Well Made

Ep. 88 Taking Responsibility with Jeffrey Hollender

July 10, 2019 · RSS · Apple Podcasts

Jeffrey Hollender co-founded Seventh Generation on a mission to create home products that are better for the planet. He co-founded Sustain Natural (with his daughter Meika) to make sex and wellness products that are healthier for women and the planet. But now, he says his product making days are over. 

Now, Jeffrey spends most of his time as a professor at NYU, the co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council, and a writer. His career path has been one of a steady zooming out. He started by facing the sustainability challenges of specific industries and products, and now he's working to fix the fundamental systems that are holding companies and consumers back. Jeffrey believes that systems thinking is invaluable, transparency is key in creating trust, and sometimes doing things the old way is best. 

“Systems thinking is invaluable because it teaches us to anticipate the unintended consequences.”

Sustain Natural co-founders: Jeffrey Hollender and his daughter Meika Hollender. Taking Responsibility

Sustain Natural co-founders: Jeffrey Hollender and his daughter Meika Hollender.

In this episode of Well Made, Jeffrey starts at the beginning, sharing a bit about the teachers that put him on the path of sustainability advocacy (1:17). He talks about how education can create a fundamental shift in how we think about sustainability and how it impacted his kids’ firsthand (11:30). In his decades as a leader, Jeffrey has realized the importance of being a generalist. He shares how he prefers the generalist mentality over the specialist (12:07). Company culture was a huge focus on Jeffrey’s growth as a leader. He shares the importance of transparency and culture when building a business that’s good for people and the planet (19:31). He talks about the how systems thinking is not only a sustainable choice, but a competitive one (34:27). Jeffrey shares how he and his daughter Meika started Sustain (38:26). And finally, he talks about how he started working with Ben & Jerrys and the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (47:07). Full transcript below. 

Also mentioned on the show:

Follow Jeffrey on Twitter.


Stephan Ango: You're listening to Well Made, a podcast from Lumi about the people and ideas behind your favorite online brands. I'm your host Stephan Ango. Jeffrey Hollander, welcome to the show.

Jeffrey Hollander: Happy to be here.

Stephan: So our listeners might be familiar with you as the father of another guest. Mika Hollander was on the show on episode 65 with her company Sustain, which you co-founded. You've got quite an amazing career. I've been kind of digging into your whole background. You're the CEO of the American Sustainability Business Council. You are the founder of Seventh Generation. You've been on the board of Green Peace. You've written quite a few books when you're at a party or something and someone says, what do you do? How do you answer that question?

Jeffrey: It sort of depends on the crowd, but one of the primary ways that I identify myself as is as a professor at NYU of social entrepreneurship and as the CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council. Sometimes I still use my affiliation with Seventh generation, which is not over because I'm still serving on the board of the company, so I'm still affiliated with Seventh Generation as well.

Stephan: We'll sort of touch on a little bit of everything. What I really would like to go deeper on kind of as a meta-theme is we've got a lot of founders and people who work within ecommerce and direct to consumer businesses. A lot of them are looking at embedding principles of sustainability and responsibility into their companies. And this is something that you've done basically since the very beginning. And I was curious, what are some of the early influences, people, teachers, books, things that you know very early on, kind of gave you those principles that you wanted to embed into the different companies you've started?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean I read a wonderful book early on in my days at Seventh Generation called Value Shift by a Harvard professor called Lynn Sharp Pain. It was the sort of the first time that I read something and I sort of said, gee, that's what I'm trying to do. And in many ways she sort of helped formalize what had been in many respects, a sort of informal pursuit. The other thing that was very sort of significant in my career was my membership in the social venture network. There was a group of entrepreneurs including Ben Cohen from Ben & Jerry's, Anita Roddick from The Body Shop, Josh Mailman who was the founder and several others sort of socially progressive companies. And we were all trying to do similar things. None of us knew exactly what we were doing. There was no roadmap, there was no manual, but collectively we provided each other some terrific advice and suggestions and learned from each other's mistakes. And that organization, which is now called Social Venture Circle and is based in San Francisco, was a critical source of inspiration, advice, help, support as we really figured out what it meant to be a socially responsible, sustainable business.

Stephan: I want to go even further back. In my research about Seventh Generation I found a lot of interesting parallels between your company and Ben & Jerry's, which I want to explore some more. It sounds like maybe this social venture network had something to do with it. But what are your earliest memories of whether your parents or other people in your family or people that you look up to like earlier in your childhood maybe or high school years or something?

