to sell products outside the state. I think one of the things we need to do is build up our knowledge of e-commerce so that we can cultivate those types of businesses.
Question: How was Seventh Generation able to get consumers to spend more money on products that were eco-friendly?
Hollender: I think Seventh Generation was successful for a couple of reasons. We were very authentic and that was highly unusual in the world in which we do business…. they said “Here’s what we’re trying to do. We do some stuff really well and some stuff not so well and we’re committed to doing better, let us know how we’re doing.” It was a very different conversation. Second thing, was that Seventh Generation was not just about what’s good for you. Seventh Generation was committed to having you make the world a better place when you bought their products. So we gave 10 percent of profits away to environmental organizations… I think that people liked and felt good about buying our products. Sustain Natural is just the same way. When we introduced our tampons nine months ago, we asked our customers to join us in fighting against a tax on tampons in 35 states that makes tampons too expensive for low-income people and that luxury tax makes it impossible for them to use food stamps to buy tampons which creates a real problem for low-income people. So we introduced a product with a purpose that is much bigger than the benefit that you get as an individual… Lots of people want to sell a better product, not everyone wants to make a difference in the world.
Question: Do you think Seventh Generation has kept up with that promise?
Hollender: Absolutely. I’ve been thrilled with the way Unilever has come in as an owner of the company in the last year. They’ve been deeply committed to Seventh Generation’s sustainability and social mission and if anything will expand the positive impact the company can have on a global basis in a way Seventh Generation wouldn’t have been likely to do on their own.
Question: Do you think it’s good timing for Sustain Natural to come along in this political landscape, especially in terms of women’s health?
Hollender: We’ve entered the marketplace at a time where there is so much negative influence on women’s healthcare. Women are more aware than they’ve ever been about the importance of maintaining access to services. I think while it’s terrible that we have a federal government that is fighting against women’s access to reproductive healthcare, it is good timing for a business dealing with those issues.
Question: What’s one country you went to and brought back the most knowledge?
Hollender: Probably Costa Rica. They’ve made huge investments in education, which they can do because they’re the only country in the world that has no army or military force. They basically said, “We’re not spending our money on that. We’re going to spend our money on education and the environment.” And they’ve created a country that has terrific education and healthcare and is 80 percent powered by alternative energy. It’s a very, very special place and it’s a model for what the world could be like, especially this notion of not investing in the military. One of the reasons our economy is not able to invest in education, not able to provide healthcare to all its citizens, is that we spend so much money on the military.
Question: Do you think there are parallels between Costa Rica and Vermont?
Hollender: I do think there are parallels. I think there are a lot [of] similarities. Unfortunately, Vermont can’t decide to not fund the military. It would be great if we could because that would add like 30 percent to our budget that we could use to invest in healthcare and education.