Jeffrey Hollender: Life after laundry soap

For Jeffrey Hollender, the longtime chief executive of Seventh Generation, business has always been about more than selling laundry detergent and paper towels.

At Seventh Generation, Hollender looked for ways to do business better–better for customers and their health, better for its workers (who were also owners) and better for the environment.

Those efforts came to a abrupt halt in October when he was unceremoniously ousted by Seventh Generation’s board, which was forced to choose between Hollender and Chuck Maniscalco, the CEO he’d recruited as his replacement 18 months ago.

The story behind the falling out remains murky. Neither Seventh Generation nor Hollender have been willing to air their dirty laundry, presumably because their break-up agreement included a promise not to speak ill of one another.

Hollender broke his silence last week, not to talk about the past, but to discuss his future, which he says will involve business and political work to address social and environmental problems that he thinks are mostly getting worse.

“I’m very worried about where the country is headed,” he told me, when we spoke by phone.

Jeffrey, who is 56, divides his time between Burlington, Vermont, where he has lived for years, and New York, where he grew up. (Disclosure: Jeffrey and my wife Karen Schneider were high school classmates.)

So what’s next?

First, he’ll continue to write and speak about business and politics. His latest book, called Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning and Greening the World You Care About Most, has just been published.  He’s previously written two good books about corporate responsibility, The Responsibility Revolution (2010) and What Matters Most (2006). This week, he’ll launch a website and blog at www.jeffhollender.com.

Second, he’ll work as chair of the American Sustainable Business Council, a loose-knit coalition of about 65,000 small and mid-sized companies that support a “vibrant, just and sustainable economy.”

Think of the council as a kind “anti-chamber” to the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It will be active in Washington,” Jeffrey says, although he’s quick to add that “we’re not ever going to get close to the spending levels of the chamber.”

Businesses that wamt to be environmentally and socially responsible need a supportive policy framework, he says. The sustainable business council will support regulation of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. It’ll back  higher taxes on the rich, too, t0 reverse growing income inequality in the U.S.

“The stratification of wealth—when you have one percent of the population controlling 90% of the wealth–that is not good for business,” Jeffrey says.  “Business needs lots of people sell stuff to.”

He worries that the shareholder capitalism, as currently practiced, leads companies to maximize short-term gains and externalize costs like pollution or the illness caused by unsafe chemicals.

“What was great about Seventh Generation was we proved you could be an exception to the rule,” he says. “The problem is that, unless you change the rules, there won’t be a lot of successful exceptions.”

Finally, he’s looking at entrepreneurial opportunities, He referred me to this very interesting article in The Nation about the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, a network of worker-owned “green” cooperatives, including a industrial laundry and a solar-power installation company, that are supported by the procurement power of public  institutions.. The Cleveland cooperative experiment is inspired by the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque region of Spain, which employs more than 100,000 people.

There’s talk, he says, about organizing networks of cooperatives in other places, including the South Bronx.

“How do you create a business enterprise that is in the business of social and political change?” he asks.

Worker-owned businesses could be one way. In Cleveland, the flagship venture is the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which serves the expanding health care industry and is said to be “thoroughly green in all its operations.”

Who knows? Jeffrey Hollender might find himself back in the laundry business again.

Speak Your Mind

*