Jeffrey: Yeah. I had some teachers in high school. One of them was a wonderful man named Wilson Allen, who was a teacher of mine in fifth grade who I stayed friends with until he passed away about five years ago. I had some well known mentors, R.D. Laing, Marshall McLuhan. Both are people that I studied with at various points in my life. But one of the biggest things that helped formulate my life was the experience I had demonstrating against the Vietnam War. I was about 16 when the war started and I found myself in parks in New York and in Washington DC. I was so drawn to the notion that we need to stand up and be counted when the government does something that we don't believe in. And that experience was one that really has carried through the rest of my life and sort of driven me to feel like that I had an obligation. That we have an obligation to not be sort of passive participants in society. That we need to really all be activists. We all need to stand up for and live our lives with the values that we believe in and hopefully those values will lead us to lives of meaning and purpose.

Stephan: I was listening to a podcast, a great podcast called After On by Rob Reed where he was talking about a phenomenon that happens where too quickly people go from denial to despair when it comes to issues, especially around climate change and sustainability. And I think what you're talking about is so important that people remain optimistic that they can actually change things. How do you embed that into society?

Jeffrey: Well, I think one of the ways I do that and it's probably the most satisfying thing I do is through teaching. I can't responsibly stand in front of my students and scare the hell out of them. So they are paralyzed and disempowered. Given all I know, there is plenty of reason to have deep concern about where society is and where it's headed. But yet if I just share that concern and despair, I will really disempowered my students from participating in the way that I'm hoping they will. And so even though I think it's highly likely that we will experience more and more pain and suffering because of things like climate change and because of the social inequity that has become so pronounced in our society, particularly in the United States. We have to remember that we all have a responsibility to mitigate the pain that is going to be inflicted on others. And everything that we can do that will improve the lives of both humans and nonhumans is our responsibility from my perspective as human beings.

Stephan: So you've approached this mission from the aspect of teaching, writing books, building coalitions, nonprofits, for-profits. How do you compare those different pathways and what their strengths and weaknesses are? I mean, that's a big question, but where do you think people can have the most impact or how can they do it?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean, you're right. I have tried many, many things and you know, that includes as a board member of Greenpeace getting arrested a bunch of times.

Stephan: We'll have to get it to that.

Jeffrey: You know, as I've gotten older and I've become a little bit more reflective, I have sort of begun to think about where the acupuncture points that will lead to systemic change. And I think that that's an important concept because we often tackle complicated, interrelated issues by focusing on a single aspect of a problem. So I'm reading a book by a guy named Derek Jensen, and one of the stories that he wrote for Orion magazine is that we're not going to solve climate change by taking shorter showers. And yes, we should take shorter showers, but we need to remember that that's not going to prevent climate change from getting worse and we have to take a much more systemic perspective. We have to understand the economy which supports climate change. We have to understand the public policy and the rules and regulations that have basically provided billions if not trillions of dollars of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. And we have to think about the underlying drivers. I mean, if we don't have a price on carbon, we're basically encouraging companies and individuals to externalize the costs of that impact onto society. And I know I'm getting a little bit heady and complex here, but it's all in the pursuit of this incredibly important discipline called "systems thinking" so that we understand the unintended consequences of our actions and our policies.

Stephan: How do you think for-profit versus nonprofit entities can push the boundaries of the system? Because there are natural incentives that for-profit companies have. Obviously, they're trying to make a profit if they end up getting investors or going public. There are certain market pressures that go along with that. What are those types of entities able to influence versus what are other entities able to influence?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean the biggest thing that for profit companies influence that is the most consequential in my opinion is public policy. We have for the last 30 to 40 years created public policy that encourages businesses to maximize their profits and it concentrates wealth. And we can't just rely on the individual actions we take as companies. You know, making our packaging more recyclable, making it more sustainable. Yes, that's great. But we have to deal with the fundamental problem that we don't have a recycling infrastructure that works in this country. We don't have incentives that financially encourage companies to do the right thing from a sustainability perspective. And we have designed a system that produces climate change. We have to redesign that system and it's a very complex system. But unless we understand the system that we have let be designed mostly unwittingly, we can't attack such complex important problems. If that makes sense.

