Q & A with Seventh Generation's CEO Jeffrey Hollender

Seventh Generation Tissue Products: Look for this logo
Seventh Generation is a leading manufacturer of ancient forest friendly tissue products and was the recipient of the 2002 Socially Responsible Business Award and the 2004 National Corporate Stewardship Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Their products are listed in the 'green' category of Greenpeace's Shopper's Guide to Ancient Forest Friendly Tissue Products. Seventh Generation's CEO and founder Jeffrey Hollender answered our questions about what inspires him and what makes him angry.

1. How and why did you start Seventh Generation?
Seventh Generation was started in the late 1980s to give consumers some healthier, more sustainable options when it came to ordinary household products.

Back in those days, before the big Earth Day hype of 1990, there really weren't that many alternatives to traditional mainstream products and those that existed were so hard to find that they were essentially unavailable for all practical intents and purposes. Unless you were living in New York or Los Angeles, and maybe a handful of other big cities, you were pretty much out of luck if you wanted to make more environmentally aware consumer choices on a regular basis. Things we take for granted these days, energy-efficient light bulbs, recycled paper products, organic cotton clothes, etc. were pretty unknown at the time. Our original mail order catalog was an attempt to remedy that and put all the great ideas we could find into a single one-stop resource that anyone anywhere could use.

2. What kinds of tissue products does your company manufacture?
We sell a number of different kinds of paper products. Bathroom tissue, facial tissue, paper towels, napkins. They're all made from recycled paper with the highest percentage of post-consumer content we can possibly attain. Some are unbleached, some are bleached with non-toxic, environmentally-safe chlorine alternatives. But the one thing they all have in common is that they fix the problems posed by regular tissue products, which are almost always made from virgin paper that's been bleached with some kind of chlorine compound. They're products that have all the advantages but none of the usual disadvantages. No deforestation. No landfilling usable resources. No horrible paper mill pollution.

Seventh Generation Products: Green

3. Why is it important to you that Seventh Generation produce environmentally friendly products?
Well, the short answer is that I have kids! They've got their whole lives ahead of them, and as a parent, I want them to be able to live those lives in as clean and healthy and safe a world as possible. I don't want them inheriting a broken planet damaged to the point of irreparability. So like any parent, I do what I can to make sure that they're going to have the best chance to have the best of worlds. I'm just lucky because I'm in a position of some influence and have an outlet where, if I work a little harder, I can have a little wider reach and do a little more than most parents are able to do with the resources they have. From a purely inward-looking perspective, it's just how I live my life. You know, I want my time, my energy to be a force for good, to make a difference. And I want to be able to look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and know I did something positive. That I wasn't part of the problem, but part of the solution. I have to know that my work matters, that it's part of something bigger and better. I just don't think I could start, own, run, or work for a company that wasn't in some way trying to make the world a better place. It's just who I am. It's how I choose to measure my success.

Jeffrey Hollender: CEO of Seventh Generation
4. Do you think that there is a shift in the way that consumer product companies look at the environment?
Absolutely. It's clear that consumer product companies specifically and business in general can no longer ignore environmental issues or take the environment itself for granted. You know, a couple of years ago I started writing a book about business responsibility, or the lack thereof. It was going to be a book about greenwashing, about how companies are constantly positioning themselves to look like good corporate citizens when, in fact, it's business as usual behind the scenes. I wanted to expose the fraud, but when I started gathering the evidence, I found out that a lot of people in a lot of companies were taking the idea of environmental responsibility seriously. And these weren't necessarily your Seventh Generation, Body Shop, Ben & Jerry's kind of companies either. These were big Fortune 500 Dow Jones kind of companies. Now some of the changes some of the companies were making were, in fact, just window dressing, but the overwhelming picture that emerged was of substantive changes being made by people who were sincere about it.

As a society, I think we're getting smarter and becoming more evolved. It's definitely a two-steps-forward-one step-back-kind of thing, but we are moving forward, if not quite as fast as some of us would like. So people are becoming more aware of, say, the fact that when you dump all your factory waste into the river, it doesn't just wash away and disappear leaving you with that much less to worry about. You know, it goes downstream to the municipal water intake pipe and your wife cooks your supper in it. So I think people are ever more informed about the consequences of commerce, about the real-world effects of doing business, and they're trying to lessen or eliminate those effects. Whether it's the CEO, the board of directors, or a group of employees laboring away in obscurity, people in all kinds of companies are legitimately trying to do better. And the fact that they're aware enough to take that initiative means they will ultimately succeed.

On the other side of the coin are people who don't want to change or who don't think it's necessary to worry about the environment. But they're being forced to whether they like it or not. The world isn't waiting for them. More and more consumers are using their purchasing power to vote for good companies over bad ones. The general level of expectations the public has of the role that business should play has been raised, and you can't turn that clock back. The public just won't tolerate the kind of corporate behavior it tolerated in the past. These days a report about a company's malfeasance can literally cost millions in lost sales. The insurance industry is increasingly refusing to insure businesses with environmental or human rights liabilities. Shareholders are starting to take their concerns to annual meetings and use their voting power to put the environment on the corporate agenda.

