Hollender Speaks (Part 3): On What's Next for Jeffrey Hollender Jeffrey Hollender, Fired from Seventh Generation, Has Plans to Fix The World

Jeffrey Hollender always thinks big. So what does the pioneering founder of Seventh Generation have planned now that his company cut him loose?

Jeffrey Hollender used the company he founded as a pulpit to call for radical change across business and public policy. Now that he’s been let go from Seventh Generation in a shocking move outlined in part one of this post, the outspoken founder who suggested his title should be Chief of Un-Fucking Up the World is going to try to live up to that billing by trying to build a movement of co-ops to change the way business is done.

“This is an uncomfortable experience that forces me to question things that I didn’t have to question,” he says referring to his firing last year. This situation has moved Hollender to ask himself: “How do you design the next stage of your life to exponentially increase the positive impact you can have beyond what you’ve done at Seventh Generation? And that’s a bit of a daunting question.”

Hollender has been taking this time off to formulate a plan. “I’m reading stuff I never read. I’m going places and meeting people I never would have,” like the American Economics Association meeting two weeks ago, he says. He went because he wanted to see how different kinds of economists would interact, Marxist economists and feminist economist and Chicago school economists for instance. It turns out they don’t interact, so it wasn’t as fascinating as he’d hoped.

So what has he come up with for the next venture? In the short term, he wants to write more. “I’ve gone for a long time without writing. I am re-launching my own website,” he says.

“I’ll be writing three or four times a week,” he says. “I miss that opportunity to reflect and organize my thinking about what’s happening. And I must say I never thought I would enjoy tweeting. I’ve learned that you can actually pass on some pretty interesting and valuable information” in 140 characters.

Also in the short term, he has several books out, The Responsibility Revolution is still on shelves and a new green living guide, Planet Home has him excited. He says it is the first green guide to take a systems-thinking approach. “This is what happens every day: You go to Whole Foods, you buy organic chicken if you can afford it, and you cut it up on a surface that you sprayed a disinfectant on to clean, and you just actually reapplied more pesticides than if you went and bought a regular chicken.” He wants us to think wider than that kind of behavior. “The truth is, sure, buy the organic chicken, but make sure you are paying attention to the rules that are governing what is organic. There is a political part, there is a social part, to being green and living a healthy and well lifestyle.” And yes, there's a health part too, and Seventh Generation cleaning products for the cutting board instead of the chemical disinfectant wouldn't hurt either. The colorful coffee table book covers all that and everything else from light bulbs to banking.

This holistic view, this call for a wider consciousness, is echoed in his plans for after the book tour which starts this month—a big part of why he’s finally speaking out publicly about his firing now is that he will most certainly be asked about it while promoting his Planet Home.

As for long-term plans, “if anything I must say it’s still early. It’s early in me moving beyond Seventh Generation and it’s early in me developing this new picture of what I want to do.” He seems confident it won’t be a charity. “I might start another business because … I am not sure I want to fund something I do through donations. I actually see that business can be an engine to create profits to finance" my plans. He adds, “I’m unlikely to sell toilet paper and laundry detergent.”

Hollender is more clear on the problem he wants to tackle than he is on the method, and he’s well aware he’s picked a mammoth of an issue that isn’t likely to be solved with a single start-up. “We live in a world that is incredibly compartmentalized, where there are 2 million NGOs who have divided up the landscape of what’s wrong with the world, carved up their little piece and are effectively competing with all the other NGOs for resources and money… I believe that what we need is a new framework and a new context for how to deal with the problems the world is facing because what we are doing isn’t working.”

He wants to build that framework. He cites a few examples in the direction of what he’s thinking about including the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain where thousands of worker owned cooperatives all source and supply each other, creating a network of over 80,000 owner-employees working with equitable production methods. Their slogan is “humanity at work.” “It is an amazing paradigm for where business needs to go,” says Hollender.

Closer to home Hollender is also inspired by the Evergreen Project supported by the Cleveland Foundation. It's another system of employee-owned cooperative businesses combining together in a local economy to do business differently. “We need to create these models of what it will look like, of where we are going, and prove the success in a way that is beyond Seventh Generation. Seventh Generation was out on the leading edge, but to me this is a much more significant step.”

So how exactly will the magnate of recycled toilet paper muster together a new way of doing business? “I’ll give you a metaphor, because I don’t know the answer. I don’t have a business plan yet,” he says.

“Think of an orchestra, where you have to assemble lots and lots of people with different capabilities. And the challenge is to get them to all play the same song and work together in a way they don’t usually work together. My sense is that I may be one of the conductors. So I am looking for those people who can be leading members of the orchestra."

