Cover Story Outtake I: Seventh Generation’s Jeffrey Hollender Dishes on Wal-Mart & Sustainability

In the course of reporting a story there are always many fascinating people I get to have incisive chats with, but painfully, never actually make it to the printed page. For my September cover story on Adam Werbach—the controversial environmentalist now on Wal-Mart’s payroll—one of those was Seventh Generation’s Jeffrey Hollender. Hollender, the president and CEO of the nearly 20-year-old nontoxic household products company (and incessant blogger), had some pretty candid sentiments on Wal-Mart going green. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Danielle Sacks: Last year I read that you won’t work with Wal-Mart because you’d "be selling our soul to do it." These days how legit do you think Wal-Mart’s commitment to sustainability is?

Jeffrey Hollender: It’s definitely real and I would say they’ve come a long way in the right direction, but they also have a long way to go. The challenge they face is in some respect the environmental issues are easier to deal with than the social issues. Look at their impact in communities they do business in, sourcing products in China, when they go into a community there are more jobs lost than gained.

I think if they saw a clear path to how to address some of the labor or human rights issues, they would be more willing. In some ways they view this as a process that starts with the environment and moves into other issues. The challenge is, they have to explain why they’ve taken on some issues and not others. If they don’t take that initiative, it looks like they’re not recognizing it. They need to be more proactive on issues of equity and social justice than they have been.

DS: You’re on the board of Greenpeace US and Werbach’s on the board of Greenpeace International. I imagine Greenpeace was pretty ticked off when they found out one of their own was now working for the enemy?

JH: Even though they are two separate boards and don’t have any influence over each other, it was a big to-do now that we had a board member working for Wal-Mart. There were definitely emails flying around and there was concern over how it would look since Greenpeace wouldn’t want to have its independence compromised in any way.

Luckily we’ve moved past it and Adam’s done a great job in demonstrating the value of the work he’s doing and I haven’t heard that brought up for a long time. I was very surprised when I first heard it and had some initial concerns about Adam working with them, but the more I’ve learned about what he’s doing, it’s like, what could you not be supportive of. He’s working with the people who bare the brunt of their worst practices. I think it’s great. In a way he’ll help a little bit of the revolution to bear inside the company.

The question is: would we better off if he weren’t doing that or not? Because I don’t think the PSP program takes any pressure off of Wal-Mart. You have to start with the question: Is the program a bad idea? Is Adam’s involvement a bad idea? It’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mitigate the other things they need to work on.

DS: Clearly applying pressure from the inside is a potentially potent thing. Have you considered going the Werbach route?

JH: I describe myself as an unpaid advisor to Wal-Mart. There is a level of fear that we all have, rightly or wrongly, to speak politely to whoever it is that writing our paycheck. So every 90 days I try to make it to Bentonville to attend their meetings of their sustainability teams and I’m on their list of people to review their sustainability report, but one of the reasons I don’t take any payment from them or sell to them is because I can be unrestrained in my point of view. I have nothing to lose and I’ve told Wal-Mart that many times.

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