Jeffrey Hollender is practically boiling. “Twenty-five percent of the trading on the New York Stock Exchange are people who are buying and selling stocks in a matter of seconds!” booms the compact 54-year-old, pacing in front of a room of fleeced and flannelled University of Vermont business students, his turquoise specs perched on his nest of brown hair. “I think we have to totally disincentivize people to make short term investments and charge no taxes on someone who invests for 25 years. I would tax short term capital gains at 99%.”
Despite his passionate riff on overhauling the financial system, Hollender is not some rogue economist or politician running for office. In fact, he’s the unlikely mogul of toilet paper–100% recycled, toxin-free toilet paper, to be precise– and a bevy of other natural household cleaners. The son of an ad exec who grew up on Park Avenue has come a long way: from selling seminars on “How to Lose your Brooklyn Accent” to cofounding Seventh Generation, a Burlington, Vermont company that set out to do for cleaning what Ben & Jerry’s did for ice cream and The Body Shop did for cosmetics. As Seventh Generation’s CEO for the past two decades, Hollender has been crucial in helping to transform the notoriously dirty cleaning-products industry. In recent years, virtually every consumer giant from Clorox to SC Johnson, to newer players like Method, have entered the booming $700 million natural cleaning space.
However, last June, Hollender decided to step down as Seventh Generation’s CEO. The relentlessly self-critical entrepreneur had come to the stark conclusion that he and other socially conscious businesses were still only making a miniscule dent in the environmental crisis. “As corporate America rushed head long into what they think of as a sustainability revolution,” confessed Hollender in a recently published 18-page blueprint on “Creating a Game Plan for Business’s Transition to a Sustainable U.S. Economy,” “We are concerned that despite a clear and compelling business case, business will fall far short of its potential as a result of an inadequately supportive regulatory environment and the absence of clear principles needed to ensure success.”
Now, with Pepsi alum Chuck Maniscalco taking over his CEO duties at the $150 million company, Hollender is free to channel the scrutiny he once applied to his own industry to what he believes are the systemic problems of free market capitalism. “Last year we [the world] produced more grain than we have ever created in the history of mankind, yet grain prices doubled,” says Hollender, a Greenpeace Fund boardmember. “How is that possible? Commodity price manipulation. But what’s the real effect if that? People starving because they couldn’t afford to buy food. We allow someone to manipulate commodities prices, make billions of dollars, and people end up starving.”
With Seventh Generation, Hollender’s activism has always come in the form of the macro and the micro, from sending his chemist to testify against the $20 billion soap and detergent association in favor of a bill that would prohibit phosphates in cleaning products to enforcing a salary ratio among his staff. Now, to get to scale, the indefatigable Hollender is trying to be everywhere at once: in D.C. with senators to combat the Chamber of Commerce’s aggressive lobby against global warning legislation, meeting with the United Nations Environmental Minister and a head of the SEUI about the climate crisis and social inequity, helping to propagate the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLY). “This is a moment in time that we may not have again,” says Hollender, who recently partnered with Kaplan to launch the Sustainability Institute, an online education partnership with Seventh Generation. “How do we actually all rise above our individual interests, like agriculture or water, to find out what unites us so we can work together to try to accomplish some of those larger objectives.”
One of the many challenges Hollender, who is still the company’s chairman, is taking on is the inherent paradox of a socially conscious corporation. “We were a nonprofit,” admits Hollender of the 13 years that Seventh Generation didn’t turn a profit, often because he prioritized the company’s mission over its bottom line. (“You have to make them [compromises] every day, it never goes away,” he says.) To reverse that equation, Hollender is helping to spread the word of movements like B Labs, a nonprofit that has created a new type of corporate status called a B Corporation that legally requires for-profit company boards to consider social and environmental factors every time it makes a decision. “It’s heretical to talk about this kind of stuff,” says Hollender, who certified Seventh Generation as a B Corporation. “But I come from a unique place. I run a company and we’re making money, so they can’t brand me a socialist or a communist. I’m a capitalist.”