A Letter from Co-Founder Jeffrey Hollender
In Search of Revolutionary Responsibility
Over the course of the last two decades, we’ve learned a great deal at Seventh Generation about what it takes to build a better kind of company. We’ve discovered a lot about what works, what doesn’t, and what we need to do to be authentically responsible in the way the world needs us to be. Our efforts have led us to an unfortunate conclusion: The corporate responsibility movement as it stands today is a case study in too little, too late, and we can’t wait any longer for that to change.
Twenty plus years ago, when companies like ours began to do business differently, hopes were high that a new paradigm would sweep the world and place, sustainability, employee well-being, and other important ideas alongside financial returns as equal barometers of success. Instead, though many companies did make substantial progress toward this envisioned reinvention of our economy, the movement as a whole has ultimately failed to generate impacts proportional to the scope of the challenges we face on the broad scale that’s needed.
There has been too much incremental change and not enough real revolution. Too many companies have declared themselves responsible while doing little that actually is, and corporate responsibility (CR) has too often devolved into just another form of “greenwashing” and cause-related marketing that companies use to distract us from their uglier operational truths. The lack of universal standards and measurements has made this easy to do and assured that CR is more about simply being less bad than doing meaningful good.
At Seventh Generation, we’re trying to create something better, which I call CR 2.0—a new brand of ethical and sustainable corporate behavior that stretches into all corners of our company to intentionally impact each system and guide every decision. Our goal is to forge a revolutionary new kind of responsibility whose reach is great enough to materially address those imperatives that an overburdened Earth and a dysfunctional economic system have placed upon us. It will mean creating new ways of thinking and operating that allow us to resolve environmental challenges, enhance the living systems upon which we depend, and improve the circumstances of our staff, stakeholders, and communities, all while producing the financial rewards that allow this work to continue.
That’s an ambitious goal, and we’re a long way from achieving it. But we’re running as fast as we can, though it never seems fast enough. We remain too oriented toward simply lessening our negative impacts rather than creating only those impacts that produce positive effects.
At Seventh Generation, we’re trying to create something better, which I call CR 2.0—a new brand of ethical and sustainable corporate behavior that stretches into all corners of our company to intentionally impact each system and guide every decision.
Yes, we’re usually painfully transparent and a model of good, and often we do very good work indeed, but that work has yet to come close to meeting the challenges we face. Rather than simply emit less CO2, create less waste, and establish a more equitable workplace, we must find a way to add value to the world in everything we do, from each step in our supply chain and every partner we do business with to every consumer we touch. We must regenerate every aspect of the systems of which we are a part and breathe health, wellness, and vitality into all aspects of our business.
What guides our journey? What principles inform our deliberations? What does our new model of revolutionary responsibility look like? Here are the essential elements that have emerged, ideas that form the foundation of the new book I co-authored with Bill Breen, The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win:
- Our approach to CR is holistic and systemic. It is strategic not programmatic, and driven from both the top down and the bottom up. It balances justice and equity with growth and profits, and we’ve found in these values new sources of innovation and new products that deliver a return on purpose as well as a return on investment.
- We understand that mission matters and that we need to build it into every part of the business. In order to be authentically good, we’ve come to realize that our purpose and values must inform every aspect of the products we sell. Our products must be the best example of our aspirations. By making strategy synonymous with advocacy and standing for something that truly matters, we can sharply differentiate ourselves and create impacts that can’t be realized when we play the same game as everyone else.
- We’re creating meaning at work and striving to unleash people’s potential. Our success is built on offering opportunities for our employees to realize their deeper aspirations and providing work that fulfills higher goals and financial aims. We see Seventh Generation as a community in which employees animated by a larger sense of purpose act like entrepreneurs.
- We are committed to radical transparency. We understand that publicly sharing not just our impacts but also our missteps is the first step toward fixing mistakes and that more eyes on our activities ultimately means more advocates and friends. Being open and honest about what we’re doing and revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly creates partnerships instead of antagonism, and that’s the foundation progress is built upon.
- We’re building a collective corporate consciousness that embeds a sustainable ethos into every molecule of our DNA. This is difficult work. It means committing to our own growth and development through continuous reflection, increased consciousness, clarity of intention, and focused effect. Through this process, we’re achieving an understanding about what matters most and constructing a communal view of what our company should be. As we establish this self-awareness and bring it to bear on our decision making, we‘re increasingly able to walk our talk.
These principles offer answers to a lot of big problems, and on the following pages, you’ll find the many ways that Seventh Generation is bringing them to life. It starts with the radical transparency our report itself provides and continues with an exploration of our efforts to draw our mission into every aspect of our operations and each of our company’s many systems.
Depending on where you look, that might mean our work to lower our greenhouse gas emissions or increase the recycled content of our plastic bottles. It could mean our initiatives to support employee growth or our work to educate our customers and the public about health and environmental issues. In these and many other ways outlined in this report, we’re trying to show the world the way to revolutionary responsibility.
It’s a work in progress and not without the occasional (or even frequent!) stumble. In 2009, for example, we neglected to inform our customers about a significant reduction in the number of baby wipes in each package we sold, a decision we made in response to increased costs and competitor pressures. Without warning or explanation, our existing packaging suddenly contained fewer wipes, and our packaging-to-wipes ratio increased. Consumers were understandably upset by the change, which appeared driven by greed, and our clear lack of authenticity in addressing it was impossible to defend. To make matters worse, I’d taken other companies to task for doing the very same thing.
Despite the occasional lessons learned, however, 2009 marked another positive step on our journey toward revolutionary responsibility. Our progress and the dedication of the many people who make it possible are reflected on every page of this report, along with proof that the only thing one really needs to change the world is the simple desire to do it.
Co-Founder and chief inspired protagonist