Stephan: Yeah, absolutely. And I've heard you say that two things that kind of seem related. One is that you would start teaching systems thinking at the earliest age. And also you've mentioned elsewhere the influence from a book called Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Who talked a little bit about how education can be reformed to maybe involve more of that systems thinking. If you were to try to rethink the education system at kind of maybe on the early education part of it, what are some of the values and principles that you would try to teach?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean I was really influenced. I sent all three of my children to a Rudolph Steiner Waldorf school and I am very proud of how my kids have turned out. And I think that that education was really critical in the way in which they developed their values and those values that were really, really important in Waldorf education were a sense of we versus me. A sense that by focusing too much on what I want, what I'm hoping for, what is important to me, we really don't build a sense of community and compassion and develop as a priority. Taking care and being responsible for other people. And the Waldorf education also took kids outside every day. Even if it was 20 degrees below zero. They were walking in the woods. And that contact and that experience with nature gave them a reverence and appreciation for nature as something that they are needing to protect and deal with in a responsible way. So that was really important. And of course we've talked about, as you mentioned, the importance of systems thinking. And also, you know, one of the things that I think is dangerous in our society is that we learn in school to become specialists. And in that specialization we lose the understanding of how we are connected to the rest of society and nature and the universe. That's a dangerous thing. We need to break down those silos so that we are able to understand the interconnectedness of the world, not just our little niche that we occupy.

Stephan: That's such a great point. I've been reading a book called Range by David Epstein. Have you seen that book?

Jeffrey: I haven't. What is it about?

Stephan: You have to read this book. It just came out probably a few weeks ago. It's called Why Generalist Triumphant in Specialized World. It's coming a little bit from more of a sports angle, but talking about how various athletes oftentimes in their early age explore a lot of different sports and that those athletes that do tend to become better than those who are more specialized at an early age. But it sort of takes that idea and expands it beyond to cover generalist versus specialist mindset as a whole. And it's more of a business book, it's kind of like a Malcolm Gladwell type of book. But, I found it actually very emotional for me because I've always tended towards more of a generalist mindset and kind of thinking about cross-pollination as a very important thing. But always having this question in my mind of what happened if I had pursued more of a specialist approach and I find it to be something that is underrepresented in education for sure. I liked the idea of being t-shaped. Can you take a little bit of an understanding of many things and then a deeper understanding of two or three things and how do those two or three things cross pollinate to give you a very unique understanding of the world that maybe nobody else has?

Jeffrey: Sounds wonderful.

Stephan: I don't know if you were to kind of think about your super powers or your areas where you have a unique combination of knowledge, what would those be?

Jeffrey: Well, I think certainly some of the things that I have gone deep into is first of all, sustainability as understood as both social and environmental. So one of the things that's been really important to me is to look at the social dimension of sustainability alongside the environmental dimension to understand how they're interrelated and need to be mutually supportive. And then I have sort of overlaid that on the notion of corporate responsibility and really have focused pretty deeply on the relationship between sustainability and corporate responsibility. But I too am a generalist. So I know a bit about marketing, I know a bit about sales. I think in many respects to be a leader of a business requires you to be a generalist, requires you to be able to relate to lots of people, lots of disciplines and to be able to sort of hear people who are very focused often in a particular area of work and be able to relate to them and add value to them even though you might not know much about the specifics of what they're doing. And that's an interesting talent that I think is really critical for CEOs.

Stephan: I wonder if that talent helps with embedding the principles into an organization. Let's say Seventh Generation, which you know now is making hundreds of millions of dollars but employs many people. How do you allow the organization to represent and embody the principles that you put into it at the beginning once you're less involved or are not able to like interact with every single person?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean I think it's a lot about the culture of the company. I mean ultimately you have to instill certain habits and practices in a culture and you have to develop advocates for that culture. One of the things that was always really important that Seventh Generation and at Sustain is that the staff felt comfortable challenging me and their management about decisions that were being made. And in many companies that's totally taboo. You know, you don't challenge the CEO openly and publicly about a decision that he or she is made or thinking about making. And yet that was one of the traits that was critical to our culture. And in many ways it was our community that was the keeper of that culture. It couldn't be me. It couldn't be imposed by me or maintained by me. If that understanding of our values and our purpose was not deeply and broadly held, we would never have been as I think as successful as we were and are in creating the kind of culture that built tremendous loyalty among our customers and our suppliers and our investors. That also is closely related to this sense of authenticity. That we were who we said we were and we were really clear about who we are was aspirational and we weren't achieving it yet and we were still falling short. I mean this whole issue of transparency is a hot topic today and I think many people misunderstand what transparency should be about because transparency isn't about disclosing what you want to share with others. From my perspective, transparency is really about fulfilling the needs that others have for information about you and you don't necessarily become the one who decides what to share. It's really what's required of you to build trust amongst the other person and companies are terrible at doing that. Companies love to talk about how great they are and how wonderful they are and all the good things they're doing. And they're scared terribly to talk about where they're falling short and what they're doing wrong and where they haven't fulfilled their goals, their mission. And it's that honesty to talk about where you're good, bad, and ugly. That really builds that trust in that loyalty that I think creates extraordinary companies and wonderful brands.