And I think people have finally realized a basic truth: environmental responsibility just makes good business sense. You generally make more money when you do the right thing. When you do the wrong thing, people sue you, governments fine you, sales plunge, disgusted employees sabotage you, community groups start picketing, reporters show up, etc. etc. And ultimately, at the end of the day, pollution is waste, waste represents inefficiency, and inefficiency is simply not profitable. It's that simple. An efficient business is a lean mean clean money making machine. And that's ultimately the kind every business wants to be. It's not the most altruistic motivation in the world, I know. But I'll take it! Whatever works, you know. So there are a lot of reasons to be confident, and a lot of positive signs that companies on a mass mainstream scale are finally getting the hint and cleaning up their acts. We've obviously got a long way to go, but if you compare the situation today with the situation that existed when Seventh Generation started, it's like night and day. The trend line is clearly heading in a positive direction.

5. What do you think of companies that continue to use fibre from clearcut ancient forests for disposable paper products?
I think they're despicable. Pure and simple. Just completely reprehensible. There's no excuse and no redemption for something like that. It's just so utterly wrong on so many levels from the practical to the spiritual. The people who make those decisions, who pick profits over nature and sustainability, who'd rather make a bigger buck than save something that's truly priceless, represent to me what I think is the very worst humanity has to offer. Theirs is the kind of naked greed and absurd arrogance that has absolutely no place in a civilized, compassionate society. It's just incomprehensible to me that you could take something as majestic and ancient as an old-growth forest and use it to wipe your nose or worse. That someone somewhere actually thinks that this is an okay thing to do. It doesn't take much if any wisdom to see that the best use of such a profoundly beautiful place is not to utterly destroy it forever, especially for a product with a useful lifespan of five seconds. You know there's a Native American saying that the frog does not drink up all the water in the pond in which he lives. People destroying ancient forests for toilet paper have yet to appreciate that point. I feel very sad for them. They obviously lack the capacity to see and appreciate beauty. And people like that ultimately can't be very happy.

6. What makes you angry?
Closed minds and unseeing eyes. The kind of narrow minds that cannot or will not see the challenges we face and insist on refusing the power of imagination and creativity as forces that can and should be harnessed right now to solve them. What I don't like are naysayers. The people who say there is no problem and even if there was we couldn't fix it so why even bother to try. We don't have any choice but to stick to business as usual. It's just the way it is. That's just utter garbage, and our species is better than that. You look at global warming, and it's clear that there is a real problem. But there are still people in positions of power, who say we need to more studies, we need more proof. The jury's still out so we're not going to make any sacrifices until we know for absolute 100% sure, which, of course, we never will. Even if that was true, even if we didn't know for sure, wouldn't it still be wise to take some precautions? Maybe start working on it just in case? Just how high do the stakes have to get? But people in charge refuse to acknowledge it. And I think they're motivated by greed and money with a little fear for their own status quo thrown in for good measure. God forbid we sacrifice a little economic growth or a little personal profit to save the entire planet. What they don't seem to get is that there won't be any economy if we beat the environment to the breaking point. They also don't get that with a little dedicated will and some creative thinking, we can probably solve all these problems whether its global warming or toxic chemical pollution or the raw materials for Kleenex tissue products. We just have to put our minds to it. And the crazy ironic thing is, if we did, we'd probably make a lot of money doing it. There's opportunity waiting in every crisis. If I could figure out how to supply the world with a limitless supply of free, non-polluting electricity, I'd make Bill Gates look like a pauper. So I don't have much patience for the business-as-usual crowd and their no-can-do attitudes of denial. That kind of unimaginative thinking makes my blood boil. And nothing makes me madder than people who are that willfully ignorant because of their own self-interest.

7. What keeps you hopeful?
Human ingenuity and the creative spirit. I think there's nothing out of reach if we put our minds to it. My company is living proof. Human beings really can do anything. You know, if we can figure out how to send a little car to Mars, land it just about where we want, and then drive it around by remote control for a year, which we did, we can pretty much solve all our problems. There was a recent New York Times Magazine article on breast milk that cited the fact that over 100 toxic pollutants have been found in the average American sample of breast milk. But non-toxic substitutes have now been invented for almost all of these substances. So we could fix that problem in a day simply by adopting those alternatives. There's a company that's now making fuel oil out of poultry waste, as another example. And I was just reading about a new process that combines a substance in orange peels with carbon dioxide to make plastic. Not only do you get a better, healthier plastic but you get a place to sell all the carbon dioxide pollution that would otherwise get shot into the atmosphere. Now you can make money by preventing global warming and get a useful material in the process. I think there are all kinds of win-win scenarios like that out there just waiting to be discovered by adventurous souls. You just have to refuse to accept the limitations that entrenched interests would like us to believe can't be surmounted. And many people are, which makes it a lot easier for me to sleep at night.

8. What's an inspiring or important book that you've read lately?
I don't get to read a lot for pleasure these days. There's too much stuff I have to read as part of my job and it doesn't leave much time for recreational reading. I guess that last book I read that left a big impression was Raising the Bar, by Gary Erickson, the guy who founded Clif Bar. It's a great story, almost a parable, about what's possible when you decide that anything is.

9. If you could get every person in Canada and the US to do one thing for the environment, what would it be?
Boy, that's a tough one! I guess if there was only one thing, it would be to be mindful. Be aware of all the impacts you have, big and small, and do whatever you can to lessen them. Be aware of what governments and corporations are up to and do whatever you can to demand that they change, whether you vote with your ballot, your wallet, or your voice. Be aware of what's possible and don't accept the lie that true sustainability is a pipe dream. And I think just be aware of how stunningly beautiful and mysterious the world is. The moment that we truly see and appreciate the profound beauty of the world that surrounds is the moment we dedicate the rest of our lives to defending it.

You can contact Seventh Generation at recycle@seventhgeneration.com

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