Hell must be a little icy this time of year. That's the only conclusion we can come to with this week's news that Seventh Generation and Walmart are forming a strategic partnership that will see the non-toxic cleaning product company sell its products at at 1,500 Walmart stores and on Walmart.com.
But while Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender has said in the past that "hell would freeze over before Seventh Generation would ever do business with Walmart," the two have actually worked together, just not in such an engineered way. In 2008, Seventh Generation started selling its products at Walmart's Marketside concept retail centers, which are owned and operated by the chain but don't feature the Walmart name. Hollender attempted to justify the decision on his blog:
We are not, however, about to put Seventh Generation’s products in Wal-Mart’s supercenters. Far from it. Our partnership with Marketside is akin to a software product that’s entering beta. It’s a small first step that’s very much under development. There remain many issues to explore, questions to answer, and bugs to discover. We will rely on the early adopters among our customers, consumers, and other stakeholders to test the concept and help us decide whether we should even think about taking a next step.
Apparently, things went well enough with Seventh Generation's "beta test" that the company decided to go ahead and take the full plunge with Walmart. Hollender explained in a more recent blog post that the decision can largely be attributed to the fact that "Walmart is not the same company it was even five years ago. It's a much different organization that has fairly dramatically and with little fanfare transformed itself into a serious sustainability leader." This leadership can be seen in Walmart's Sustainability Consortium, which is attempting to quantify the sustainability of a wide range of consumer products. Seventh Generation is, unsurprisingly, a member of the consortium.
Hollender also concedes that stocking Seventh Generation products in Walmart stores can bring increased visibility to the company's green products, which can already be found in chains like Whole Foods, Target, and Amazon.com.
Of course, Seventh Generation could theoretically back out of the partnership. Hollender warned on his blog, "Certainly any retreat on social or environmental progress would trigger some rethinking. Our positions on responsibility, accountability, and transparency aren't subject to change, and we expect our partners to keep working toward these goals."
But Walmart shows no sign of retreating from its green goals—in fact, the mega-chain has taken great pains to integrate sustainability into its branding strategy. And perhaps the longer as the company continues on its present path, the more green-minded companies will agree to hawk their wares in Walmart's fluorescent aisles.
Finally, we can't help but note that it was our very own recent Innovation Uncensored event that Hollender joined Walmart senior vice president of sustainability Matt Kistler on stage. Hollender was his usual outspoken self (see video below—that's Kistler on your right), but they also joked then about working together in the near future. Did we help grease the wheels here?