Stephan: When you talk about developing the culture that can build that, what is the system that you created for that? Is it, you know, hiring the right people? If so, what are the things that you were looking for in order to bring on the right people? Is it the different incentives that you created within the company? Let's just take Seventh Generation as an example?

Jeffrey: Yeah. It's all those things in more, I mean, there's no question that it's critical who you hire, but it's also critical how you hire them and what your employee handbook says. I mean, one of the interesting things that seems like a silly little arcane legal fact is that in Vermont we have what's called at-will employment, which means you can fire someone at any time for any reason. And we disavowed ourselves of that privilege because we said that law doesn't describe the type of relationship we want to have with our employees. So it's job descriptions, it's compensation, it's benefits and incentives. It's how you celebrate holidays, it's people sharing food together. It's creating a culture where it's expected that the people in that culture are committed to their own growth in their own development, which is really important for senior managers because senior managers often think that they're successful because of what they know and what they've accomplished. And they don't really often understand that they have tremendous opportunity and there's a tremendous need for them to continue to grow and continue to develop. So, I think there's probably 30 or 40 different factors that primarily contribute to building that culture. And then it has to change over time because of what worked when you had 10 people doesn't work when you have a hundred or a thousand people. So the other thing that is interesting and challenging about culture is that it's in constant change and the culture needs to be a learning and adaptive culture that grows and reflects on what's working and what's not working and changes as the company evolves and grows.

Stephan: Can you describe more about those changes? What becomes harder or different once you hit a hundred or a thousand people?

Jeffrey: Well, certainly the role that you play as a leader changes. There was a time when it became really clear to me that I had to stop doing and spend more time leading and inspiring and developing and coaching. And it was really hard to give up the doing because the doing was really sort of fulfilling because I had written something or I had published something. You know, if you think about a sailboat, a big sailboat that has 20 or 30 people on it or an orchestra, you become the orchestra leader rather than playing any of the instruments. And that was a big and challenging evolution that I went through. I also realized how much my own feelings and outlook on a day-to-day basis impacted the company. If I looked worried or concerned or afraid, I would contribute to creating those feelings throughout the company. They would say, "God, if Jeffrey is so upset there must be something wrong". And that was a hard thing to learn too. That in some ways I couldn't be as transparent in the way that I used to be at the company because sometimes that behavior would be misinterpreted. But it's all sort of a growing process. One of my favorite, if not my favorite books, is a book that I wrote called In Our Every Deliberation Seven Generations Journey Towards Corporate Consciousness. And that book really sort of documents that journey to becoming a sort of developmental organization. And it really talks about the journey we went through that sort of came from this belief that if we wanted to grow the company, we had to grow the people working at the company. We couldn't buy that. We had to develop it ourselves.

Stephan: We have a lot of listeners who are working on building their own companies and especially in the ecommerce and director consumer space art. Are there thoughts or ideas that you have for them about how to choose and embed the principles at an early stage that will set them on the right trajectory as they scale?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think there's definitely a sequence to what you do when, and I would say probably in the early stages of the company. You can't do all the things you can do at a later stage. Early on, I think you have to get really clear about your purpose and the effect and the impact you want to have as a business on society and your customers. You really have to think deeply about the product or service that you want to offer because one of the pitfalls that I find many companies fall into is that they create products that are less bad rather than products that are good and creating good products is a hard thing to do. Much of what we have done at Seventh Generation is about less bad. And it's a hard thing to come to terms with because I love seventh generation products. I think they're absolutely terrific. And yet anytime you use laundry detergent, you're polluting water, you're consuming energy, you're contributing to CO2. Even if you have a cold water vegetable-based, nontoxic, biodegradable cleaning product, you're still having a negative effect. And you know, one of the things that I learned was that the majority of the negative effect of most consumer products is in the consumer's use of that product. So you can't just create the product, you have to then take responsibility and understand how the consumers' use of that product impacts our society and the environment. Another area that's critical is who you hire. Because I think that sometimes we get obsessed with people who have skills and talents that we think we need. And I always believed in hiring for values first and skills second. I don't want to hire someone who has incredible skills and amazing experience if their values aren't deeply aligned with where I want to take the company because that will really be a roadblock in building the kind of culture that you want and in building the kind of company that you want. So you know, those are a few thoughts. At my class at NYU I talk about this notion of net positive as opposed to negative. And there is some really good work that has been done by Formed for the Future and other organizations around this whole concept of net positive. But it's really about adding up all of the impacts that a product or a service has and trying to ensure that you're having a positive rather than less negative impact. And so an example would be Kingfisher, which is a home depot like store in Europe said that they want to help their customers create more energy in their homes then their homes use. So that's an aspiration that is net positive that rather than just selling people stuff that uses energy, they want people to be able to create their own energy through solar or wind or other mechanisms.

