Peter Senge and Jeffrey Hollender: In Conversation

On June 15th, the second leg of the three-part "Conversations on the Art and Practice Sustainable Enterprise" audioconference series brought together noted author and organizational learning expert Peter Senge, president and founder of Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender, and teleconference participants in a discussion about Hollender's company, its eighteen-year journey to live up to its high ideals of social and environmental responsibility, and the opportunities that exist for companies around the world to do business more sustainably and consciously. That conversation is now available on CD, and the 90+ minute discussion provides great insight into the success of Seventh Generation, and the challenges and learning opportunities created by doing business as a "mission-driven" corporation.Senge and Hollender's conversation focused on the ongoing processes of thought and evaluation necessary for any business, but particularly those born out of the desire to make a profit while serving broader missions of environmental stewardship, social justice and consumer education. Both men agreed that business as an institution is uniquely suited to address these kinds of issues, as both commerce and these challenges cross boundaries that often limit other types of organizations in their responses to large problems. A problem like global warming isn't simply environmental, but also economic, sociocultural and political; a well-run business must integrate many of these same factors into its strategies for achieving profitability. Problems and solutions require thinking and action that recognizes all of the complexities involved. Entrepreneurs and investors can not assume they'll come to the market with a "silver bullet," but, rather, must engage in a regular process of thought, action and evaluation that measures success against the values and goals the company espouses.

Hollender brought up recent promotional activities as an example, noting that while annual giveaways of hybrid cars and high-efficiency washing machines were fun for all, they didn't necessarily contribute to Seventh Generation's desire to educate consumers on the social and environmental impact of their purchasing decisions. As such, the company discarded these activities in favor of a partnership with Greenpeace to educate select groups of high-school and college students on the environmental challenges they face. The resulting "Change It" program now brings 100 students to Washington, DC, for a week-long "boot camp" designed to empower them with tools and knowledge to return to their communities as environmental activists and leaders.

Senge and Hollender both frequently repeated the idea that relationship-building is at the heart of what a "conscious enterprise" should focus on as it strives towards its goals. Companies can't just sell products, but must engage consumers in a dialogues about their values, and what each entity can contribute to manifesting their ideals. Businesses must be willing to return to the drawing board to ensure that they're keeping their end of the bargain. Hollender noted, for instance, that an early company study of the environmental impact of Seventh Generation laundry detergent revealed that, while the company had taken great strides toward developing an eco-friendly product, it was still designed for use in hot or warm water. The energy required for this kind of use created the product's greatest environmental cost. By adapting the model of a learning organization, Hollender and his company were able to redesign the product so that they minimized its footprint not only at the production stage, but also in the consumer's use of it.

If you're interested in listening the conversation, the CD of this individual event can be purchased from the Society for Organizational Learning's Sustainability Consortium for $199. Once the third CD is available (which we'll review here), you can purchase all three CDs at a discounted price. More conversations are in the works for this Fall. ::Sustainability Consortium of the Society for Organizational Learning