Sustainable by Design?
Lessons in Circularity From Seventh Generation
Blog by Wayne Visser
The CSR 2.0 principle of circularity has roots in life cycle assessment, cleaner production, sustainable consumption and cradle to cradle concepts. In The Age of Responsibility, I explore various well known multinational examples, from Interface’s carpets and Nike’s Considered Design shoes to Coca-Cola’s water neutral initiative and Tesco’s carbon neutral programme. But there are also smaller, more nimble companies, like Seventh Generation, that are able to go much further much faster. What can we learn from these companies that are intentionally sustainable ‘by design’?
Seventh Generation, an American household cleaning products business started more than twenty years ago by Jeffrey Hollender, took inspiration for its name and philosophy from the Iroquois Confederacy (a council of Native American Indian tribes), which included the admonition that ‘in our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations’. From the beginning, this meant thinking in a circular way about the impact of their products.
To begin with, this meant swimming upstream. ‘When Seventh Generation told executives at the old Fort Howard Paper Company that we wanted to market bathroom tissue made from unbleached recycled fibre, they laughed,’ recalls Hollender. Despite such early resistance, however, Seventh Generation has remained steadfast in its commitment to ‘becoming the world’s most trusted brand of authentic, safe, and environmentally-responsible products for a healthy home.’ And indeed, it now has an impressive catalogue of cradle to cradle designed products, and has been doing extremely well, showing strong growth even through the recession.
However, ensuring that Seventh Generation lives up to their promise of authenticity is something that requires constant vigilance. For example, in March 2008, the company was ‘exposed’ by the Organic Consumers Association for having detectable levels of the contaminate 1,4-dioxane in their dish liquid. In fact, Seventh Generation’s product was declared the safest of those available and they had been working with suppliers for more than 5 years to remove it. They have since eliminated the contaminate completely, but, as Hollender later declared ‘our effort was simply not good enough. Our real mistake was to exclude consumers and key stakeholders from our ongoing dialogue about dioxane. In short, we flunked the transparency test.’
Of course, the very foundation of transparency is information and the most basic kind is a full list of product ingredients, which, unbelievably, is not required by US law for household products. Consequently, Seventh Generation launched a ‘Show What’s Inside’ initiative, which included an educational website and an online Label Reading Guide, downloadable to shoppers’ cell phones, which helped them interpret labels at the point of purchase, especially any associated risks. As Hollender and Bill Breen report in their book, The Responsibility Revolution (2010), not long after, SC Johnson launched a cloned version called ‘What’s Inside’. ‘That’s just what we had hoped for,’ declared Hollender and Breen. ‘When a $7.5 billion giant like SC Johnson puts its brawn behind ingredient disclosure, it’s likely that the rest of the industry will follow, regardless of what the regulators do.’
Despite its green image, Seventh Generation also …
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Cite this blog
Visser, W. (2011) Sustainable by Design? Lessons in Circularity from Seventh Generation, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 15 December 2011.