Stephan: Yeah, that's a great point. It is so challenging just creatively to be able to think that way. I think because and maybe this goes back to the question of education, but it already feels like a leap to go towards the idea of like, hey, how can I make this thing that's been problematic a little bit better or a lot better? It's a whole different level to think really creatively and ask ourselves like, hey, how can we actually maybe eliminate this whole entire system? That's a vague notion. Does it feel to you that it's compatible with the idea of a for profit business or is that something that needs to work outside of the capitalistic structure?

Jeffrey: I think it can definitely work in the for-profit business context and it sorta depends upon what framework you have about what the goals and objectives of your business is. If all you're after is fast growth and the maximization of profits, you're not going to build the kind of company that is creating net positive products. Because when you go down that road, you need to first of all educate people. I mean, you know, the frameworks within which we think about business are sometimes the biggest constraints that we have. You know, so for example, if we think about to use a Seventh Generation context, laundry detergent. Instead of taking this incremental approach to improving the formula and the packaging, sometimes you have to face the fundamental challenge that what can we do to avoid having people washing their clothes to begin with. Maybe what we need to do is to create different, more resilient fabrics that don't need to be washed as often. And you see Levi and some other companies basically running campaigns that say don't wash your jeans so much because by washing your jeans you're having a terrible effect on the environment and you're damaging the fabric so that it doesn't last as long. So, you know, this goes to this whole idea of frameworks and sometimes we live within frameworks that sort of predetermined that we won't get to the outcome that we want and we have to sort of rethink the purpose of what we're doing. So instead of we're in the business of cleaning clothes, we're in the business of helping to dress people in a way that doesn't require them to wash their clothes as often. And that's a huge shift in the way you think about your business. You also need to think about things like, how do you wash clothes if you're going to be in that business in a way that makes the water healthier when it comes out of the machine than it was before it went into the machine? So how do you actually have a net positive effect on the water that you're using? We really, at the end of the day need to think differently. We have the world we have because of the frameworks and thinking that we utilize to create businesses. And one of the things that we learned at Seventh Generation is just the ability to think differently.

Stephan: What you are talking about reminds me of the Jevons Paradox. I don't know if you've come across that. It's a strange thing that happens and it's been documented for over a hundred years that as we make more and more efficiencies around, especially power and electricity generation, the easier it becomes to generate energy and the cheaper it becomes, the more we use it, the more, Hey, we can have light bulbs on all the time, everywhere. Or we can power AC on and heat and that kind of stuff. And I feel like that's a challenge that comes along with what you were describing. If we make something less bad, if we make something more efficient, it's going to increase the consumption probably. And so there's that secondary effect that sometimes can be hard to predict that comes with systems thinking. How do you look beyond like the initial, you know, if we do this, then we can expect this result. But if that result comes true, then what happens? Right? If we move from horses to cars maybe that's better in one way, but how does that affect, you know, a whole other type of problem?

Jeffrey: Well, systems thinking is invaluable because it teaches us to anticipate the unintended consequences of that transition from horses to cars. One of the things that I think about is when we started making ethanol and we thought, wow, it's great to make fuel from vegetables. Seemed like a great idea. But if you had a systems perspective, you would have realized that that process of making ethanol would use a tremendous amount of corn that would raise the price of corn. And particularly in places like Mexico, make corn too expensive for low income people to afford to buy. And thus children ended up going hungry and dying because we were making ethanol in the United States. And that's just one of many unintended consequences so that the systems thinking enables us to see sort of around the corner. What is sort of out of sight. We had a wonderful teacher, a woman named Carol Sanford, who we worked with for three years and she's written a whole bunch of books that people can find in bookstores and online, but she really taught us how to embed systems thinking in our business.

