Jeffrey Hollender used the company he founded as a pulpit to call for radical change across business and public policy. Now that he’s been let go from Seventh Generation in a shocking move outlined in part one of this post, the outspoken founder who suggested his title should be Chief of Un-Fucking Up the World is going to try to live up to that billing by trying to build a movement of co-ops to change the way business is done.
“This is an uncomfortable experience that forces me to question things that I didn’t have to question,” he says referring to his firing last year. This situation has moved Hollender to ask himself: “How do you design the next stage of your life to exponentially increase the positive impact you can have beyond what you’ve done at Seventh Generation? And that’s a bit of a daunting question.”
Hollender has been taking this time off to formulate a plan. “I’m reading stuff I never read. I’m going places and meeting people I never would have,” like the American Economics Association meeting two weeks ago, he says. He went because he wanted to see how different kinds of economists would interact, Marxist economists and feminist economist and Chicago school economists for instance. It turns out they don’t interact, so it wasn’t as fascinating as he’d hoped.
So what has he come up with for the next venture? In the short term, he wants to write more. “I’ve gone for a long time without writing. I am re-launching my own website,” he says.
“I’ll be writing three or four times a week,” he says. “I miss that opportunity to reflect and organize my thinking about what’s happening. And I must say I never thought I would enjoy tweeting. I’ve learned that you can actually pass on some pretty interesting and valuable information” in 140 characters.
Also in the short term, he has several books out, The Responsibility Revolution is still on shelves and a new green living guide, Planet Home has him excited. He says it is the first green guide to take a systems-thinking approach. “This is what happens every day: You go to Whole Foods, you buy organic chicken if you can afford it, and you cut it up on a surface that you sprayed a disinfectant on to clean, and you just actually reapplied more pesticides than if you went and bought a regular chicken.” He wants us to think wider than that kind of behavior. “The truth is, sure, buy the organic chicken, but make sure you are paying attention to the rules that are governing what is organic. There is a political part, there is a social part, to being green and living a healthy and well lifestyle.” And yes, there's a health part too, and Seventh Generation cleaning products for the cutting board instead of the chemical disinfectant wouldn't hurt either. The colorful coffee table book covers all that and everything else from light bulbs to banking.
This holistic view, this call for a wider consciousness, is echoed in his plans for after the book tour which starts this month—a big part of why he’s finally speaking out publicly about his firing now is that he will most certainly be asked about it while promoting his Planet Home.
As for long-term plans, “if anything I must say it’s still early. It’s early in me moving beyond Seventh Generation and it’s early in me developing this new picture of what I want to do.” He seems confident it won’t be a charity. “I might start another business because … I am not sure I want to fund something I do through donations. I actually see that business can be an engine to create profits to finance" my plans. He adds, “I’m unlikely to sell toilet paper and laundry detergent.”
Hollender is more clear on the problem he wants to tackle than he is on the method, and he’s well aware he’s picked a mammoth of an issue that isn’t likely to be solved with a single start-up. “We live in a world that is incredibly compartmentalized, where there are 2 million NGOs who have divided up the landscape of what’s wrong with the world, carved up their little piece and are effectively competing with all the other NGOs for resources and money… I believe that what we need is a new framework and a new context for how to deal with the problems the world is facing because what we are doing isn’t working.”
He wants to build that framework. He cites a few examples in the direction of what he’s thinking about including the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain where thousands of worker owned cooperatives all source and supply each other, creating a network of over 80,000 owner-employees working with equitable production methods. Their slogan is “humanity at work.” “It is an amazing paradigm for where business needs to go,” says Hollender.
Closer to home Hollender is also inspired by the Evergreen Project supported by the Cleveland Foundation. It's another system of employee-owned cooperative businesses combining together in a local economy to do business differently. “We need to create these models of what it will look like, of where we are going, and prove the success in a way that is beyond Seventh Generation. Seventh Generation was out on the leading edge, but to me this is a much more significant step.”
So how exactly will the magnate of recycled toilet paper muster together a new way of doing business? “I’ll give you a metaphor, because I don’t know the answer. I don’t have a business plan yet,” he says.
“Think of an orchestra, where you have to assemble lots and lots of people with different capabilities. And the challenge is to get them to all play the same song and work together in a way they don’t usually work together. My sense is that I may be one of the conductors. So I am looking for those people who can be leading members of the orchestra."
“So at the moment I am developing the business plan. I am looking for those partners. And trying to find out what the business model will be because it needs to have a self-sustaining business model,” Hollender says.
We will be watching for this to take shape and wish Hollender good luck in tackling such a huge undertaking. If he proves as prescient on business ownership models as he was on cleaner cleaning products, this will be a sector to watch closely.