“So at the moment I am developing the business plan. I am looking for those partners. And trying to find out what the business model will be because it needs to have a self-sustaining business model,” Hollender says.

We will be watching for this to take shape and wish Hollender good luck in tackling such a huge undertaking. If he proves as prescient on business ownership models as he was on cleaner cleaning products, this will be a sector to watch closely.

Keep Reading

Hollender Speaks (Part 2): On What's Next for Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender on How to Hold Seventh Generation Accountable

Ousted founder Jeffrey Hollender explains how to tell if the company he created is sticking to his original values—and a company response.

Seventh Generation has become a leader in environmentally friendly home products since it was started by Jeffrey Hollender 23 years ago. Hollender remains every bit the charismatic founder whose personal values of radical transparency and environmental responsibility course through the corporate consciousness at Seventh Generation. Now that he’s been fired—as detailed in part one of this post—he has a few suggestions for what to watch for to make sure his old company sticks to his high standards.

That’s not to say Hollender expects any impact on quality. “I would say assume the best, expect the best, and if you don’t see it, be vocal about it.” Just what he's told his consumers all along. “I can’t imagine that they would ever do something to make the products less safe or less environmentally responsible. It makes no sense to do that. You’re destroying the brand.
I can’t imagine they would do that. That’s not what I’m watching for.”

“Consumers became committed to Seventh Generation,” he says, “because of its transparency. So they should look for continued transparency.” Specifically, he says, “one of the things that always struck people is that we had a ratio from the lowest to highest paid person of 17:1.” Don’t expect to see something different he says, “but you want to see, are the things that built my passion remaining? I can’t imagine why the company would want to change those things,” he adds.

And they don’t plan to change things, according company spokesperson Chrystie Heimert who says she recently asked about the 17:1 pay ratio and confirms the company intends to continue it. A promise from a founder is one thing, but from a board that ousted him and from a new CEO?

“What I learned were too many things were dependent on my perspective and my belief and that’s not good for any business,” Hollender says. “The values have to be woven into the fabric not just culturally, but legally.” Hollender wishes he had enshrined more practices in bylaws and other legal documents.

“So, for example,” he says, “Seventh Generation has given 10 percent of its profits away to charitable nonprofit organizations. Now that’s not in the bylaws of the company, that’s not in the charter of the company. That can be changed at any time. Well, you know what, that’s a mistake… It should be in the bylaws and it should only be able to be changed by a supermajority that includes the employees… So if I failed, and I think I did fail in a lot of ways, I failed to institutionalize the values I believed in.” Heimert points out the 10 percent giving continues as it always has, directed by board member Sheila Hollender, Jeffrey's wife.

That's probably just one of the reasons Hollender isn't saying he predicts these things will change. In fact he repeatedly stressed that he doesn’t expect them to, but this is a time of reflection for him as he examines what led him to be ousted from his company. And he makes a passionate argument for using new tools to protect the core principles of values-driven businesses. He cites B-Corporation status, which requires a company to alter its bylaws so the leadership has to consider environmental and social impacts as well as financial factors before making corporate decisions. Seventh Generation was a founding B-Corporation when the concept was created three years ago. But those bylaw changes didn’t address 10 percent giving, CEO pay, or publishing a corporate responsibility report according to Global Reporting Initiative standards, all practices instituted by Hollender.

Dave Rappaport, the Senior Director of Corporate Consciousness, says he doesn’t know of any plans to alter the bylaws to enshrine any of those policies but says “there’s been no change to our commitment to all of the things we’ve been working on.”

(Rappaport's title in another company would be director of corporate responsibility, but one founder-inspired quirk of Seventh Generation is that company leaders make up their titles—at one point Hollender named himself Chief of Un-Fucking Up the World. That title lasted one day.)

Rappaport who was hired by Hollender after working in the NGO world, says all of the practices listed by Hollender will stick around. “Although the company was launched by Jeff’s vision, it is embraced by everyone here. It has been a part of everybody’s perception of their roles. Down to the innovations we’ve created on sustainability and corporate responsibility you will find the work of employees who took the vision to heart.”

He says, since letting Hollender go, the board of directors has approved the creation of a new committee on corporate social responsibility and sustainability. “With Jeffrey’s departure we know we have to institutionalize all of the things” he advocated for, to make sure there is management oversight and “continued direct board oversight, which there was through him” when he was on the board, Rappaport says.

Rappaport cited a few specific initiatives indicating how transparency continues to increase, including publishing the corporate responsibility report in an accessible online form and a new initiative to make more company data available to the public in the same way publishes government data. He hopes consumers and publications like GOOD will use it to hold his company accountable.

In possibly the most comforting statement he could give in this position, Rappaport echoed the man who hired him with a Hollender-esque call to consumers, "don't just take our word for it. Watch and see. Nobody deserves to get a pass on their actions ... our consumers need to be the ultimate judge of what we do."