Stephan: Yeah, and I mean the thing that you're talking about with corn is such a great example because there's all kinds of other unintended consequences there. I mean, obviously we have huge corn subsidies in America. We have, you know, monocultures of varieties of corn and other types of vegetables and fruits that happen as a result, so then we have less biodiversity. Like there's all of these side effects that come about from scaling things up. And I just wonder how especially in your classes at NYU, how you avoid the paralysis that might come with that.

Jeffrey: Well at first it's a daunting task to apply sense of thinking to our decisions, but when you begin to learn to do it, it creates I think tremendous opportunity and in some respects, real competitive advantage because you're thinking quite differently than your competitors are and you're able to anticipate challenges that will affect people that don't apply systems thinking to their business. And in the end of the day I think you'll end up ahead of them. But again, you have to be willing to take the long term view. And I mean one of the challenges that we face as business people is that we're often so short term focused. We are so obsessed about quarterly and annual results and that's such a dangerous practice because in many cases these negative effects don't show up right away. They don't show up sometimes for several years, if not several decades. And it allows us to make bad decisions that in the short term look really smart but in the long term are really dangerous. And again, ethanol is a perfect example of that. When someone finally did the analysis on ethanol from an energy perspective, they also concluded that it took more energy to make ethanol than ethanol actually provided as a fuel. So it made absolutely no sense and still to this day doesn't make sense to be using it in cars.

Stephan: When we had your daughter on this show, episode 65 about Sustain, I was so impressed with the family dynamic that you all were able to establish that would allow you to start a daughter and father company where you're creating condoms and other sexual health products. Like that's a really fascinating thing. I'm curious from your perspective how the initial conversations around that came about.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean I was obsessed with this idea of net positive and condoms interestingly, were the best idea I had of a net positive product because not only are they preventing the spread of disease, but they're helping women manage the size of their families, which has a positive effect on reducing population, which helps with climate change. And we were able to find a fair trade rubber plantation. So when I added up all the benefits of condoms versus the negatives, it seemed like, wow, this was a perfect product to start my net positive journey with. And my daughter had this incredible insight and she did a bunch of research about the condom business and basically found that women were much larger purchasers of condoms than people thought. But even though they bought condoms relatively frequently, only 25% of sexually active young women even used condoms. And so her insight was, we've got to sell condoms to women. Let's forget men, let's focus on empowering women to take responsibility for showing up with a condom and not depending upon a man to do it. And then the next logical step was, well, if we're marketing to young women, I'm the wrong person to do it. My wife is the wrong person to do it. Mika as a young woman is the perfect person to talk to her peers. And so we sort of fell into doing business together because she added this whole concept of who we were going to market to the business plan. And you know, it never was uncomfortable. We grew up in a family where we openly talked about sex and sexuality and sexual issues and there was no awkwardness. I can think of maybe one or two times when we had awkward situations, but for the most part it turned out to be an incredibly great story for the media. The media loved the father, daughter, condom company, and Mika ultimately not only was my partner and my wife's partner, but she ultimately became the CEO and runs the business on her own today.

Stephan: And when you started it with her obviously you had multiple decades of having been an entrepreneur. How did you allow her to make her own mistakes and not get maybe too involved in the day to day of the learning that comes with becoming an entrepreneur and building a successful business?

Jeffrey: You know, it's Seventh Generation, believe it or not, when we started in the early days of the late eighties and early nineties we would have a weekly staff meeting and we would talk about mistakes and the person that made the biggest would win a $50 gift certificate to a restaurant. And we created a culture where mistakes were something that we all need to learn from. We shouldn't be embarrassed, we shouldn't cover them up and we need to let people make mistakes and learn from them. And so I think that experience I had at Seventh Generation creating that type of culture enabled me to let go for the people I managed as well as Mika as she was building the company.

Stephan: She also mentioned what you said, which was that the idea was something that kind of had been bubbling up for a little bit. I'm sure you have so many other ideas of things that you wish you could see out there in the world that don't yet exist or that you're not gonna get around to building. Are there any that you can share with the audience of things you wish existed that maybe you're not gonna end up building?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think one of the most important things that is at risk of being lost is the wisdom of native indigenous populations. They knew how to live on the land without destroying it. They knew how to hunt for food without wiping out species and that wisdom. Some of it's using plants for medicine, some of it's the art of hunting. We're wiping those people and that knowledge out at a very, very fast rate and it puts our civilization at risk. And the question is how could we better integrate that wisdom into our present society and civilization? How can we not always think that there's a better way to do something that sometimes the old way of doing it is really the wisest and the safest and the most sustainable way of doing it. I remember a woman named Lisa Conti who started a pharmaceutical company that was totally focused on just developing medicine from native Shamans and making sure that we could try to make that wisdom and that talent and that knowledge accessible to more people. And I think it was called Shaman pharmaceuticals. And I thought, wow, what a brilliant idea. Why aren't more people trying to figure out how to harvest that native wisdom and use it to create more sustainable businesses and products.

Stephan: This is a great company. I think they're based out of France called, I don't know how to pronounce it. iGUANEYE. We'll put a link in the show notes. They make a sneaker, a shoe that is inspired by the people of the Amazon who would like dip their feet in rubber. And it just sort of coagulates around your foot and becomes this like skin. And these days like that type of footwear is minimalistic footwear is having a big resurgence. People want to have that kind of shoe. And that's an idea that is literally thousands of years old. And so some of those principles, I mean, we've had human bodies for quite a while. So, there are certainly many different ideas that come from that that might seem more modern and adapted to today than you might think on the surface. Are there others along those lines that you can think of?

Jeffrey: That's probably the biggest source of where I would draw inspiration from. We've talked about the other way, which is really using this notion of net positive that led me down the path of getting into the condom business. I think I'm past my days of creating more products and more focused on educating and influencing the way other people think. So that thinking leads to a different world.

Stephan: How have you found that different when it comes to writing books versus teaching, you know, in person?

Jeffrey: Yeah. I mean, the reason that I love to write is that it helps formalize and sort of crystallized my thought process. When you're speaking, you can be a little bit sloppy. When you're writing you have to be much more precise. And the writing is a great foundation for my teaching. I will often use a lot of the writing I do to formulate lectures or presentations that I make. I guess I find it just a much more disciplined process when you're putting something down in words. And I love to speak, I love to talk, but the discipline of writing I think also makes me a better speaker.

Stephan: I have last two topics before we wrap up. I know you don't have too much time left. I want to talk really quickly about Ben & Jerry's because we mentioned it at the top of the show and I was just so fascinated when I was researching you to find out that Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry's were both acquired by Unilever. You started both in Burlington, Vermont. You've maybe been inspired by each other. What was going on at that period in time when maybe you were at part of this social venture network and kind of inspiring each other around the businesses you're creating?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the most inspiring things about Ben & Jerry's is what they've done outside of the products they sell. I mean, they in many ways like Patagonia have become an activist brand and they use their brand as a platform for social and political activism and organizing. And that's where brands need to go. We need brands that stand for things in a social, political fashion and that brands really take an activist perspective on their relationships with their customers and their suppliers. And you know, that's really what led me to become the CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, which is to help companies like Ben & Jerry's and Seventh Generation be active from a public policy perspective. I've always had a wonderful relationship with Ben & Jerry's. The man who just stepped down as the CEO, Joastein, who's now in a different position at Unilever is a close friend, a thought partner, someone who I would go to with challenges and problems. And he was always a great advisor, as was both Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. But I think that when you think about the two companies, you really have to think about the larger community of Burlington itself because Burlington gave birth to a whole group of socially responsible activist companies. Gardener's Supply is there a little further south from us is King Arthur Flour. We became sort of a cultural center of responsible activist businesses. And when you think about it, Vermont businesses for social responsibility that has almost a thousand members is probably the biggest state organization of responsible businesses in what is probably one of the smallest states of the United States. And so those companies cultivate people and leadership. We have endlessly hired people from Ben & Jerry's. They've hired people from Seventh Generation. And that cross-fertilization of orientation and outlook has created an amazing community that is building a very fertile ground for these types of companies.

Stephan: Now you as well as Ben & Jerry, are all from New York, but you ended up in Vermont. What is it about Vermont? Why is it happening there? Why is it happening there?