Keep Reading

Jeffrey Hollender Finally Speaks on Being Fired from Seventh Generation Hollender Speaks (Part 1): On Why He Was Fired from Seventh Generation

After months of silence, Jeffrey Hollender discusses his sudden, emotional ouster from the company he built into a model of corporate responsibility.

After months of unusual silence, Jeffrey Hollender, the candid founder of Seventh Generation, is finally talking about his sudden ouster from the company he built into a model of corporate responsibility and profitably for over two decades.

“I had no idea in the world what I was going to do four months ago. My perspective was clouded emotionally. I needed time to really reflect, and I still need time to reflect,” Hollender told GOOD in an hour-long sit down interview. “While it’s not my nature to wait, I knew I wasn’t ready to have a thoughtful perspective on what had happened and where I am going.”

He's still sorting out what he'll do next—outlined in part three of this story, part two has what's next for Seventh Generation—but he explained a bit about his departure from Seventh Generation, the suddenness of which shocked, surprised and saddened customers and staff alike.

“Sadly, when I was let go, I was not allowed to talk to the employees about anything related to the business. Nor was I allowed to go back into the building.” He says he didn’t even write a formal farewell message. “There was no goodbye letter. Maybe now I could write a goodbye letter, but there has not been a goodbye letter.” Marc Gunther, who broke the news of Hollender’s parting with Seventh Generation in November for GreenBiz, did post an email from Hollender where he thanks all the employees.

Hollender quickly points out that he no longer serves on the company's board, so he can’t decide what is and isn’t disclosed about his firing. “I was never specifically told why I’m not there anymore,” he says. A statement was posted on the company website though. And Seventh Generation told GOOD the reason was related to bringing in a new CEO, a move Hollender had welcomed early last year. Spokesperson Chrystie Heimert said “the board needed to establish unambiguous authority and accountability” at the head of the company. She added,“it was a very difficult decision for the board to make. Many of them are lifelong friends of Jeffrey.” Hollender’s wife Sheila remains on the board as well.

Hollender had been planning to transition out of day-to-day management of Seventh Generation for some time. That transition did not go as planned. Though Hollender was initially excited when the company hired Chuck Maniscalco, a former PepsiCo executive, to take over as CEO, he has come to regret the choice of leadership he once supported. Hollender retained the title of Chief Inspired Protagonist and remained the company’s moral compass.

“I think that, while the idea to bring in a CEO was the right idea,” he says, “bringing in someone who didn’t have any corporate responsibility experience, bringing someone in who came from such a big company was not the right decision.”

For example, Hollender says, one of the most successful ways that Seventh Generation grew was by building a loyal and passionate customer base, not through advertising or traditional marketing but through a consistent commitment to transparency and specifically talking about what’s wrong with the products and what’s wrong with the company. “That’s not something that most people at large companies are comfortable with. They are surrounded by lawyers who tell them not to talk about those things,” Hollender says.

Senior Director of Corporate Consciousness, Dave Rappaport says the company has no intention to backtrack on any of those transparency habits. “There’s been no change to all the things we’ve been working on.” (Read more in part two of this post about how Seventh Generation is re-affirming its commitment to Hollender’s values, and what Hollender suggests customers can watch for to be sure.) Rappaport adds there are plans to become even more transparent with an initiative to be announced later this year where the company will make raw data available on responsibility and sustainability. He compares it to how makes government data available.

But the divergence between Hollender and his former company seems to run deeper than transparency, touching on a perennial question for successful values-based businesses: how to scale without sacrificing standards, be they product standards or investor standards. Hollender built the company into a $150 million a year business, and Maniscalco’s appointment was meant to signal a new era of growth, to transform Seventh Generation into a $1 billion sustainable business. That’s a kind of scale that has scuttled the best-laid plans of other iconic business leaders at companies like Ben and Jerry’s and the Body Shop.

Hollender was careful not to reveal too much when asked about money. “What I can say, is that over the past couple of years, not directly related to hiring a new CEO, I would say the board and I increasingly began to see things a little differently. And my interests for Seventh Generation, which produced pretty good financial results, I think, perhaps, began to diverge with what the board wanted to focus on.”

Hollender confirms this divergence of vision with the board happened as the company brought in more private equity money to fund the expansion of the company, including a recent $25 million round of funding that Hollender says was raised by the board on Maniscalco’s resume.

“You know one of the things I always advise people,” he says speaking of values-based businesses generally, “is to be more careful about the money you take than the people you hire, because you can’t get rid of the money. Once someone owns your leg or your arm or your ear, they’re stuck to you.”

Keep Reading