Jeffrey: Well, I think for a couple of reasons. I mean, I felt guilty leaving New York and abandoning the problems it was facing, but there is a scale and a guy named Kirkpatrick Sale wrote a book called Human Scale. And in many respects, Vermont is of more human scale than most places in the United States. And what happens in that place where there's not millions and millions of people, is you start to realize that everybody knows who you are and you will see people again, and as a result you start to behave differently. You know, I was shocked when I moved to Burlington, how polite the waiters and waitresses were. And then I started to realize, my God, I'm going to see these people again. I'm going to get to know these people. They might end up working for me. Even when you let someone go from your company, you're going to see them again. They're in your community and as a result you treat them very differently. So I think that was part of it. And the other was the impact of being surrounded by nature. Yesterday I drove from Burlington to New York and it was just so shocking to be surrounded by those beautiful tall mountains and then to come to New York and be surrounded by these huge gigantic concrete buildings. It's so different and it affects the way you think and affects the way you feel. To go back to something you mentioned earlier, a lot of mail order and now direct to consumer businesses were started in Vermont because there were no people, so there weren't enough people to sell stuff to. So you had to be in the direct to consumer business to find markets outside of the state.

Stephan: As we wrap up here, I would love for you to share just what you can about American Sustainable Business Council and kind of what kind of companies are members? If people are curious about it and are interested in becoming members, how do they approach it, what benefits they get from it? How do you describe it?

Jeffrey: Sure, so the American Sustainable Business Council is a group of progressive businesses who are working on public policy issues to create a better and more sustainable society and business environment. So we're working to raise the minimum wage. Most companies are trying to hold minimum wages down. We don't think that it's appropriate or good for our society or even good for business to pay people wages that ensure they live in poverty. We are committed to dealing with climate change. We're committed to ensuring that businesses can't externalize their negative impacts on society. And we need public policy to make sure they internalize them. We want to stop companies from offshoring their profits and avoid paying taxes. We have huge companies today that pay virtually no taxes. They don't contribute to their local community. They don't contribute to the educational system, the infrastructure, the police, the fire department, they escape paying taxes because they hide their profits off in low tax countries and tax havens. So we as many environmental or human rights organizations are fighting to create a better world and a better society. But we're using the voice business to change that equation. And it's really fascinating because when you as a business show up in Washington DC or in your local capital and businesses are arguing that the minimum wage should be raised, it's shocking to legislators because they might have the inclination to do that, but they're afraid that the business community will fight against them. And so it's incredibly valuable for the legislators to have businesses arguing for why we need to protect clean water, why we need to raise the minimum wage. Right now one of the biggest focuses we have is on packaging. How do we deal with this incredible problem of packaging waste, plastic pollution? What are the public policy solutions? We need to invest in a more robust recycling structure. We need to have better standards so that you can't create packaging that can't be recycled, that companies have guidelines within which they must design their packaging to ensure it can be recycled or composted. And so ASBC is the voice of several hundred thousand companies, including all the members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, including all the members of the Social Venture Network, including all the members of BCorp. And in addition to that, we have individual companies obviously like Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry's, but also large companies like Lego, our newest largest member who is committed to building those lego blocks out of non-petroleum ingredients and to create zero packaging waste in the sale of their products. So we're trying to address the systems that create problems both social and environmental.

Stephan: Well that's super exciting. I will say Lumi is not yet a member, but we should be. It's obviously something that we think a lot about, as a packaging company. And we publish a lot of resources for people who are trying to think about how to bring sustainability into their packaging and supply chain. And so if people want to discover more about ASBC, where should they go?

Jeffrey: asbcouncil.org. You can actually join ASBC right on their website electronically or we can have our membership director contact you. If you send us a message by email.

Stephan: It's very exciting and there've been so many great books and people that you mentioned. We'll be linking to all of those in the show notes. If you go to lumi.com/wellmade. Thank you so much for your time. This was so inspiring and enlightening and insightful. I could kept going for another two hours and hearing about you got arrested as part of being in Greenpeace, but we'll have to leave that story for the next episode.

Jeffrey: My pleasure. I had a lot of fun and thank you for asking such insightful, thoughtful questions.

Stephan: Oh, one last thing before we go, I'm talking to you at home. What's your favorite brand these days? Is there something that you think is really well made or maybe someone that you love for me to talk to? Send us a tweet. We are @lumi Twitter. We're making this show for you. So tell us what you want to hear and we'll make it happen. Thanks. See you next time.


You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes, Google Play, and here on the Lumi blog. This episode was edited by Evan Goodchild.

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